J& K Counter Terror Mechanism : Time for Air Power

Sub Title : Time for introduction of air power into our counter infiltration/terrorism apparatus

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2020

Author : Air Marshal Ramesh Rai, VM

Page No. : 35

Category : Military Affairs

: July 28, 2020

The saga of Pakistan sponsored insurgency and our efforts to counter the same continues without signs of drawing to a close. To this end there is a need to bolster our efforts. And how better than to introduce the dexterity of air power into our counter infiltration/terrorism apparatus. Suggestions as to the same are covered in the article

The adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan largely characterised by the disputed territory of J&K, now has terrorism at its the centre stage. Every now and then we hear of terrorists striking in J&K resulting in loss of lives of civilians and security forces personnel. Pakistan continues use of terror as an instrument of its foreign and security policy, fuelled further by the abrogation of article 370. In response India has largely adopted a policy of containment by military led measures, within the broader framework of engagement with Pakistan and winning hearts and minds of the people of J&K.

What makes cross-border terrorism a big challenge in our context, is its mix with local militancy and civil unrest that provides for the terrorists to get aided by the local populace. Terrorists from across the border, in cohort with local militants, use the unrest to further their agenda. As per MHA data, fatalities between 1988 and 2019 have been 45230, in about 47234 terror incidents. 23779 terrorists have been killed while 14921 civilians and 6530 security personnel have lost their lives. Recurrence of terror incidents has continued with uncanny regularity despite a plethora of security forces in the region. As per media reports around 300 terrorists are reported to be waiting across the Line of Control (LOC) in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to sneak into the Kashmir Valley. While, the Indian Security forces would be taking steps to counter the infiltration, this seems a never-ending saga and clearly the mechanism needs to be boosted. Blending air power into the entire gamut of operations could provide the required fillip and must be contemplated.

Broadly speaking, airpower can perform, two broad mutually supportive counter-terror functions, namely “prevention” and “response” as was borne out by the aerial strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Balakot on 26 Feb 2019. While the strike was in response to the Pakistani backed suicide attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama, it was also aimed at preventing future attacks by killing Jaish-e-Mohammed operatives, and destroying their training camp. Air power was used across borders, albeit for the first time, in an undeclared war situation and the dexterity of air power ushered into our counter terror apparatus. This must be taken further by exploiting capabilities of air power to carry out prevention and response functions in the ongoing counter terror actions in J&K by enthusing the intelligence gathering and strikes against intruding terrorists.

Typically, Counter terrorism tasks comprise monitoring of communications, terrorist’s movements, surveillance on specific locations, tracking specific personnel and getting insider information to launch a pre-emptive strike on terror locations, hideouts, launch pads or individuals. All these tasks could be furthered by the intervention of air power. Among the many countries that draw extensively on the air domain, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) set an example by extensive employment of air power for intelligence gathering and counter terror tasks enumerated above.  Though IDF employs a combined arms approach to combat terror, airpower is central to their concept. This centrality has not only been pivotal to their success but also in reduction of causalities of security forces, primarily owing to the real time situational picture and mobile covering fire that air power provides.

Aman, the military intelligence (MI) arm of the Israeli intelligence set up, collects about 90% of the intelligence for counter terror prevention and action. It is an independent service, co-equal with the army, navy and air force. Intelligence is obtained by Signal Intelligence (SIGINT), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT), open source intelligence (OSINT), Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and by intense spying over Cyberspace. Use of data mining techniques to look into a great volume of data and metadata to identify menacing messages using machines with language and content recognition algorithms is the norm. Computer Aided Text Analysis measure the propensity of certain, predetermined words in a text for recognising a threat. Big data technology is also used to combine textual, visual and vocal data to automatically identify and extract, actionable intelligence, after which a very rapid response is executed, to any indication of enemy’s intention to cause damage or intrusion. While our data collection capabilities in SIGINT, OSINT and IMINT have evolved over time, albeit under different agencies, technologies for data processing by machines would need to be inducted.

Israeli MI uses a wide array of observation devices that vary from optic, electro-optic (EO), infra-red (IR), Synthetic aperture radars (SAR), ground mapping radars based on zoom lenses, observation masts on ground vehicles, Aerostats, UAVs and manned platforms to scan Palestinian areas, from within own territory. Military / Border Police observation posts employ observers, round the clock, who keep an eye on activities in every house and on every individual that their binoculars can capture. Observers assign fictitious names to Palestinian homes and individuals for the purpose of referencing and continuity in tracking. Aerostats carry communication, relay systems and GPS along with EO, IR and SAR systems and hover around 450 meters above ground level to look deep into the enemy territory round the clock. Surveillance UAVs are employed at medium altitudes to complement data collected by Aerostats and other means. During Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli military action against HAMAS in 2014, a large number of UAVs were integrated in operations in the Gaza strip and 13 Skystar aerostats were deployed along a stretch of 40 Km of the Gaza border. While, Unmanned ground systems probed Hamas tunnels, man portable UAVs with ground forces monitored operations along the border, in conjunction with aerostats and armed UAVs that operated to provide intelligence, designate targets and drop bombs/missiles. This comprehensive combine of sensors and shooters is what enhances the deterrent value.

Conceptually, the Israelis have configured a system that keeps a 24×7 watch over the border and nearby villages/areas using a mix of border posts and available technologies and linking it with their response mechanism. Guarding our borders will require a similar combine considering the vast expanse of land that has to be kept under surveillance. Areas around the border /LOC could be scanned by a combination of military/para-military posts and sensors mounted on masts on ground reconnaissance vehicles, aerostats, UAVs and satellites. Ground based sensors and UAV surveillance could be suitably inter-spread to cover the large gaps between posts, unfenced nullahs and damages to the obstacle systems occurring due to snowfall. Multi-rotor drones could complement UAVs to cover mountain shadow areas especially in the terror infested region. UAVs with embedded avionics, EO/IR/SAR/ Foliage-penetrating (FOPEN) radars would emerge as the key assets to provide fool proof surveillance and capability to detect targets even in an undulating terrain. The type and extent of sensors for an optimal mix with border posts ought to be worked out by the security forces so that identifying, tracking and engaging terrorists becomes realizable in quick time.

Even though, the deployments would be on our side of the border, these must operate at ranges and altitudes that are out of reach of Pakistan’s Border Action Teams/ Army for reasons of security. With the 24×7 surveillance established, the security forces would be better placed to monitor activity and patterns in respect of launch pads, routes, border crossing methods and tools used by terrorists. Co-relating these patterns with intelligence from other technical methods of monitoring/decoding phones/ satellite phones, OSINT and HUMANINT, the security forces would be better placed to identify terror intrusions and respond before they mix with the local populace.

When tracking an intruder, our security forces must be capable of receiving real time images and videos streamed from UAVs, satellites and other sensors on their patrol vehicles, to bring to them the situational picture. Furthermore, linking the Operations control room and security forces would reduce the response time since the shooter and decision maker would be in the same loop. Such an operational concept is feasible with the technologies in the country and must be employed. Armed UAVs, could play a transformational role with their ability to loiter, gather intelligence and strike. However, use of armed UAVs within own territory would run the risk of collateral damage on own population and have to be employed with extreme caution. The idea of putting in a place a linked mechanism is to quicken the pace of arrests and killings so that terror organisations lose the critical mass of skills and capabilities and terror is contained. Action by security forces gets emboldened when supported by air power and that serves as a deterrent.

In counter-terror operations, the fundamental concept is to use air power in every segment of the kill chain process from intelligence collection to strike. As discussed above, air power has capabilities to complement intelligence collection, track a target, provide real time situational awareness and aid tactical action. As a first step, air power could be intermeshed for SIGINT, IMINT, to download imagery and carry out surveillance along the border. Ground forces could train on using UAV/Satellite imagery and downloads to identify terrorists given our unique circumstances of terrain and foliage.

The next step would be to employ innovative technologies to sift through the vast amount of data. Technologies such as data mining, big data computing, language translations, decoding satellite phones, real-time data stream analytics, identity analytics, social media analytics and machine learning to carry out predictive analysis be inducted. Some of these may have to be developed, for which we must make our industry respond so that it specifically pinpoints to the relevant information, identifies patterns and draws conclusions for action by the security forces in our scenarios.

Another far reaching step would be for the Intelligence agencies in J&K to have the entire suite of platforms, technologies and services under their control. This would provide flexibility of use as per the demand of an emerging situation without having to request other agencies. A one-stop-intelligence-shop ought to be contemplated. The present inter-agency set up has inherent delays owing to requirement of clearances from respective headquarters before intelligence is disseminated. This delay would get eliminated if a one stop shop is established. While Inter-Agency cooperation is sought in the present arrangement, it is not always forthcoming and, in the bargain, terrorists manage to slip through causing causalities of civilians and security forces. Fusion of intelligence is extremely essential in the entire counter terror chain, for any targeting can only be as good as the intelligence.

Role of air power to assist the security forces for targeting must be seen with its characteristic quality of accompaniment at every stage of the operation i.e. to track, provide situational picture, designate targets and engage targets. It is this accompaniment that will give a force multiplication effect. Since the country has airpower assets such as UAVs etc, both with the Army and Air Force, these could be deployed without delay. UAVs could also be specifically procured for J&K security forces from indigenous sources with the avionics and sensors tailored to meet their requirements. UAVs have capabilities to designate targets like a particular building in an urban area, a specific vehicle in a convoy etc to be engaged by an attack helicopter or even a fighter aircraft, if heavy weapon load is desired. This option could be considered as experience is gained. The tactical advantage in arming the UAV is that the sensor and shooter are resident on the same platform which results in a speedier response from the moment of sighting a target to the delivery of the weapon. A terrorist under the gaze of an UAV feels threatened and harassed which adds to the deterrence.

Many nations consider airpower as the key element, among all military tools, to wage war against terror since it offers a flexible, quick and timely response option without putting troops on the ground. It is time, India considers extending the canvas of counter operations into the air domain. We could start by employing aerial assets for intelligence gathering and subsequently as experience is gained, expand to targeting the entire range of terror nodes, i.e. individual intruders, groups, camps, hide outs, launch pads etc. Conceptually speaking, airpower must be inducted to provide our security forces a tool to engage terrorists from a medium that they cannot challenge – the air. This would not only engender more confidence and aggressiveness but also enhance their chances of success. More importantly, the security forces would be able to define the course of their operations by understanding the time and space criticality through real-time situational awareness obtained by aerial intervention. Since there are no easy military or political solutions, our endeavour must be to strengthen our security forces so that they can dominate encounters with terrorists. Intervention by Air power would be the best fit to such a notion.

The Author retired as Commander-in-Chief, Training Command, IAF. He was the Defence Attache’ in the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel from 2003 to 2006.