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India must use airpower to eliminate terrorists

March 07, 2019 08:29 IST

'It is time India thought big not only about its global clout politically and diplomatically, but also act its size against pin-pricking by anti national elements,' says Group Captain Murli Menon (retd).

Indian Air Force Garud commandos participate in a drill during the IAF's Vayu Shakti 2019 at the IAF field firing range, Pokhran, Rajasthan, February 16, 2019. Photograph: Manvender Vashist/PTI Photo

IMAGE: Indian Air Force Garud commandos participate in a drill during the IAF's Vayu Shakti 2019 at the IAF field firing range, Pokhran, Rajasthan, February 16, 2019. Photograph: Photograph: Manvender Vashist/PTI Photo

Special Forces offer unique capabilities to a military during times of war as has been exemplified from time immemorial.

What perhaps needs deliberation is their role in Operations Other Than War. Full fledged slanging matches between militaries are going to be increasingly rare in the days to come with border skirmishes, special missions, counter terror operations and combat search and rescue being more likely, especially in our context.

Airpower would be a critical element of such capabilities, not only for insertion and extraction of special forces, but for hard kill military options even below the spectra of visibility and consequent deniability.

Nations like the USA have chosen to organise such wherewithal under their potent intelligence organisations -- the Predator hard kill campaign under the CIA. Of course, technology is the main driver here because as of now hard kill drone capability exists only with the Americans.

They also have the political will to employ such assets, the American president himself signing the orders for such operations.

 

India has a peculiar threat spectrum indeed, stretching from indigenous groups such as the Maoists and the various militant outfits in the north east, cross border Pakistan army-sponsored terror groups, smugglers over land and sea, homegrown terrorist elements, fugitives from Indian law and individuals like Muhammed Sayeed and Masood Azhar with established inimical designs on India.

So far, our government has chosen to count on international goodwill and ineffective sanction regimes by the United Nations to address the terror issues. A country with the size and increasing economic clout like India needs other viable instruments to protect its national interests.

Political will, of course, is anther intangible, which it is hoped our country would imbibe, if only from strong public opinion down the line against being a soft State.

Capabilities, militarily, have to be in being, then the decision makers have to take their call on employing them.

The current revelation about Blackwater/Frontier Services Group employing an airborne technology firm in Austria to modify crop sprayer aircraft -- the Thrush 510 G -- should render valuable lessons for our strategic planners.

It seems the inexpensive Thrush crop duster was retrofitted with armor plating around vulnerable zones such as the cockpit, engines and airframe for carriage of bomb rails and 23 mm front guns, its associated sighting equipment as also an array of ISR gadgets like laser target designation and surveillance pods.

These modified aircraft were then employed in conflict zones like Mali, Iraq and Columbia along with 'little bird' helicopters to provide the CIA uniquely low cost and deniable options to wage prolonged counter insurgency, counter drug trafficking and other military surveillance and attack operations.

India, of course, does not have the global compulsions that the Americans have. More importantly, we have enough wherewithal within the Indian Air Force Base Repair Depots, HAL and other PSUs like Garden Reach Shipyards to undertake requisite modifications to indigenous or imported light aero planes to equip them for counter terror or counter insurgency purposes.

Modification of any sort as envisaged being well within Indian ingenuity, the real challenge would be to evolve a suitable mechanism for tasking and operational employment.

There would be clear advantages in positioning such assets under the Research and Analysis Wing's operational control, the major one being that of deniability.

Also, it would be much easier to dovetail tactical intelligence and aerial strikes/operations. Armed drones could be brought into the ambit as and when the technology becomes available.

Crewing and manning once again would not pose a serious issue as any number of serving (or medically down) pilots or retired pilots and technicians would willingly come forth for these special tasks, including to function as drone pilots.

Incentivisation for high risk missions, as proposed, could always be catered for through suitable budgeting 'black' or otherwise.

In days of yore, our strategic thinkers believed the moment the IAF or such elements of air power came into use, the situation would invariably lead to all out war.

Kargil put paid to this misplaced belief, clearly earmarking a distinct window for offensive military operations, in a so-called 'nuclear overhang' for many a variety of Operations Other Than War.

Our decision makers should surely understand this and not be swayed by motivated propaganda, least of all by the protagonists from where emanate threats to our nation.

Instances abound wherein not using air power in a timely and apt fashion has impacted directly on the outcome of an operation -- in war or otherwise.

The delayed use of its air force by the Sri Lankans against the LTTE and our own being remiss (thanks to some woeful professional advice perhaps!) of not employing the IAF during the 1962 War with China are graphic cases in point.

And this is where covert special forces air power comes in, to offer options for timely and effective neutralisation of impending threats.

The purpose of this article is mainly to get our policy makers to think out of the box about unconventional military means to counter the biggest security bugbears in modern day India -- that of cross border terrorism and counter insurgency.

Once the concept is understood and the requirement recognised, a way ahead to operationalise the use of air power and establish its support infrastructure could be worked out.

We need to respond forcefully against any of the threats as considered herein.

Besides actual trained commando forces, their specialised gear and special forces air support aircraft like helicopters/C 130/drones/Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, modified light aircraft would offer interesting possibilities for the military planner.

We need to take a leaf out of the Blackwater experience to give ourselves this uniquely unconventional light aircraft attack option for counter terror and counter insurgency.

These assets could also be effectively employed in Combat Search and Rescue missions which again has been a weak area in our air war planning.

The fate of the missing 54 Prisoner Of War of 1971 cannot be allowed to be forgotten or for it to recur.

It is time India thought big not only about its global clout politically and diplomatically, but also act its size against pin-pricking by anti national elements.

Group Captain Murli Menon (retd)
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