Mianwali Attack – Vulnerabilities of an Airbase – Lessons for IAF

Sub Title : Terrorist attack on Mianwali airbase highlights vulnerability of sensitive, high value targets

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2023

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM

Page No. : 43

Category : Military Affairs

: November 27, 2023

On November 4, 2023, Pakistan’s M.M. Alam Airbase in Mianwali was attacked by Tehreek-e-Jihad, following separate assaults on security forces, including an ambush in Balochistan killing 14 soldiers, and a bomb in Dera Ismail Khan killing five. The airbase, housing F-7PG aircraft, JL-8 trainers, and Alouette helicopters, saw 10 aircraft destroyed despite PAF’s claim of no functional damage. All nine assailants were neutralized. This follows historical attacks on Pakistani and Indian airbases, highlighting the evolving threat and the need for robust airfield security against such infiltrations and drone assaults.

In the early hours of November 04, 2023, Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) M.M. Alam airbase at Mianwali, Punjab, was attack by the jihadist group Tehreek-e-Jihad. The attack was preceded by two separate attacks on security forces. A day prior to the attack, 14 soldiers were killed in an ambush in Balochistan Province while five people were killed in a bomb attack targeting police in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Mianwali is currently a flying training airbase having the F-7PG aircraft, the Hongdu JL-8 (Karakoram-8P) trainers and Alouette helicopters. While PAF claimed that no damage was done to any functional aircraft, but massive fire could be seen on videos from the scene, and satellite pictures and other sources confirmed that there was visible destruction. For hangar or shelter roof damage to be visible on satellite images, significantly powerful explosion must have taken place beneath them. Around 10 aircraft were destroyed. All nine terrorists were finally neutralised.

Earlier in 2011, the terrorists had attacked the headquarters of the Pakistan Navy’s Naval Air Arm at PNS Mehran, in the financial Capital Karachi. 15 attackers killed 18 military personnel and wounded 16 in a sophisticated terrorist attack which lasted 16 hours. Two American-built P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft were destroyed in this late evening attack. India too has suffered airbase attacks in the past.

Pathankot Airbase Attack

Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Pathankot airbase is located barely 25 km as crow-flies from the Pakistan border, adjoining the strategic Shakargarh bulge. It is a typical fighter airbase spread over 2000 acres. It also has a civil enclave of the Airport Authority since 2006. The airbase, was attacked in 2016 by Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad. The pre-dawn gun battle raged for four days, killing seven security personnel and a civilian. None of the IAF assets were damaged. The terrorists were wearing Indian Army fatigues and rode a stolen car of a Superintendent of Punjab Police. All six terrorists were finally eliminated. The terrorists were apparently in India for at least 48 hours prior, and had studied the base layout and selected soft entry points. They perhaps had local assistance. The choice of early morning, when security could be weak, was a military like decision. The terrorists managed to breach the outer wall of the airbase through an entry point that adjoins a village. They then entered the domestic area. Day and night airborne sensors were used by the IAF, yet it took four days to neutralise the six Pakistani intruders.

The base was vital for tactical offensive operations and for logistic support to Jammu & Kashmir.  MiG 21 Bison fighter jets and Mi-25/Mi-35 attack helicopters were housed here. In 1965 too, Pakistani commandos made a failed attempt to raid the airbase. The airbase had a unit of IAF Garud commandos to support high-value asset protection. The Garuds had finally neutralised the intruders.

Jammu Airbase Drone Attack

Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) made a drone attack on IAF’s Jammu airbase on June 27, 2021. There were twin blasts, five minutes apart, at middle of the night, around 1: 35 AM. The first drone-dropped bomb-let damaged one building when it went through the roof. The second exploded on the open tarmac at a little distance from a parked helicopter. There was no damage to any operational asset or loss of life. It was later understood that the target was Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower and parked IAF helicopters. The two IEDs weighed around 5-6 kilograms with RDX as the main explosive charge. The drop was made through stored location coordinates.

The two drones had flown from across the border, which was a mere 14.5 kilometres away and flew back after the IED drop. Drones have continued to be used in Punjab, Rajasthan and J&K sectors for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). They are also used for smuggling drugs and small arms. Most drones are assembled from Chinese origin kits, and thus increase deniability.

Anti-Drone Measures

Kamikaze drones have been extensively used in the Ukraine War, and earlier in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflicts. These have become for sophisticated, accurate and lethal. Security establishments around the world are working on anti-drone measures and systems that include hard and soft-kill. Drones can be neutralised by shooting down using guns, entrapped by firing a net. The drone radio-link can be jammed. Lasers or other forms of directed energy could be used to burn the electronics or blind the sensors. Even the drone warhead could be exploded in the air.   With more drones being flown in a swarm, the complexity of neutralising would increase.

Airfield Security – Lessons from Civil Aviation

Civil aviation went through some major disasters before they woke up to serious airport security. The single deadliest airline catastrophe resulting from the failure of airport security to detect an on-board bomb was Air India Flight 182 “Emperor Kanishka” from Montreal to London in 1985 that crashed over Atlantic killing 329 on-board. Another on-board bomb that slipped through airport security was on Pan Am flight in 1988, which killed 270 people. The September 11, 2001, attacks on the twin World Trade Centre (WTC) towers are the most widely recognized terrorist attacks in recent times involving air travel.

India stepped up its airport security after the 1999 Kandahar hijacking. The central Industrial Security Force (CISF), a paramilitary organisation was given the charge and put under the regulatory frame work of the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (Ministry of Civil Aviation). They created especially trained groups as Airport Security Units.

Approach roads to the airport often pass under the approach path of aircraft taking-off or coming to land. Some of these are not easy to keep under constant surveillance. There is a risk of someone launching an explosive-laden drone into an aircraft as an act of terror. Another problem that some airports face is the proliferation of slums around the boundary walls and in the approach zone.

Airport access has since been tightened. Passenger entry into the terminal is highly regulated. Passengers and baggage are screened using ever improving metal and explosive detector machines. The backscatter X-rays machines are being used to screen carry-on items and checked luggage. Full body scanners are in use to security check human-beings and even animals taking a flight. Security has greatly improved ever since.

Typical Military Airbase Security

Entry into any airbase could be through 2-3 main entry gates which are well manned and have “tyre-killer” spike drive-in barriers. Other than operational and technical personnel, a certain number of other personnel like airfield maintenance and construction contractor labour also pass through these gates to work inside. The entry gates have CCTV cameras. Some airbases have introduced airport like scanners and checking devices for humans and materials.

Most airbases have fairly high concrete boundary walls. There are watch towers along the boundary wall at short intervals. There are outfacing and swivelling search-lights atop watch-towers for surveillance of area immediately outside the airbase. Sometimes, the boundary walls may have drains passing under them, but are secured by iron-rod grills. These need constant vigil and monitoring, lest someone may breach them. Thick forest/vegetation near boundary wall/fence can offer cover to an intruder and hamper security. These are normally kept cleared. The vegetation clearance is also important to get a clear view of the surroundings. Though, doing the same in some airbases in high rainfall region maybe a challenge. Most airbases have night-vision devices with security personnel. Airbases are using drones to monitor and secure the boundary wall and key installations.

Sometimes unauthorised civil structures come adjoining/touching the boundary wall despite clear laws against this. The rule stipulates that no construction can take place 100 metres from the airbase boundary and no structure can come up to 900 metres around the ordnance depots. Many places this has been flouted, and needs to be cleared with the help of district civil administration. Most airbases are secured during peace time by Defence Security Corps (DSC) soldiers manning the periphery wall and the watch-towers. The security of more sensitive operational and technical areas is normally augmented with military personnel. Most airbases around the world also have quick-reaction force made up of commandos, such as the Garuds in IAF, to take-on major real-time threats. IAF’s Garud Commando Force was formed in September 2004 after attempted terror attacks on the two major airbases in J & K. The Garuds are augmented with Quick Reaction Teams (QRT).

The Vital Assets (VA) at an airfield include the runway, ATC building, Base Operations centre, the communication Hub, bulk-petroleum storage, bomb and weapon storage, specialist vehicles, and high-technology laboratories among others. The Air Warriors and their families also have to be kept safe.

In war Territorial Army (TA) units would also support airfield security, however they are unlikely to reach in time for an ‘incident-trigger’ led war. Good local commanders would have to be pro-active and make the best of his assets and environment. Airfield-wise Counter-Terrorism Contingency Plan (CTCP) has to be evolved and rehearsed.  The Base Commander has to personally monitor planning and execution of security plan. Day and night ground based and airborne surveillance devices have to be innovatively used. Drones are a great asset for airbase surveillance. Even locally-based helicopters can be used in case of imminent threat. The IAF did implement actions based on many lessons after Pathankot attack. Installing “smart fences”, electronic surveillance systems, thermal imagers, close circuit television (CCTV) cameras and drones have been implemented. Most airbases display warnings of “Shoot-at-Sight” for intruders.

Airbase Security – Way Forward

India’s internal and external security environment requires high vigil especially at its military bases. The terrorist attacks on Uri Brigade, the Kaluchak military station, Nagrota military station, Sunjuwan Military Station Jammu, Airbase at Awantipura, among many others are reminders of security vulnerabilities and risks. Attack on military stations affects national morale.

Airbases have very high value assets. Today, each aircraft costs nearly $100 million. Security of airbases is thus very important. Newer security equipment, sensors and weapons must be introduced on regular basis. Technology must be used. Space-based and airborne sensors increase coverage area. Access-control must use digital technology.  Senior officers must set example when it comes to security checks.

More heavy-duty equipment is needed to clear foliage in some densely vegetated stations. Even security walls can be scaled, so a surveillance system with IR-based CCTV cameras are required across the wall. Satellite pictures can give clues and indicate possible vulnerable areas. Social media is being used to honey-trap and black-mail unsuspecting youngsters and using them as possible moles. This needs restrictions and monitoring. Local Commanders have to use innovative airbase-specific ways and local civil liaison to strengthen security.

Initial kill ratios are often in favour of the terrorists especially when attacking soft targets of their own choosing. Often that is unfairly used as a success matrix. India, for long had been perceived as a soft state. The surgical strike after Uri and the Balakot airstrike after Pulwama has changed that perception and the terror incidents have reduced. This clarity of response has to continue, and acts as a deterrent.

Defence of India will be guided finally by the National Security Strategy (NSS). So will be Drones, swarms, Manned Unmanned Teaming among many others. It is time that India released its NSS. Pakistan continues to support terror and intrusions into India. The then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had said “We have lost patience now and want action against the terrorists. Those who have harmed India will not be spared and they will be given an apt reply in their own language. Have taken plenty of measures and results will reflect soon.”

Enemy is at our gates. It is time to talk less and act more. It is time to raise special airfield defence units and train them to secure vulnerable installations and maybe gradually replace DSC at airbases. DSC could be used elsewhere. There is a need to revive the four decade old proposal to have Air Force Regiments. There is a need to tailor the entire Armed Forces force structure to address terrorist threats. The martyrs have done us proud. It is time to wake-up India and get your act right.