Having landed there hours before the terrorists struck and stayed after they were neutralised, Air Marshal Deo had a view of the counter-attack which few did. After hanging up his boots as the Vice Chief of the Indian Air Force last year, the distinguished air warrior who is also a FCL (Fighter Combat Leader) and a “Cat A” Qualified Flying Instructor with over 3800 hours opened up on his experience to BBC’s Jugal Purohit.
The interview was conducted at Nagpur.
Q: The third anniversary of Pathankot attack is upon us. If you can tell us something about your role, your memories of what you saw.
A: By attacking an airfield, you are talking it to an entirely different level. Pathankot is situated in Punjab, not in J&K, not in any kind of disputed territory and airfields were never meant to be protected the way you are protecting your borders because airfields are in our territory and we are protecting the airfields only against aerial threat. So from that angle, it is a soft target and to this day I keep wondering why was the government on the defensive on Pathankot attack. It was a job well done.
Q: What in the government’s response made you feel that they were on the defensive?
A: I really don’t know. There was a very concerted media campaign that pulled out things that were thirty years old, people getting at GARUDs (IAF special forces) saying GARUDs are bad, GARUDs are this and that. For God’s sake you ask the army about Garuds! They’ve won one Ashok Chakra, (many) Kirti Chakras, Shaurya Chakras and…the government really didn’t have to be on the defensive. Let’s talk about Lt Col Niranjan (NSG officer who was killed by an IED on a dead terrorist’s body), the kind of press he got, its treason man! I can’t imagine and the rumours that he was taking a selfie! The GARUDs were hurt very badly. They came to me and said look at the kind of stories that are being leaked.
Q: It would have helped the morale had the govt not been that defensive?
A: Yes, it would have. Definitely. Government to my mind did not have to be on the defensive. Pathankot was a well handled operation. An airfield is a target rich environment. In an airfield there is so much to be attacked, there is fuel, aircraft and we managed to protect all that.
Q: Did you have a discussion with the govt over them being defensive and the impact it had on the men?
A: I did discuss, there were occasions. But the GARUDs proved themselves in Kashmir. It left me with little to say actually.
Q: How do you want people to remember Pathankot?
A: It was a job well done. Lessons have been learnt and I hope for Pakistan’s sake that something similar won’t happen again. Because if it does then Pakistan will have to pay a far heavier price than it did during the surgical strikes.
Two lessons that we learnt from Pathankot – one is a technical lesson which we always knew but something like Pathankot had to happen perhaps. That lesson is that 5.56 mm ammunition calibre of guns is of no use in such situations. Terrorists coming here are like rabid dogs, having pumped themselves with steroids and injections, they have lost fear and don’t expect to be looked after and want to keep pressing the trigger. We need ammunition that can kill, not merely injure.
Second concerns the perimeter security of bases. You will say three years have gone and what has happened but making a system like the Integrated Perimeter Security System (IPSS) foolproof and thereafter ensuring you follow all norms of procurement, it takes a while. And this is the first system that we are trying. So while I agree that it has taken longer than it should but still it is on track. So once such a system comes in and it is deployed at bases then you are far more certain that there will be no intrusions.
Q: NIA says terrorists were left undetected near the Military Engineering Services (MES) sheds where there were dilapidated sheds, some vehicles…
A: Let me tell you what their plan was. Their plan was to get out from there (MES sheds). Get to the vehicle yard, pick up a vehicle and drive inside. And once you have a vehicle with you and that was what we were worried about, that when you are inside a vehicle you can quickly move from place to place. They could have created havoc inside. So it was very important to isolate them and also to ensure that they were not in the technical area (where aircraft and vital assets are stored). We didn’t know where they were. So the first thing we did with the help of the army was to sanitise the technical area. That helped us a great deal. Once we were sure that they were not in the technical area we kept the airfield open, the NSG could fly in. Thereafter the army which has a lot of experience, withdrew for the night. They said they didn’t know where the threat could be. Even they could’ve been under threat. In fact the NSG wanted to split their resources and they had a discussion with us and decided to stay at the airfield only.
Q: If their plan was to take a vehicle and go around, the terrorists had one full day (they entered on January 1 and were detected on January 2 as per the NIA). What kept them from doing what they wanted to?
A: The time to attack is always the wee hours of the morning. So they have come all the way and they reached us by 4am and by then the base is sort of awake thus making it not the right time to attack. The right time is an hour or two earlier. And they need to rest so that they could prepare for a fight. So tactically, what they were doing was correct by waiting for the right time.
Q: So the terrorists waiting and planning in a way helped the IAF buy time too.
A: Absolutely yes. We had a C130 aircraft airborne. I had the UAVs flying. Our communication worked well. We were getting a live display of whatever the UAV was seeing sitting in our control room. So that helped us.
First information of a possible terrorist attack came to me at 3 ‘o’ clock in the afternoon as the C-in-C (Commander in Chief, Western Air Command) and I got this from the chief of air staff (CAS) who was speaking to the NSA (National Security Advisor) and at that time we had the intelligence to show that yes, the airfield could be one of the targets. In fact when I reached there, there was still some of vacillation among authorities there whether it is a law and order issue or actually a terrorist issue till the time I clarified that if somebody cries wolf ten times then ten times you need to stand up – that is one lesson we have learnt.
Well I was there to take stock of the situation since it had come from the highest of quarters and I had to satisfy myself and I would have gone back the next day if there was nothing but its just that when I was there the shooting started. So once the shooting starts then I can’t go back. It looks very bad and and honestly for me it was a very exciting experience. I had a first look at how our young people fight and that was the most heartening thing.
Q: If you had issued instructions for the base to prepare assuming the terrorists had already sneaked in then why were the DSC men unarmed?
A: I agree with you. They should have been with weapons. They should not have come out in the open. If they just been under lock down. There would have been fewer casualties. It would have helped had they gone into a lockdown properly.
Q: How do you explain an operation where we don’t know how many terrorists there were?
A: Things are always very uncertain.
Q: How many terrorists were there in reality? If there were four then they were killed on Jan 2 and if there were six, which the NIA investigation does not there were, then we kept on the operation on for long.
A: NIA knows best, I really don’t know. Only a scientific inquiry can establish.
Q: We were told firing happened. Forces retaliated.
A: We did feel then that there was somebody inside but then strange things happen when you are under fire.
Q: Do you feel that perhaps there were some terrorists who may have escaped
A: No possibility of that. I don’t think so.
Q: When the Pakistani investigators were allowed inside Pathankot, was the air force consulted?
A: We were consulted. We made sure we broke the wall. They didn’t get to see anything else that they couldn’t have using Google.
Q: How do you see the impact of the Rafale on IAF and armed forces going forward?
A: Yes. Pace of acquisition will become slower. Defence preparedness will be compromised and we will also end up paying more for the delay that occurs.
Q: Far from bringing out cleaner process, you feel the impact of this controversy will be negative.
A: Yes. I can’t fault the procedures. They are sometimes far too pedantic. We should encourage people to take clean decisions.
REPORTER’S TAKE: WHY PATHANKOT STILL HAUNTS INDIA?
Air Marshal SB Deo’s words provide a much needed understanding of what unfolded behind the high walls of the air force station at Pathankot in those critical hours.
Arguably the operation was a tactical success.
However it came at a steep price.
Three years later, the shadow of Pathankot continues to haunt the policy makers.
- Barely five months before Pathankot was breached, a high-profile terrorist attack was carried out in Dina Nagar in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district. This attack, at a driving distance of less than 30km from Pathankot, should’ve been enough to put the counter-terrorist mechanism into action.
- The National Investigation Agency (NIA) in its charge sheet mentions that ‘four heavily armed terrorists infiltrated into Indian territory on 30.12.2015 from Pakistan, after illegally crossing the Indo-Pak border through the forest near the Simbal Border Outpost of the Border Security Force’. That they could not be confronted till 0235hours of January 2, 2016 raises questions about India’s preparedness. The NIA suggests that the terrorists after infiltrating the airbase post 4am on January 1 rested, made multiple calls to their relatives and handlers and could hide undetected for nearly 24 hours. Astonishing!
- Another question concerns the number of terrorists who actually targetted Pathankot. If you ask the NIA, the number is four. The then defence minister, Mr Manohar Parrikar after touring the base following the attack had said, ‘NIA will confirm the presence of six terrorists’. Three years after, Air Marshal SB Deo remained unsure. Did some of the terrorists who attacked Pathankot managed to flee? Or was there an incorrect estimation made about the number of terrorists?
- While describing the two terrorists who he claimed were the last to be eliminated, Mr Parrikar said they were armed not with AK-47 rifles but with pistols and grenades.
- A parliamentary panel had hinted at Indian narco-syndicate facilitating the terrorists’ entry and journey into Pathankot. That was an issue left unaddressed.
- While terrorists are supposed to not follow a pattern and throw up surprises, surprisingly, after Pathankot, many military bases in India have been attacked – Nagrota, Sunjuwan and Uri among others. What does this show?
- Similarly the sequence of events at the airbase remains muddled. While all stake holders agree that the air force’s Garud commandos were the first to engage the terrorists, the then Defence Minister Mr Parrikar inside Parliament had said thereafter the NSG took the fight. However, the General Officer Commanding Army’s Western Command Lieutenant General KJ Singh under whose purview the Pathankot region fell said it was the Army and not the NSG that took on terrorists!
- Pakistan which initially had shown support in investigating the case at its end, sent its Joint Investigation Team to India between March 27 – April 1, 2016. While the NIA claims it was provided with all elements including a visit to the air base, reciprocal cooperation has remained a non-starter.
- India’s allegations against Pakistan whether it concerns terrorism or drug trade emanating from the latter into the former are not new. Yet, about 12km of the total 558km-long international border that the state of Punjab shares with Pakistan has been left unaddressed. Being riverine territory, erecting fences may not be possible but technological solutions have to be found.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was approached for its comment but chose not to respond.