By Vice-Admiral Suresh Bangara (retired)
Observe the faces and body language of security personnel engaged in the action to eliminate the terrorists holed up inside the Pathankot Air Force Station as depicted in print and electronic media. It is surreal. Because what you see is perhaps the tertiary line of security; not even the secondary. Why, because we learnt a bitter lesson during the Mumbai attack – that half-baked, little informed and self appointed expert anchors and live commentators were driven by the desire to be closest and fastest to report.
TRP was more important than eliminating the terrorists. Our own administrators and security establishment had to contend with multiple challenges of inadequate manpower, infrastructure, out dated protection gear and sensors and weapons. Yet the greatest challenge was to stop the media from being judgemental and alarmist on every move of those tasked to neutralise the terrorists. The first role of the media is neither to spread fear and concoct doomsday scenarios nor to speculate on conspiracy theories during hostile action. Safety considerations also dictate that the cameras are well away from the scene of action.
This is not unique to India and the South Asian region but to most democracies that are yet to stabilise their respective economies and hence are compelled to fight with what they have due to budgetary constraints. It will be some years before India can claim to have well equipped security personnel with the requisite gear, ordnance and training. Hence constantly comparing our reactions to those from USA or UK or Israel would lead to erroneous conclusions and hypothetical discussions. Let us view the current action in Pathankot from this prism or perspective.
First, Commandos and the National Security Guard commandos are forces in limited numbers who are meant not to protect but to eliminate the threat once identified. Training and equipping these forces is an expensive proposition which limits their use to specific missions. We need to look at the security forces that are tasked to defend important installations. In the case of defence establishments the DSC is charged with security of access points and the periphery. It is common knowledge that they are limited by age, mobility and equipment. They were adequate to meet the old threat perceptions of occasional ingress of lightly armed anti-social elements or at best insurgents.
Why can't the forces themselves undertake this task? The navy and the air force train their personnel to man ships and squadrons which carry complex war fighting machines. Sentry duties per se would add to the poor utilisation of highly trained manpower. However, during heightened tension, the available resources are supplemented and augmented as required. This cannot be round-the-clock or round-the-year. Terrorist threats are unexpected and they do not appear like a traditional enemy, as they emerge from within. Hence each unit maintains a Quick Reaction Team to augment those employed as sentries.
Very rarely do authorities vested with the responsibility to raise levels of readiness such as red alert, also lower the readiness level after the threat ceases to exist. In practise it is possible that units on paper continue to remain at high alert without physically and mentally being all there. Other than the military which has well defined procedures to raise and lower state of readiness other central agencies often suffer from this lacuna.
In the case other important installations such as airports, harbours and industrial complexes, Central Police forces like the Central Industrial Security Force are used to defend them. Their training is often limited to suit the assigned role.
The police forces are perhaps the worst prepared and yet may well be the first point of contact during a terrorist strike. Pot bellied, obese and poorly turned out cops with World War-discarded .303 rifles or worse with just batons or sticks are the typical cops that one encounters. States exposed to insurgency, Naxalism and terrorism are far better equipped and ready to meet emerging threats. Jammu and Kashmir has the ethos and culture of operating under a unified command and disseminating both intelligence and information expeditiously. Real time communication is mandatory to meet emergency situations.
In terms of our neighbours, military governments have done their bit to modernise the gear and weapons of police forces. Our borders are porous from land and the sea. Our threats emanate from these penetrable borders where none can guarantee total success to prevent infiltration. Smuggling is a well established profession with deep connections with political and business interests.
With the above ground realities, what can be done at the strategic, operational and tactical levels to raise our preparedness to combat terrorism?
At the strategic level, the prime minister has ensured that major players in global affairs and our South Asian neighbours in particular are sensitised to terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan. Terrorism has, hence, taken centre stage in discussions and articulation/joint statements. Isolating non state actors and their supporters is an important first step. Asserting the need to galvanise support at the United Nations for an acceptable definition for terrorism and subsequent actions to cut off material and financial support to terrorist organisations has been well articulated by India.
At the operational level, creating and nurturing a strong central organisation which was initiated by the previous government after the Mumbai attack needs to be accorded the highest priority. A round-the-clock operations room to expeditiously share and disseminate information and intelligence on real time basis is an inevitable necessity for every state in India irrespective of its location.
Finally at the tactical level, states have to modernise and reform their police forces to include the need to effectively react to a terrorist threat before special forces arrive on the scene. Recent reports suggest that every traffic policeman in Delhi would be armed to meet emerging threats. This is a good beginning. Communications, mobility and fire power are essential elements. Unity of command for operations would need to be made mandatory, so also single point briefings for the media.
No special committees or studies are needed to implement these suggestions. Only the will to fight terrorism is required to execute them. When the best things are not possible, the best can be made of those that are.
The author is a former flag officer commanding-in-chief of the Southern Naval Command.