In March 2020, an Islamic State militant fired mortars at U.S. and international troops at Bagram airfield, north of Kabul, which is controlled by the U.S. forces, despite the U.S. signing a peace deal with the Taliban. Earlier on December 11, 2019, the Taliban had attacked Bagram airbase, using two car bombs which killed two civilians and injured 80 others. In January 2020, a U.S. service member and two Defense Department contractors were killed when the terrorist organization al-Shabab attacked a Kenyan airfield used by both Kenyan and U.S. forces.
On 2 January 2016, six heavily armed terrorists suspected to belong to Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed made a pre-dawn attack on the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Pathankot airbase. The terrorists were wearing Indian Army fatigues and rode a stolen car of a Superintendent of Punjab Police. All six terrorists were finally killed in the gun battle on 4th January and seven security forces personnel were martyred and 20 injured. The operation was carried out jointly by the Indian Army, National Security Guards (NSG) and IAF’s Garud commandos. The terrorists were apparently in India for at least 48 hours prior, and had studied the base layout and selected soft entry points. They perhaps had local assistance. The choice of early morning when security could be weak was a military like decision. The airbase is located close to the border and this strategically crucial area has a very dense Indian Army deployment. The terrorists managed to breach the outer wall of the Pathankot base through an entry point that adjoins a village. Due to advance intelligence inputs, day and night airborne surveillance had been mounted and security greatly enhanced. Yet it took four days to neutralize the six Pakistani intruders.
In peace time the IAF airfields are guarded by personnel of Defence Security Corp (DSC) who are mostly retired servicemen. Important strategic IAF forward bases like Pathankot are vulnerable to such attacks? Does the IAF have the adequate ground infrastructure and troops to safeguard its bases? Many of these questions are still searching for answers. In the past, most forward IAF bases were expected to be manned by Territorial Army (TA) units. The arrangement had its interface and training limitations. Would the TA units reach in time from their peace to op locations was always the question. Should IAF have dedicated specially trained airfield security personnel? Can the security be outsourced to private agencies?
Peculiarities of Airfield Security
The IAF airbases in Western sector are in close proximity to the border. Typically an airbase could be around 2,000 acres in size with boundary wall between 15-20 km. Each airbase has a geographical peculiarity depending on the lay of the land and topography. Airfields have been shaved clean of vegetation for better security watch and to deny habitat for birds which are hazardous for flying operations. Areas immediately across the boundary walls have been cleared of obstructions for a clear view of the intruders. Most airfields have a near 12-15 feet high boundary wall with a barbed-wire fence and is laced with concrete watch towers manned by DSC personnel who mostly comprise of Ex-servicemen in age bracket of late 40s or 50s. The watch towers have outward facing swivel-mounted search-lights for night-surveillance. The aircraft are dispersed in blast protected aircraft-pens or sometimes parked on open tarmac. The domestic (residential) and operational areas are clearly separated, and the operational area security is enhanced with extra fences and air-warrior guards. Higher risk airbases also have a unit of IAF Garud commandos to support high-value asset protection. High-value assets had fully armed extra air-warrior guards. Hand-held Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) are there at some airbases for aerial surveillance. A few also have with night-vision sensors. The Garud commandos have night-vision binoculars. Aircraft operating area, Bomb dumps and bulk petroleum storage have greater physical and manned security. During war enemy will make attempts to penetrate airfields to destroy operational assets on the ground. In 1965 Indo-Pak war, Pakistani commandos made a failed attempt to raid IAF airbases, including a para drop.
Lessons from Pathankot Attack
After the Pathankot attack, it emerged that there is a need for inter-agency coordination, and better information flow from local Army units, police, and intelligence agencies. IAF requires physical support from battle-hardened local Army units during serious contingencies. Airfield security needs a fresh look especially in border districts. There is a need for directional jammers to prevent use of cell phones by terrorists/enemy. There is a need for domestic area evacuation plan. India needs an enhanced security grid in all border districts. There is a need to control media access and coverage of security operations, and conduct repeat formal media briefings. High value assets in border districts need security strengthening. A fully fenced and brightly lit border in plains cannot be allowed to be so porous to allow intrusion with huge posse of arms. Border security needed to tighten up.
Lessons from Civil Aviation
Civil aviation went through some major disasters before they woke up to serious airport security. The single deadliest airline catastrophe, resulting from the failure of airport security, was to detect an on-board bomb on Air India Flight 182 ‘Emperor Kanishka’ from Montreal to London in 1985 that crashed over Atlantic killing all 329 on-board. Another on-board bomb that slipped through airport security was on Pan Am flight in 1988, which killed 270 people, in the disaster known as the Lockerbie bombing. The 11 September 2001 multiple attacks across USA are the most widely recognized terrorist attacks in recent times involving air travel. Airport access has since been tightened. Passengers and baggage are screened using ever improving metal and explosive detector machines. More recently backscatter X-rays machines are being used. India stepped up its airport security after the 1999 Kandahar hijacking. The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), a paramilitary organization was given the charge and put under the regulatory frame work of the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (Ministry of Civil Aviation). They created especially trained group for airport security. Things did improve thereafter. Another problem that some airports face is the proliferation of slums around the boundary walls and in the approach zone and with a potential of a terrorist using a man-portable, shoulder fired, surface-to-air missile.
Typical Military Airfield Security
Entry into any airbase is through the few double-secure entry gates which are well manned and have drive-in barriers. There is no entry without identity check. However a large number of other than uniformed personnel like airfield maintenance and construction contractor labor also pass through these gates to work inside, albeit with special passes and security check. There are CCTV cameras on the gates, but time has perhaps come to introduce airport like checking devices for humans and materials. The boundary walls sometimes have drains passing under them and are secured by iron-rod gates. These have sometimes been breached. Thick forest/vegetation near boundary wall/fence often hampers security. In most places these have been shaved clean but in the north eastern states the growth is rather dense and rapid. More night-vision devices are being introduced. Outfacing, swiveling search-lights atop watch-towers help floodlight area outside the fence. Many airbases continue to have unauthorized structures nearly touching the boundary walls in spite clear laws against this. A typical IAF base is secured during peace time by DSC soldiers manning the peripheral watch-towers and the important operational assets augmented with air-warrior guards comprising non-technical staff who are not engaged in active operational activities. DSC numbers need serious augmenting and forward bases should have relatively younger lot. The limited Garud Commandos act as Quick-reaction force and take-on larger real-time threats. While the Garud are better armed and better trained, they have other tasks and roles such as Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) through radar-bursting, and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). Garud units are being increased and there should be at least two at each forward bases. But Garuds would now be joining the tri-service Special Forces Division. This would leave a void unless they are left at the parent bases for most of the time. The Vital Assets (VA) at an airfield include the runway, Air Traffic Control building, base operations centre, the communication hub, bulk petroleum storage, bomb and weapon storage, and high-technology laboratories among others. Attack on any of these could seriously hamper air operations. All these require additional protection. The Air warriors and their families also have to be kept safe.
Airbase Commander’s Options
A good local commander would have to be pro-active and make the best of his assets and environment. Airfield-wise Counter-Terrorism Contingency Plan (CTCP) has to be evolved and rehearsed. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), observers in helicopters or micro-light aircraft, or aerial recce aircraft could be used in case of an imminent attack. Helicopter gunship could be used to engage the threat. Nearby Army units, intelligence agencies, local district administration and police, home-guards, and the adjoining village Sarpanch and youth would have to be roped in.
Options and Challenges IAF
After Pathankot attack, the IAF has planned to strengthen security at 54 airbases of the country by installing ‘smart fences’, electronic surveillance systems, thermal imagers, close circuit television (CCTV) cameras and drones. Money has been sanctioned and project is underway. Integrated Parameter Security Solution (IPSS) is a detailed airbase security plan which is being implemented first in the Pakistan facing Western Air Command (WAC) stations, and later elsewhere. IAF has revived a four decades old proposal to form airfield security regiments of its own. This may also allow IAF to shed DSC altogether. This would become even more important as Garuds would now join the tri-service Special Forces Division. IAF has also asked the government agencies to remove encroachments around the airbases. The rule stipulates that no construction can take place 100 meters from the airbase and no structure can come up within 900 meters around the ordnance depots. However, these rules are breached in many places. More heavy-duty equipment is needed to clear foliage in some densely vegetated stations. A wall can be scaled, so a surveillance system with CCTV cameras is required across the wall. Social media is being used to honey-trap and black-mail unsuspecting youngsters and using them as possible moles. This needs restrictions and monitoring. The earlier practice for allowing cattle grazing inside the camps has been stopped. The domestic areas with shops, including CSD canteen, where ex-servicemen sometimes accompanied by civilians have been segregated and checking made stringent.
Garud Commando Force was formed in September 2004 after attempted terror attacks on the two major airbases in J & K. Their current strength is approximately 1500 personnel. IAF has sought government sanction to recruit more Garud commandos. Orders exist at all critical air stations to adhere to shoot-at-sight if anyone tries to enter the premises in an unauthorized manner. The IAF has prominently displayed this warning at vantage positions. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) have been evolved with local Army units to coordinate assistance in case of emergency or attack. There is better coordination with civil administration, including the police, in regards to suspicious movements near airbases and about the shoot at sight orders in case of trespassers. Finally the local Commanders have to use innovative base-specific ways and local liaison to strengthen security.
Picture Credit: ifsecglobal.com