Bottomline | Holes in Indian Airspace

Terrorist threat from the air is a real danger

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The overall reaction in India to the recent spectacular air attack by the LTTE air wing in Sri Lanka has been on expected lines. New Delhi has refrained so far from making any strident official comment. Unknown senior defence sources have been quoted in the media as saying that India is not concerned about rudimentary LTTE air capability against the Indian targets. Defence minister, A.K. Antony who has just returned from his maiden visit to Andaman and Nicobar Islands has instead commented on the interception of an explosive laden LTTE boat off Tamil Nadu’s coast on February 13, calling it ‘just the tip of the iceberg.’ Consequently, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have stepped up patrolling in the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar. While the imminent terrorist threats from both the air and sea stares India in the face, we have decided to once again take some quick fix measures and close eyes to seeking permanent solution to these new dangers to national security. It may be recalled that the nation was shocked by the dramatic incident of arms dropping by a foreign AN-26 aircraft over Purulia on 17 December 1995. Seventeen years later, we have done little to ensure that such incidents do not happen. Especially when the threat from the air has increased substantially: terrorists now have the ability to push an explosive-laden Unmanned Aerial Vehicle into the Indian air space with ease. The UAV will certainly not be able to reach New Delhi, but it will be a shame if it enters the Indian air space in Eastern, South-Eastern and Southern coastal areas and Andaman and Nicobar Islands with impunity. What is the way out of this impending national embarrassment? Simple, all agencies tasked with the responsibility of the Indian air space should work in complete unison.

These agencies are the Indian Air Force (IAF); the ministry of civil aviation with the Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) responsible for flight clearances through Indian air space, the Airport Authority of India (AAI) for air traffic control, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) for security; and the Indian Navy for air space over ships at sea. The overall responsibility of the air defence of the entire Indian air space rests unambiguously with the IAF. During peacetime, a key problem is detection of an aircraft that can be done in two ways, by radars and visual means. Regarding radars, there is an unacceptable paucity of radars with the IAF. The surveillance capability of the IAF to cover areas of the south east and southern sectors of hinterland is extremely limited. This is not all. All major civil radars procured by the AAI are secondary and not primary radars; primary radars alone enable detection of non-cooperating (intruding) aircraft, whereas secondary radars detect only those aircraft whose Identification of Friend and Foe (IFF) system is ‘On’. This has hampered the integration of civil radars with military radars. Moreover, the numbers of ground stations in the country for IFF are extremely limited. The airborne and ground IFF equipment needs to be standardised to ensure compatibility across the board.

The problem with visual detection is a turf battle. This stems from the fact that diverse agencies, the army, BSF, police and so on maintain their own chain of command while reporting the detection of unidentified aircraft to the IAF. By the time the IAF acts on the information it is simply too late as the damage has been done. Moreover, there is a need for dedicated centralised training of personnel at all levels in aircraft and UAV recognition and detection at regular intervals. Similarly, civil and military air traffic controllers should be trained during peacetime so that they are conversant with each other’s operating procedures in order to handle air traffic expeditiously and safely, especially when both the civil and military aviation is set to increase in the days ahead. All concerned should know unscheduled landing procedures as well. For example, despite elaborate instructions post-Purulia, the unscheduled landing of M/s Colin Bodill of UK’s aircraft at Rourkela in June 2000 sent alarm bells at higher headquarters raising doubts about a hostile act.

The overall answer is the need for integration. At present, airspace management is being carried out by the IAF and the AAI without any meaningful co-ordination. The civil and military ATC activities remain compartmentalised. This has resulted in numerous occasions wherein near misses between civil and military aircraft have been reported. Furthermore, military and civil authorities are issuing orders and instructions on ATC subjects separately. Worse, the lack of co-ordination between civil and IAF’s air traffic service system has resulted in a great deal of duplication. After the 1999 Kargil war, the government had proposed the setting up of an apex body for National Airspace Management with representatives from IAF, AAI and DGCA. With bureaucrats not willing to give up turf powers and the politicians being undecided, little has been done to streamline the management of the air space. Unfortunately, India waits for an intrusion by terrorists into its vast unguarded air space before we will wake up from slumber.


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