On the night of August 15, militants pounded the heart of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base Minhas situated at Kamra — the place where the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), a leading aviation and defence production centre of Pakistan is located.
It was a well-planned attack that was precisely executed and skilfully targeted. Unlike most of the earlier attacks on Pakistani forces, the targets were not soldiers. The terrorists adopted the same mission profile that they used in the attack on PNS Mehran on May 22, 2011. They were aided by modern equipment like night vision goggles for better situational awareness at night. This time, terrorists took advantage of strategic surprise by attacking on the 27th of Ramazan; the Arabs did the same with Israelis in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The Kamra attack raises two major questions: why the Minhas Air Force Base? And why attack air surveillance systems only?
Minhas is one of the most important airbases of the PAF. The major part of its geographic location is shared by the PAC, which comprises four factories: the aircraft manufacturing factory, avionics production factory, Mirage repair factory and aircraft rebuild factory. These factories build, repair and overhaul major weapons systems of the PAF.
Minhas is home to two operational fighter squadrons, a search and rescue squadron and an air-surveillance squadron comprising the Saab-2000 Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AEW&C). Various villages are situated on the outskirts of the base. The main road of the PAC, on which all four factories are located, was open to the public until the suicide attack in 2007. These reasons made Minhas a prized target.
Just like the P-3 Orions of Pak Navy that were destroyed at Mehran, the Saab-2000 AEW&C aircraft are very expensive air-surveillance systems. They provide battlefield pictures, information about land, air or sea enemy targets and enhance situation awareness of the PAF combat fleets by sharing target information.
The Saab-2000 AEW&C is not a system to be used in the ongoing fighting in Fata. The long-range, high-endurance and deep radar coverage capability of the Saab-2000 AEW&C can challenge India’s air superiority in the region. For India, achieving air superiority without getting the best of such air-surveillance systems is not possible. Air battles of today and of the future will not entirely rely on well-equipped fighter units penetrating enemy airspace. The network centric system of war, which includes AEW&C systems sharing battlefield information with fighter units, ground units and battleships, will form the order of battle. AEW&C systems are not much of a threat to militants. The question to ponder upon is: are the terrorists attacking Pakistan’s AEW&C and surveillance systems at the behest of another country? This takes state sponsoring of terrorism to a whole new level. It is a manifestation of sub-conventional warfare. What would Pakistani decision-makers do to counter this strategic nightmare?
To address these challenges, Pakistani armed forces have to beef up the security of its military installations. Particularly, the bases with force multiplier systems and air-surveillance systems should be given extra security. The military bases with residential areas on their outskirts need to be monitored on a routine basis. In the present ongoing security situation, we cannot be relaxed at any time. Multilayered security should be made possible in all areas of bases because one thing is for sure: the attackers don’t use the front door anymore.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2012.