Why Some Allege Pathankot 'Worst-Planned Op In 3 Decades'

Why Some Allege Pathankot 'Worst-Planned Op In 3 Decades'

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar addressing press at Pathankot Air Base.

New Delhi:  With the operations at the attacked Pathankot Air Force base nearly complete, details are emerging of a Command and Control fiasco that unfolded -as six terrorists were battled, there was a damaging tussle for operational control between the Army, Air Force and the National Security Guard or NSG.

A senior army officer closely involved in monitoring the operations told me, "This is the worst planned operation in more than three decades."

At least two top army leaders who have spoken to me but cannot be named for obvious reasons believe the overall command of the operation should always have wrested with the Army since there has never been a case where command of an active operation has been transferred from the Army to the National Security Guard, an elite police force under the Home Ministry. In this case, the NSG was given the lead role after two columns (60 men) of the Army had already been deployed in Pathankot in anticipation of an impending attack on the airbase. General VP Malik, the former Army Chief says, "Command of an operation is transferred to the Army once they are called for an anti-terrorism operation and, in this case, defence of an airfield operation."

I have also been told by reliable sources that there was a full-fledged disagreement between an Army Brigadier commanding operations till then, and the Inspector General (Operations) of the National Security Guard, who flew in on the orders of the Home Ministry. The situation became more confusing when the Air Officer Commanding, Western Air Command,  was asked to fly to Pathankot to take key decisions in the conduct of the ongoing encounter prompting another disagreement, this time between the Air Force and the National Security Guard. The lack of cooperation and coordination between the different agencies was blistering.

Ultimately, the Army Brigadier stood down since he was junior to the NSG's IG (Operations), who has the rank of Major General.  The National Security Guard ultimately retained overall control of the remainder of the operation though the Air Officer Commanding, an Air Marshal, remained on the airbase.

Top sources in the Army have also told NDTV that it is not at all their intention to make this an Army versus National Security Guard showdown since the actual fighting was done by soldiers of both forces often using Army assets like BMP-2 armoured personnel carriers and Casspir mine-protected vehicles, which can deflect or withstand bullets, rockets or grenades fired by terrorists. However, they do question the choice of the National Security Guard to be a part of these operations in the first place since more than 50,000 soldiers of the Army were available in Pathankot, which houses massive Army facilities, the equivalent of the strength of two Divisions. According to General Malik, "It was the wrong decision to send the NSG. The operation should have been conducted by the Army forces right next door at the Division who knew the ground [condition] very well. It would have speeded up the process."

What's more, the single Special Forces squad of the Indian Army, trained specifically to fight terrorists, and brought into the airbase from the Pathankot cantonment before the attack began never directly engaged the terrorists in the fire-fight and instead stood guard of the "strategic assets" at the base- fighters, helicopters, surface to air missiles or radar facilities.  

A full battalion (approximately 800 soldiers) of the Army's prestigious 1 Para Special Forces battalion are based in Nahan less than 30 minutes' flying time from Pathankot and could have been deployed at short notice if required.  

Experts also disagree with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar who defended the use of the NSG today when he said, "There were civilians here. 3,000 civilians are staying in this campus so NSG is better trained." According to Lt General Shankar Prasad, the Army's former Director General (Infantry), "the Special Action Group (SAG) of the National Security Guard who were deployed in Pathankot are trained for aggressive intervention, hostage rescue and aircraft hijack scenarios. They are not meant to protect any asset, human or otherwise. Their role is to terminate a situation through direct intervention." According to the Lt General, the NSG could have been kept on standby for any eventuality, not given charge of an operation the likes of which are being waged by the Army in Kashmir on a constant basis for years.

As the operation in Pathankot winds down, the facts remain. Hundreds of soldiers may have prevented a bloodbath but how did six terrorists kill seven Indian soldiers and injure 20 after managing to infiltrate an airbase which was apparently fully ready to fight them?

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