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Pathankot: 'Luck helped us'

By Archana Masih
Last updated on: January 11, 2016 11:12 IST

'Had they struck on the 1st, there would have been hell to pay,' says Lieutenant General H S Panag (retd), the former Northern Army Commander.

An Indian soldier stands guard at the IAF airbase in Pathankot, January 5. Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

IMAGE: An Indian soldier stands guard on a building at the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot, January 5. Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

 

Lieutenant General H S Panag (retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, is the former GOC-in-C, Northern Command.

The Northern Command is deployed in Jammu and Kashmir and is responsible for guarding about 1,896 km of India's disputed borders with China and Pakistan, including the Line of Actual Control, the Actual Ground Position Line, the Line of Control, as well as the International Border.

General Panag, one of the Indian Army's finest generals, spoke to Archana Masih/Rediff.com

The first flaw:

The first flaw was in coordination of the intelligence received.

The information came to the police and they sent driblets to all concerned. They warned the central government, army and air force, but when the intercepts started coming in, it was crystal clear that terrorists were in the vicinity of the airbase.

It seemed to be the logical target and this was assessed by everybody. You then secure the airbase and be prepared to take any action required.

If this information was given without the government being involved to the General Officer Commanding of the 29 Infantry Division, who commands 20,000 troops and with additional troops located in Pathankot, he would have informed his superiors, they would have coordinated with the air force and initiated the necessary action.

But this did not happen and the national security advisor held a conference in Delhi. In such a situation it is important to decide who is the lead agency that will pay a dominant role -- the Army, the Air Force or NSG (National Security Guard).

It is situational related.

In all this operation, the main effort was going to be from the army and the lead agency should have been the army.

The lead agency has to be the single point command and control centre. You must appoint an overall commander, but this was not done.

Some direction was given which was in the domain of micro management.

So the NSG was sent -- 130 men followed by 80. Some elements of the army under a brigadier reached in the evening. Whereas had a single point agency been established, the GoC 29 Division would have ensured that the base is secured much earlier.

Initially, Brigadier Anupinder Brelvi (commander, Mamoon 51 Brigade) arrived with two columns. You have an airbase with a perimeter of 25 kms with 5, 6 platoons of Defence Security Corps personnel who are not suitably armed and do internal guard duties.

The first and foremost requirement was to strengthen the perimeter. A minimum of one battalion was needed to strengthen the perimeter and another battalion required to secure the technical area.

The Special Forces and other infantry -- which is equally capable of taking action because they do that in and out in J&K -- should have been placed to respond. The coordination wasn't done.

When (the inspector general, NSG) Major General Dushyant Singh arrived, he wanted to take charge. The brigadier said he was in charge. Then matter went up and it was decided that the IG NSG would be the overall in charge.

That evening, the AOC-in-C (Air Officer in Commanding in Chief) Western Air Command also arrived. His rank is equivalent to an army commander, he has got the rank of a secretary to the Government of India. He was senior to all these guys.

This was not all, the police was involved outside. Also, the BSF because there could be more terrorists trying to infiltrate.

Moreover, for a person who has to exercise command and control, he must have a headquarter, staff officers, communications. Major General Dushyant Singh did not have any such thing neither did the air force.

If GoC 29 Division would have been in charge, he would have had these resources and would have exercised command and control even from Mamoon, just 5 kms away.

Consequently, inadequate force was deployed to secure the perimeter. They did secure the technical area, but the area outside the airbase which should have been combed during the day time wasn't.

They (the terrorists) were probably hiding there.

The surrounding area -- 1 to 2 kms around the airbase -- should have been combed, but it was not. Of course, the main assets -- the aircraft -- had been removed. What aircraft remained was what was needed for surveillance like the Mi-25 attack helicopters that have night vision flying.

This was inadequate and lack of control and command was evident.

Consequently, it was easy for the terrorists to breach the wall and effect an entry.

There are reports that they could have well have entered on the 1st itself (on the night of December 31-January 1). Unlikely.

Had they entered on the 1st when they knew no warning had been issued, they would have struck that night only because the airbase was ill prepared.

When the terrorists effected an entry, they first went across to the DSC cookhouse where the personnel were unarmed. If an alert had been sounded, why were the personnel unarmed?

When I was army commander, Northern Command, I always carried my personal weapon with me, even in my house.

The overall security of the airbase, not only in Pathankot but everywhere, is highly suspect. The DSC consists of aging men 45 to 55 years old. They join the DSC after doing at least 15 years in the army and they can serve up to 60.

The electronic sensors are non existent at the airbases. They don't have bulletproof jackets. Given that these air fields are vulnerable a much larger force is required to secure the perimeter.

Thereafter, the operation fell into place. They brought in additional army columns and two teams of Special Forces. The terrorists were luckily confined to the area of the barracks and finally were eliminated there.

Incidentally, they have only found four bodies. In J&K we burned down houses with terrorists inside them. Eventually, we do find these charred bodies and weapons. The two bodies may be found later.

The fundamental fault was that there was no lead agency and in putting the NSG in charge.

The NSG was sent because a hostage situation was expected:

Why were they expecting a hostage situation when they had 30,000 troops available in Mamoon? Could you not have put one more battalion around the family quarters?

You mean to say our special forces cannot deal with a hostage situation? They dealt with Kaluchak and other hostage situations in J&K.

Even if a hostage situation was expected, then they should have been put under the command of the lead agency under one commander who should have been the GOC 29 Infantry division.

The NSG has a specific task, hostages, aircraft hijacking in civilian areas. This was incorrect and they were not familiar with the area.

While you can say that the terrorists were eliminated. Everybody gets emotional about the casualties suffered. In the '71 war my unit went into battle with 700 men, 50 were killed and 170 wounded -- just a single unit!

Social media and everybody becomes emotional about casualties, but despite the warning and 24 hours to prepare, we were still surprised.

Luck and providence helped us.

Had they struck on the night of the 1st, there would have been hell to pay and had they been able to sneak further in, we would have had a greater problem.

Every operation for the armed forces is like a test. You can clear it with 1st division or with 3rd division. This was a third division operation.

Better to shame ourselves in public than to do nothing.

Archana Masih / Rediff.com
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