The pre-dawn terrorist attack on a high-security Indian Air Force base at Pathankot on Saturday was the second such strike against an IAF facility in 14 years, prompting the security establishment to further tighten the security of vital assets.
In the high-level meeting chaired by defence minister Manohar Parrikar, security of key defence installations were reviewed and it was decided to focus on more “integrated efforts” of the armed forces. The intelligence inputs and counter measures of the armed forces before the attack was also discussed.
The IAF said the likely plan of the terrorists was to destroy fighter planes and helicopter gunships.
In a statement, the IAF said “effective preparation and coordinated efforts” by security agencies following intelligence inputs about a possible strike helped prevent the attackers from entering the technical area where “high value assets” were parked.
The base holds Russian-origin MiG-21 fighters and a mix of Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters.
Following the pre-meditated attack on the 18 Wing fighter base at Pathankot, several crucial air bases were put on high alert and the security grid was tightened further to fend off any possible strike, an IAF source told Hindustan Times. Steps are also being taken to reinforce peripheral security around crucial installations.
Former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, who commanded the MiG-21 ‘Warriors’ squadron in Pathankot in the mid-eighties, described the fighter base near the India-Pakistan border as a critical facility both during war-time and peace.
“The base significantly increases the radius of operation of our fighters. Being the closest airbase to J&K, it is also crucial to distribute aid during natural disasters,” he said.
The terrorists, detected by aerial surveillance platforms, were immediately engaged and contained within a limited area, the IAF said.
“Through timely and prompt action by all agencies, the likely plan of the terrorists to destroy valuable assets of the Air Force has been foiled,” an IAF spokesperson said. The Western Air Command chief - a top three-star officer - rushed to Pathankot to personally supervise the operations.
In October 2001, four terrorists, armed with Kalashnikovs and grenades, had attempted to force their way into the IAF’s Awantipur fighter base near Srinagar in broad daylight. They were all killed.
Exactly three years later, the IAF raised its elite Garud commando force to protect vital installations and to carry out counter-terror operations. Terrorists have regularly carried out attacks on army installations in Jammu and Kashmir, but an attack on an IAF facility is rare.
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, told HT: “The terrorists targeted a high-security airbase as they wanted to make a big impact. My fear is they will go after soft targets next to cause more casualties.”
Strategic affairs expert Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd): It’s a failure of surveillance and border guarding. But once infiltration has taken place, you can keep searching for the terrorists and not find them for 10 days in that kind of terrain. Still, security agencies were able to control the damage and save fighter planes and helicopter gunships from being destroyed.