Defending Defence Installations at Border Areas Need of the Hour

Should defence installations be revamped keeping in mind security post Pathankot attack, asks Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

4 min read
A soldier is seen during a search operation in a forest area outside  the Pathankot air force base. (Photo: AP)

The attack on the Pathankot air base in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab, barely 30 kms from the Pakistan border, has raised crucial issues about the security of vital defence installations in the border areas and the government’s ability to protect them. 

Although the defence authorities have claimed that the attackers – dressed in Army fatigues like the men who had carried out an attack on a police station in Gurdaspur in July last year – were prevented from entering the air base and were confined to the langer area outside it by alert security personnel, who had anticipated an attack, the fact remains that these terrorists remained at large for nearly a day-and-a-half despite the agencies claiming that the phone calls to their handlers were being tracked.

Delay in Tracing Calls

It has now been learnt that the attackers used the phone of SP Salwinder Singh, whose vehicle they hijacked, to make calls to their handlers across the border. They had also used the phone to arrange for a taxi. Yet, while the calls were traced, the security agencies were not able to pin point the location of the attackers and neutralise them.

The combing operation carried out by the security agencies between the air base and Chakki river where the militants were supposed to be holed up, also did not yield any result. As a consequence, nearly 36 hours after hijacking Singh’s car from the Jammu-Pathankot national highway, the militants managed to reach the air base. Surprisingly, the officer and his associates were let off by the militants.

Although National Security Guard commandoes and SWAT teams had been dispatched to protect the air base, the attackers still managed to inflict casualties on the security personnel.

Smoke rises from the air force base in Pathankot, where operations continued late into the night on Sunday. (Photo: AP)
Smoke rises from the air force base in Pathankot, where operations continued late into the night on Sunday. (Photo: AP)

Some Pertinent Questions

  • Pathankot attack highlights need to assess security arrangements at all vital defence installations, especially at border areas.
  • Despite having foolproof security apparatus in place, cantonments are in dire need of an infrastructure revamp.
  • A 2015 Defence Ministry report missed out on reassessing the threat perception despite acknowledging the expanding footprint of extremists in India.

Security of Defence Installations in Border Areas

Security experts believe there is an urgent need to assess the security arrangements at all the vital installations, especially at the border areas. Though most of the cantonments have a security apparatus in place, it remains loose due to either too much movement of civilians and other personnel, or due to poor infrastructure.

A case in point is the Army Cantonment in Amritsar. Located just about 30 km from the Wagah border, the cantonment security remains a cause of concern. A visit to the place last year had revealed how one of the office blocks with glass panes has been constructed in direct sight of the main gate. So even if there were to be an attack at the gate here, the chances of bullets flying and hitting this block remains really high.

While only a protective wall was required to be constructed near the gate, to block the view of the office block from the Grand Truck Road, that was not done. Worse, such oversights abound across the defence installations in border areas. Lessons can be learnt by treating the border areas as conflict zones and putting in place a multi-layer security system, comprising zig-zag tyre-barricades, line-of-sight blockers, high walls and beams.

Policemen check a car near the Rashtrapati Bhavan as part of enhanced security measures following the attack. (Photo: AP)
Policemen check a car near the Rashtrapati Bhavan as part of enhanced security measures following the attack. (Photo: AP)

Defence Ministry Report

That not much thought has been paid to the specific security requirements of each defence installation is also evident from the fact that although the Defence Ministry had in its report last year made specific mention of how “the expanding footprints of extremist and terrorist organisations in Pakistan and their linkages with terrorist activities in J&K and rest of India poses a major security challenge to India,” it had not spelt out any steps to safeguard the defence apparatus with this aspect in mind.

The report had noted that “the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy has deep roots in Pakistani military establishment. Ceasefire violations and infiltration from across the border also continues. …Pakistan has continued with its policy of selective approach to tackling terrorist groups operating from its territory and areas under its control which do not serve the interests of regional peace and security.”

This said, it is time for a complete reassessment of the threat perception and steps should be taken to minimise human and asset loss in the event of an attack.

(The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist)

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