Pathankot: Why IAF Officers Are Shying Away From Court of Inquiry

The Ministry is questioning the IAF’s ‘disturbing silence’ and ‘total disinterest’ in ordering a Court of Inquiry.

6 min read
Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval watching a presentation on counter-terrorist and combing operation at Pathankot Airbase. (File Photo: PTI)

Soon after entering the Pathankot airbase around 10 pm on 1 January, National Security Guard (NSG) commandos conveyed to Indian Air Force (IAF) officers that they would launch a counter-terrorist operation only after the terrorists, who entered the high-security complex, opened fire on them.

Speaking to The Quint, Ministry of Defence (MoD) sources are now questioning the IAF’s “disturbing silence” and “total disinterest” in ordering a Court of Inquiry (CoI), especially when several shortcomings on its command and control were recorded by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The NIA is probing the Pathankot airbase attack presently.

The sources said that although around 11,000 rounds of ammunition were fired by the IAF’s Garud commandos once the terrorists were spotted and engaged, the Defence Ministry has, curiously, chosen not to order the mandatory CoI. The CoI, among other things, reveal several acts of omission or commission on the part of senior officers, especially Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (Western Command), Air Marshal Shirish Deo.

The NIA’s post-attack investigation suggests that the terrorists cut the fencing and scaled the wall at the airbase.&nbsp;(Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)
The NIA’s post-attack investigation suggests that the terrorists cut the fencing and scaled the wall at the airbase. (Photo: The Quint)

Lack of Coordination

While the airbase commander, Air Commodore JS Dhamoon was removed along with the administration in-charge and the garrison engineer, a little over a month after the attack on the airbase, Air Marshal Deo remains unscathed. Besides, neither the IAF top brass, nor the MoD has “shown any urgency” in ordering a CoI. In fact, MoD sources said, following a meeting headed by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, the army and the IAF chiefs made little effort to coordinate action to rid the base of the four terrorists.

The lack of coordination forced Doval to take charge of the situation. In fact, the lack of coordination in Delhi was reflected at the airbase. Four companies of the NSG landed in Pathankot around 10 pm on 1 January. Three companies reached the army cantonment just outside Pathankot town, while one stayed back.

Drone Cameras Located Terrorists

Once the brigadier at the cantonment briefed the NSG contingents, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) were deployed by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) around 2.30 am on 2 January. Once the UAVs picked up images of the terrorists who had positioned themselves amidst quantities of debris and other material, piled up near the residential/domestic area within the airbase, the Garud commandos moved in and surrounded the place within a radius of 280 metres.

The NSG commandos were instructed to box-in and go for the kill, but their commanding officer put his foot down, saying that they would not attack before the terrorists fired. The army commandos hadn’t entered the airbase at the time.


IAF’s Shortcomings

  • No coordination at the headquarters or between IAF and the army on site, signifying there was no control or command system in place.
  • Between 1 and 2 January, IAF had no idea where four terrorists had positioned themselves inside the Pathankot airbase.
  • A Garud force of 30, led by Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (Western Command), Air Marshal Shirish Deo could not locate the terrorists, nearly 24 hours before UAV imagery tracked them.
  • Air Marshal Deo instructed NSG Lt Col Niranjan Kumar to pull out a GPS device from a terrorist’s pocket, without following basic drill. Lt Col Kumar died in the blast.
  • Deo ordered NSG commandos to set the airmen’s residential building on fire, even when no terrorist had taken shelter there.

IAF’s Indecisiveness

It is useful to return to the night of 31 December to get a sense of the IAF’s indecisiveness, and collapse of the command and control structures that contributed largely to the delaying of anti-terrorist operations. A new year’s party was on at the airbase that night.

Slightly after 3 am on 1 January – it is now almost certain that four terrorists entered the airbase by cutting through the perimeter fencing – the Pathankot Superintendent of Police informed his superiors that armed terrorists had entered the airbase and that the saboteurs had in their possession mobile phones of the then Gurdaspur SP Salwinder Singh and his jeweller friend Rajesh Sharma.

NTRO Intercepted Terrorist’s Call

Around 12 noon on 1 January, the NTRO was able to intercept a call from a terrorist, telling his handlers in Pakistan that they had successfully entered the airbase but “jahaan aapne nishana lagaya tha, hum udhar se nahin, doosre side se aaye hain (we did not enter from the side you had marked out, but from another side).” Recordings of the intercepted call suggest that the terrorists were not keen on taking action immediately after entering the airbase as they were tired.

The NIA’s post-attack investigation suggests that the terrorists cut the fencing and scaled the wall at a spot where one of the high-beam lights was turned in a different direction. MoD sources claim that the light was turned away toward a firing range because practice shooting takes place in the night. Besides AK-47 rifles fitted with rocket launchers, the four terrorists carried 24 grenades each and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Delayed Alert

It took four hours before the airbase was on total alert, even though the entire staff was in the midst of a bada khana. The Defence Services Corps (DSC) men and the Garud commandos were issued guns and the entire technical area and “blastpen” (where aircrafts are kept) were secured.

It was only around 5.30 pm on 1 January that Air Marshall Deo landed with 30 Garud commandos before making attempts to find out – unsuccessfully – where the terrorists were holed up. MoD sources said post-attack investigation and reconstruction of events indicated that the terrorists, after entering the airbase, hid in the residential/domestic areas.

Garud Commandos Opened Fire

Operations began in earnest in the early hours of 2 January. When the Garud commandos opened fire, the terrorists ran towards the transport section and burned two vehicles before taking shelter at the DSO mess. When someone turned on the light and stood watching from a window, he was shot by the terrorists. A subedar major and two cooks making purees were also shot. However, one DSC guard caught a terrorist and turned him around and shot him. But he was gunned down by the other three terrorists.

A security personnel guards near the Pathankot Air Force base. (Photo: PTI)
A security personnel guards near the Pathankot Air Force base. (Photo: PTI)

Seeking Possession of GPS

It was at this point that the NSG and army commandos began shooting. When the gun battle ended the next morning (3 January), the bodies of four terrorists were found. Air Marshall Deo insisted that he wanted possession of the GPS gadget that one of the terrorists used. He instructed the NSG to extricate the GPS device.

Grenades exploded when NSG Lieutenant Colonel Niranjan Kumar, without following basic drill, tried to pick the GPS equipment from a terrorist’s pocket. The standard operating procedure demands that a rope be tied to the ankles of slain terrorists and dragging the body some distance to ensure there are no booby traps.

Two Elusive Terrorists

Once the operation was thought to have ended, the NSG suspected the presence of two more terrorists holed up in the isolated airmen’s residential quarters. A grenade was hurled but it did not explode. The NSG commandos then set the building on fire after pouring diesel all over. MoD sources said that Air Marshal Deo issued the order to set the building on fire.

When the dust settled over the Pathankot airbase terror strike, Air Marshal B Suresh, Western Command Senior Air Staff Officer and second in command to Air Marshal Deo, sought a full inquiry but senior officers at Air Headquarters were not keen to order a CoI. This has prompted senior MoD officials to wonder whether Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha himself is under pressure from other quarters of the government not to rake up the issue of a CoI.

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