The Pakistan Air Force Base Minhas was attacked by militants in 2012. (Agence France-Presse)
ISLAMABAD — Media reports that Pakistani Taliban splinter group Ahrarul Hind is planning attacks on Pakistani airbases in retaliation for punishing airstrikes carried out in February have raised questions about the adequacy of security at Air Force facilities.
There has not been a discernible reaction from the Ahrarul Hind thus far, and analysts say the ferocity of the airstrikes that killed a number of important members has left it somewhat stunned. Commentators and public opinion had demanded action against terrorists for some time, however, and the military, long the focus of terrorist attacks, has been itching to deliver it.
But the threat of attacks on Air Force facilities is real.
There have been a number of devastating attacks on airbases in recent years; one the highest profile attacks was on PNS Mehran in Karachi in 2011, resulting in a number of deaths and the loss of two P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. A 2012 attack on PAF Base Minhas at Kamra destroyed one Erieye airborne early warning and control aircraft and damaged another.
Civil and military-related infrastructure continues to remain a target. A weekend attack by terrorists on the civil Pasni radar post in Balochistan left one dead and equipment damaged. The attackers escaped.
However, since the last major attack in 2012, perimeter security has been tightened at military airbases. Commercial satellite imagery has shown other improvements inside the bases, and an undetermined (though probably small, according to analysts) number of Eland 60 armored cars have been procured from South Africa for airfield defense.
The service is prepared to defend its assets, said Air Force spokesman Air Commodore Tariq Mahmood.
“All security measures at our installations, our airbases and other facilities are in place, and it’s a layered defense. We are guarding them according to our [standard operating procedures]. The threat is always there, we can’t be oblivious to the situation in the country, but we’re protecting our installations and taking all measures,” he said.
Mahmood was not able to comment on the purchase of Eland 60s, however.
Analysts are also reasonably confident the Air Force’s security should be able to handle any threat.
“Current security is good,” said Brian Cloughley, former Australian defense attache to Islamabad. “All that is needed is coordination and no relaxation of present measures.”
Protection is difficult at some airbases because many have been surrounded by urban sprawl, but Cloughley said the most obvious solution, relocation, is probably out of the question.
There is, however, still room for improvement in airbase security.
Analyst and former Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail says the Air Force could learn from examples of civil airbase security.
“A short answer is to defend them the way [the Airport Security Force] has done,” he said.
“None of the 20-odd [Civil Aviation Authority] airports have been intruded in for the last three decades. The ASF and CAA have quite simply treated perimeter security with the utmost importance, and the PAF could learn a thing or two from them,” he added.
Additional equipment is needed, Tufail says, and there is a long list of items to be improved or acquired to bring security at Air Force airbases up to the level of the civil airports.
“Armored cars for patrols, manned watch towers, motion sensors, spotlights, fencing topped with razor wire, and of course, trained guards — these are some of the essential measures that ought to be in place at PAF bases,” he said.
“The civil airports have had these measures in place for decades. Unfortunately, these were lacking at PAF bases in the past, and have been implemented only recently. It was simply a case of oversight of a very important issue, and a heavy price was paid for the neglect,” he added.
Cloughley highlights a more military-specific issue.
“They could ask for surveillance balloons,” he said. There are “plenty of them left over by US and British forces in Afghanistan. But I imagine they’re too high-tech to be given to Pakistan. They are undoubtedly the best means of detecting approaches by enemy.”
However, such systems are complicated.
“Balloons are not a total solution, of course. They work in conjunction with ground radars and other electronic detection devices, and, of course, physical patrolling. It can be done most effectively, given good organization, but there’s a great deal of expense in hardware and manpower,” he said. ■