By Commodore R. S. Vasan
Way back in 2005 South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG) carried my analysis on the possible impact of induction of the P-3C Orion in our neighbourhood vide SAAG paper http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers13/paper1235.html. An effort was made, in that paper, to bring out both the strategic dimensions and the tactical advantages that would be conferred on the Pakistan Navy by inducting an excellent platform with advanced anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities.
Pakistan Navy to a large extent had the options now to neutralize the threat from the Indian aircraft carrier and submarines in its waters. The terrorist attack on 22nd May has dented the ISR ability of the Pakistan Navy. While it is being made out that they were targeting the P3C, it may or may not be the case. It is just that they were big targets acquired from US and easy to hit compared to smaller targets. In case these were indeed specific targets, it would be with the full knowledge that these large aircraft carried a lot of fuel which would explode with devastating effect to cause collateral damage. Also the inside information that there were eleven foreign nationals at the location including US and Chinese nationals could also be one of the factors for this act. As reported in some sections of the Pakistani press, there have been some doubting Thomases in Pakistan who think that India had a hand in it since the surveillance aircraft challenged the ability of the Indian Navy to establish sea control in the areas of interest in the Arabian Sea. It is highly doubtful if India does have the political will even if it has the capability to carry out such acts across the borders.
Coming back to the terrorist attack; the fact that that the terrorists gained access to a high security area, first neutralized the fire fighting facility and proceeded to use RPGs,explosives and other fire arms against chosen targets indicates that a lot of planning had gone into the attack to ensure its success. Some sections of the Pak press have been extremely critical of the ability of its armed forces to protect vital assets and infrastructure. And as usual, the question of the safety and security of the nuclear installations have surfaced yet again with greater intensity than ever before. It has been reported that a helicopter, another aircraft and ground facilities were also destroyed in the attack.
It is only in June last year that the P3-C Orion was inducted with lot of fanfare and pride. The Pak Chief had gone to the extent of calling the aircraft a flying destroyer that would add punch to the capabilities of PN.
While there are many questions about the reasons for this attack, it is clear that the joining hands with the USA and the increased level of collaboration of the Pak Navy with the western forces in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) initiatives in the region angered not just the Talliban forces but many other fundamentalists within the forces. The modus operandi of the terrorists to gain access to the facility with relative ease raises many questions about the nature of inside help from the establishment and the details of location of vital targets provided enabling a successful attack. Such an attack would not have been possible without detailed planning, sustained surveillance, may be even some dry runs with inside help. In any case, this is not the first attack on the navy in recent years.
There have been attacks in the past on the Naval War College on 04 March 2008 and also on two buses carrying naval personnel in April 2011. This deadly attack on the naval air base was conducted within weeks of the killing of Osama by the US naval SEALs. The Pak Talliban (TET) has owned up responsibility and has indicated that this was in revenge for the killing of Osama and more attacks are planned.
PNS Mehran was located alongside both Army and Air Force facilities in a common Air Station and was predominantly used for mounting surveillance missions in areas of interest in the Arabian Sea. Many sorties are flown to complement the effort of the combined task force 151(CTF-151). The excellent systems on the upgraded Orion provided many options for surface and sub surface surveillance. In addition to the P3 C Orion, the Pak Navy also uses the older French Atlantiques, ( one was shot down by the Indian Air Force for violating our air space in August 1999),Fokker’s, and other air assets for building a comprehensive tactical picture that helps achieve total Maritime Domain Awareness(MDA). It has been indicated that a total of five have been delivered out of seven total Orions. The situation is akin to the one faced by the Indian Navy which lost two of its front line IL38 long range aircraft in an air accident in 2002. The Indian Navy was hard-pressed to get replacements for the lost aircraft and did get two updated version of the ILs many years later with better equipment. It is also not out of place to mention that eight P8i Poseidon aircraft have been contracted by the Indian Navy for long range surveillance and they are likely to be inducted by 2014.
Having operated as part of the coalition forces, and having commanded multi lateral maritime forces in rotation, Pakistan Navy has graduated in its ability to use high technology assets to optimize its ISR ability. Till getting the replacement for the lost aircraft, the PN would now be forced to use the older Atlantique aircraft and also other maritime air assets for providing the required surveillance in the sensitive areas along its coast and in the Arabian sea which is increasingly prone to pirate and asymmetric attacks. Thus there would be a degradation of its capability in the interim period. It would not seriously affect the ability of PN to continue to provide surveillance inputs to both the CTF 150 and its own War rooms by utilizing other air assets including from the air force.
Coincidentally, the Naval Commander’s conference which started on 24th May at New Delhi would examine possibilities of similar daring attack on vital strategic assets and discuss implementable preventive measures. The Commanders on their return would have their hands full in reviewing the existing mechanisms and plugging loopholes by testing out the security response architecture by conducting Red on Blue exercises in real time. It is obvious that such measures would include testing the multi layered security measures that would blend both technology and procedures. The following are some of the measures/suggestions that the security agencies would need to seriously consider for implementation:-
Command and Control Centers in each air base or an installation would need to be augmented with continuous availability of different echelons of command to intervene depending on the nature of contingency both in peace and during a crisis period.
In conclusion, the attack on PNS Mehran and tactical assets has brought out that terrorist will continue to succeed by capitalizing on the weaknesses in the security architecture. The suicide attacks by nature complicate the matters for security agencies to deal with terrorists who in any case have come prepared to die by inflicting maximum damage. It can be safely assumed that both countries would now need to brace themselves for increased threat of attacks by terrorists who have their own agenda.
People charged with security are required to critically review all the existing mechanisms to revalidate their strength and to identify weak links. A good mix of technology, training, well rehearsed procedures and robust physical security should make it extremely difficult if not impossible for even a determined attack to be thwarted in the early stages of formation.
(The author is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and can be contacted at [email protected])