Air power will emerge as a powerful key element in counter-terror operations
Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)
On 26 February 2019, India used its air power to attack the terror camp in Balakot in what could be termed as a classic example of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) strike prowess. The Mirage pilots demonstrated skills of meticulous planning, tactical acumen and flawless execution with utmost professionalism. The nation felt euphoric as the country delivered a befitting response to the perpetuators of the Pulwama tragedy. Hitherto, air power had never been used across borders in an undeclared war situation. The value of any weapon system lies in how it is used to deliver the overall political message. In executing the strike, in the manner we did, India conveyed that it cannot be pushed beyond a point no matter how high the risk or how loud the noise at the ground level maybe. Those involved in the decision making and execution deserve a compliment.
There has been a lot of conjecture as to why air power was seen as an unmitigated asset for use in our war on terror. Had it acquired an aura of fear, guilt or culpability owing to the perception that air power was inherently escalatory and could trigger an unprecedented and probable nuclear response making it unworthy. Or was it owing to international and strategic ramifications of violating the sovereignty of another nation, or was it the risk to aircraft and aircrew, or the inadequacy of targets for an aerial weapon given the collateral risk to innocent civilians, or was it insufficient / inadequate actionable intelligence, or was it purely lack of political will, in the backdrop of all the above or a combination of such factors. Be that as it may, the nation’s security apparatus had finally shown gumption and contemplated the use of air power. Probably, the leadership was compelled by the sheer audacity of the February 14 terror attack that martyred 44 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans, and driven to convey the anguish, resolve and combativeness for over decades of humiliation by Pakistan initiated terror strikes, and realised that only air power could carry the requisite bellicosity in such an exigency.
The use of 12 Mirage aircraft to target the infrastructure of the terror camp seemed an appropriate and proportionate option to convey our dissension. Our offensive air power capability is extremely capable, effective and reliable, given the mix of stand-off Smart Weapons (both air-to-ground and air-to-air), Electronic Warfare suites, Air Defense network, AWACS, Aerial Refuelers, onboard computers and communication systems. Strike planning would have factored each of these elements in the required fit for the task. While the intricate details would be known only to those in the IAF responsible for its execution, it is not difficult to imagine that the increased stand-off potential of smart weapons and communications with our radar system network, would have made it feasible to attack the target with lesser miles to ingress into enemy territory, thereby reducing risk to aircrew. Air power’s geographic flexibility (regardless of terrain) would have allowed tactical routeing and use of decoys masking the exact point of attack. Air defence cover would have provided the requisite umbrella to ward off any interception in the contested air space. Precision-guidance weapons would have accorded a high hit probability alongside minimising collateral damage and accurate intelligence would have been the planning start point. Air power works best between clearly distinguishable adversaries, in empty and uncluttered terrain, against identifiable targets. The mission would not have found a better target than the Balakot terror training camp on a hill top by the Kunhar river in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It was away from populated areas, with clearly discernible buildings and fitted extremely well in this lexicon. With the element of surprise, success was in the underbelly from the very start.
The strike left the country extremely euphoric and the euphoria continued despite the capture of our downed MIG–21 pilot. It was the IAF’s moment of pride for it had accomplished what it was called upon to deliver. It could be termed as India’s boldest strike against any adversary, using air power, in an undeclared war contingency. It more than matched the audacity and proportion of the Pulwama tragedy and above all, signalled our resolve to punish the perpetuators of terror. A new era has now been ushered in our counter terror calculus with the inclusion of the dexterity of air power into its fold.
Pakistan, in all likelihood, did not expect an aerial response given our decrepitude owing to the nuclear bogie and hence, was caught napping in the air defence of its territory. They would have been awakened now to this new reality and learnt their lesson. They would certainly rework their air defence dynamics and emerge better the next time over. Pakistan is a smart enemy and hence, India must factor this augmentation for any ingress in the immediate or near future, particularly the risk of exposing aircrew to enemy defences.
Targeting of terror from the air, in our context, has just begun. This marks a conceptual shift in our approach to countering terror and we must further capabilities in each domain to confront this menace with a persistent, combative and aggressive policy to hit back each time that terror strikes. Accordingly, we must expand our capabilities to cover the entire canvas to strike at terror camps, terror hideouts, terrorists themselves and their leaders. Perpetuators of terror tend to thrive in a populated environment as it provides a natural cover. They use religious or isolated / under-ground safe havens and pop out only when required. Such targets could be targeted predominantly with air power using a range of manned or unmanned options. The combativeness of our response must make the perpetuators of terror spend more time thinking about their own safety rather than be plotting against us.
The success of armed UAVs against terror has been amply demonstrated by the Americans and Israelis. Armed UAVs have been used against terror camps, hideouts and terrorists in the search and strike mode. The basic concept that underlies their use is to quickly kill an emerging target before it disappears into hiding. A terrorist is an elusive target and affords only a limited window of engagement during which it must be found, located, identified and destroyed. This process is called the ‘kill chain’ and the entire operation is time critical. Exploiting this time criticality needs synergising the entire gamut of capabilities i.e. intelligence, surveillance, tracking, communications, air defence, decision-making and targeting. Israel uses its armed UAVs for counter-terror operations in Lebanon and Gaza to reduce engagement times for time sensitive targets. The Americans armed their Predator UAV with the Hellfire anti-tank missile for use in Operation Enduring Freedom and hit approximately 115 targets of al Qaida operatives in Afghanistan during the first year of combat. Most notable among them was the al Qaida chief of military operations, Mohammed Atef. From 2004 onwards, the Americans have employed an extensive targeting campaign in the tribal regions of Pakistan to hunt and kill Taliban and al Qaida militants. The first to be targeted was the Pakistani-based Pashtoon leader, Nek Muhammad, who was killed in June 2004 after an armed Predator tracked him for over two weeks. As per the Long War Journal, the United States has carried out 396 strikes inside Pakistan since 2004, killing more than 2,800 terrorist leaders, primarily from al Qaida.
Armed UAVs have been the preferred weapon for counter terror operations for over a decade now following the success of the Predator UAV in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somalia and the Middle East. Many countries including China are contemplating use of armed UAVs as a weapon of choice against terror. The tactical advantage of an armed UAV is that the sensor and shooter reside on the same platform which results in a speedier response from the moment a target is sighted to the time the weapon is delivered. When combined with the surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering capability, it becomes an extremely lethal platform that can be employed in the standalone mode without putting any lives at risk. In fact, the UAVs’ ability to loiter and gather intelligence before a strike, is the key to its employment. To handle its own home-grown terrorism and the insurgency in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Pakistan has developed the armed Burraq UAV equipped with a laser-guided air-to-surface missile named Burq (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NESCOM_Burraq). The first use of the Burraq armed UAV was made on 7 September 2015 against a compound in the Shawal Valley killing three high profile terrorists. The Shawal Valley in North Waziristan has been the area of Pakistan military operation to clear out the last pockets of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and affiliated terrorist groups from Pakistani soil as part of Operation Zarb-e-Azb (https://www.defensenews.com/air/2015/09/08/pakistan-surprises-many-with-first-use-of-armed-drone). Pakistan is also acquiring 48 medium altitude long endurance advanced armed drones called the Wing Loong II (Chinese version of the American Predator) from China which can be used both in the combat and surveillance roles (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/china-to-sell-48-high-end-military-drones-to-pakistan/articleshow/66129500.cms).
According to a report of New America Foundation released last year, the list of countries that possess armed drones includes the US, UK, China, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and South Africa (https://www.newamerica.org/in-depth/world-of-drones/3-who-has-what-countries-armed-drones). These countries resort to targeted killing as an essential tactic to pursue those responsible for terror attacks. India needs to acquire such capability at the earliest. Our armed UAV could be augmented with stealth, suppression of enemy air defence, defensive counter measures etc. to be able to operate in a contested air space. Training for the kill chain prescribed sequence of events with the armed UAV i.e. to locate, identify, and destroy will be an indispensable and extremely important element of the overall joint and inter-agency effort. Regardless of the mechanism and weapon systems for a future use, air power in our context is likely to gain prominence as a tool to counter terrorism.
My conclusion is that air power is here to stay as a key element in our counter terror conflict. Whenever military forces are called upon to act, the air power option is likely to weigh in the very forefront. As the future unfolds, we would have to build capabilities so that air power can be brought to bear its prowess in any tangled, multifaceted and contested scenario. A range of effective and credible air power response options, among others, would offer a crucial advantage that would deter the perpetuators of terror.
(The writer is a former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command, IAF)