DUBAI: In a rare glimpse into Pakistan's attempt to counter domestic terrorism from the air, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had flown more than 5,500 strike sorties over the country's troubled FATA region since May 2008. Chief of PAF described some of the lessons learned at the Air Chiefs Conference in Dubai, Aviation International Times reported.
The need for good airborne reconnaissance was paramount, said Air Chief Marshall Rao Qamar Suleiman. When the Pakistan Army launched large-scale operations in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in August 2008, the PAF had to rely on Google Earth imagery when planning for air support missions, AIT report said.
However, by the time that the Army was ready to move against insurgents in the Swat Valley in May 2009, the PAF had acquired Goodrich DB-110 electro-optical reconnaissance pods for its F-16 fighters, together with the same company's ground station for imagery exploitation. Intelligence analysts could now identify terrorist training camps, ammunition dumps and command and control facilities. Some of these targets were well camouflaged, and protected by bunkers, Air Chief Marshall Suleiman noted.
Two days before the ground offensive was launched, the PAF launched a series of interdiction missions, and followed that up with close air support throughout the six-month campaign. From the imagery collected by the PAF, the Army was also able to identify suitable landing zones for airdrops of commandos.
In these mountainous regions, airpower was best delivered from medium altitude by fast jets, PAF Chief was quoted as saying by the AIT. When the Army turned its attention to South Waziristan in October 2009, the PAF conducted a seven-day campaign in advance. By now, the service had added FLIR Systems Star Safire III EO/IR sensor ball to one of its C-130 transports. Army staff on board the C-130 was able to track the movement of terrorists at night, and radio manoeuvring instructions to soldiers on the ground.
PAF has completely overhauled its tactics and techniques to conduct of irregular warfare, ACM Suleiman said. All of the squadrons were put through a training program over a four-month period. Laser-guided bombs have been used in 80 per cent of PAF strikes, the PAF chief revealed. Avoiding collateral damage was a primary concern, he explained, "specially since we were engaging targets within our own country. We engage isolated structures only, away from populated areas."
More than 10,600 bombs have been dropped, and 4,600 targets destroyed (A ratio of 1::2), he said. PAF has flown more than 500 F-16 sorties with the DB-110 pod, and 650 with the Star Safire EO/IR sensor on the C-130.
ACM Suleiman said that "we've broken the back of militants in FATA." He said offensive military engagement could only accomplish "10 to 15 per cent" of the task of pacifying tribal areas. The rest must be done by dialogue, winning hearts and minds through economic development of these very poor regions, he said.
In his presentation, PAF Chief did not mention Selex Galileo Falco UAV. However, Pakistan was first customer for reconnaissance drone, which carries Anglo-Italian company's own electro-optical/ infrared sensor ball. Suleiman told AIN there had been problems with UAV's data link, caused partly by terrain masking. "Then we put in a relay station, and started flying it higher, so now we are using it more."
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