Conceptually, Israel has configured a system that uses airborne platforms at every step of the counter-terror operations chain

Forgotten in the noise of the India-China LAC standoff is the fact that around 300 terrorists are waiting to cross over the LOC, fuelling India’s woes further. The adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan has had terrorism at its centre stage for the last three decades and every now and then we hear of terrorists striking in J&K, resulting in loss of lives of civilians and security forces personnel. As per Ministry of Home Affairs data, fatalities between 1988 and 2019 have been 45,230, in about 47,234 terror incidents; 23,779 of these have been terrorists, 14,921 civilians and 6,530 security personnel. While India has largely adopted a policy of containment by military led measures, it has not been as successful as was contemplated and clearly needs an impetus. This author opines that blending air power into the counter terror mechanism could provide the required fillip to our operations.

Counter terrorism tasks comprise intelligence collection, monitoring communications, surveillance on specific locations, tracking terrorist movements and getting insider information to launch a pre-emptive strike on terror locations, hideouts, launchpads or individuals. Air power has the constitutional capacity to further each of these tasks quite comprehensively. Broadly speaking, air power performs two counter-terror functions, namely, prevention and response, as was borne out by the aerial strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Balakot on 26 February 2019. While the strike was in response to the Pakistani backed suicide attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama, it was also aimed at preventing future attacks by killing Jaish-e-Mohammed operatives, and destroying their training camp. Among the many countries that have drawn on the air domain, the Israeli approach sets an example that is worth emulating.

Aman, the military intelligence (MI) arm of the Israeli intelligence set-up, collects about 90% of the intelligence for counter-terror prevention and action. It is an independent service, co-equal with the army, navy and air force. Intelligence is collected by Signal Intelligence (SIGINT), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT), Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and by intense spying over cyberspace. The intelligence collected is corroborated with imagery and videos from a wide array of observation devices that vary from optic, electro-optic (EO), infra-red thermal imagers (IR), synthetic aperture radars (SAR), ground mapping radars, mounted on zoom lenses, observation masts of ground vehicles, Aerostats, UAVs and manned platforms. Big data technology combines textual, visual and vocal data to automatically identify and extract actionable intelligence, after which a very rapid response is executed, to any indication of enemy’s intention to cause damage or intrusion.

Conceptually, Israel has configured a system that uses airborne platforms at every step of the counter-terror operations chain. UAVs, Aerostats and fixed wing aircraft are used for intelligence collection, imagery, live videos, 24×7 surveillance of the border and nearby villages. Airborne platforms are accompaniments to counter-terror ground operations, for tracking targets, situational awareness and target designation for strikes by armed helicopters, armed UAVs and fixed wing aircraft. From amongst the various air power assets used, UAVs make the most significant contribution by enhancing the timeliness of battlefield information and situation development. Emulation in whole or part of their concept could make a significant difference in J&K.

In our context, air power would undoubtedly enhance surveillance of the vast expanse of area along the border/LOC in combination with the military/para-military posts. Sensors mounted on aerostats, UAVs, manned aircraft and satellites could be suitably inter-spread and overlapped to cover the large gaps between posts, unfenced nullahs and damages to obstacle systems occurring due to snowfall to keep a 24×7 vigil. A mix of quadra copter UAV and medium altitude long range (MALE) UAV platforms with an array of EO/IR/SAR sensors could be employed to look across the border/LOC and adjacent areas for intruders. Difficulties of mountain shadows and foliage could be overcome by employing SAR/foliage penetration radars. The type, number and spread of airborne sensors would have to be worked out by the security forces so that identifying, tracking and engaging terrorists becomes realizable in quick time. Both SAR and IR sensors have day and night capability, while SAR sensor has weather-independency, therefore, use of both SAR and IR sensors would be able to detect targets stably in inaccessible areas by sensor fusion. The Border Security Force (BSF) is already using thermal imagers/IR sensors to detect movement of people, animals and goods smuggled across borders in the Dhubri district of Assam. Aerostats could also be deployed to further augment surveillance, where feasible.

Having established a 24×7 surveillance capability, the security forces could then work out an intelligence collection plan to monitor activity, patterns and movements in respect of activities at launchpads, routes frequented to breach the LOC, border crossing methods and tools used by terrorists and combine it with inputs from SIGINT, HUMINT, OSINT etc., as discussed above, for an appropriate response. Enablers to support such a doctrine would be an airborne sensor network, advanced data processing technologies, and a single source analysis from within the different intelligence collection agencies.

A far-reaching step would be for the intelligence agencies in J&K to have the suite of platforms, technologies and services under their control. This would not only provide flexibility of use as per the demand of an emerging situation, without having to request other agencies, but also serve as a one-stop-intelligence-shop. The present inter-agency set-up has inherent delays owing to requirement of clearances from respective headquarters before intelligence is disseminated. How much ever inter-agency cooperation we may seek, it is not always forthcoming, and in the bargain, terrorists manage to slip through, causing casualties. Fusion of intelligence is extremely essential in the entire counter-terror chain, for any targeting can only be as good as the intelligence.

For targeting and tracking terrorists/intruders, our security forces must be enabled to receive real time images and videos streamed from UAVs and other sensors directly on to their patrol vehicles/handheld monitors. This would bring the overall situational picture to them for planning their counter terror actions. With the operations control room also in the loop, the shooter and decision maker would be in the same grid, reducing the response time. Armed UAVs could play a transformational role with their ability to loiter, gather intelligence, track a target and strike independent of the ground forces. However, use of armed UAVs within own territory would run the risk of collateral damage on own population and would have to be employed with extreme caution. The idea of putting in place a linked mechanism is to quicken the pace of arrests and killings so that terror organisations lose the critical mass of skills and capabilities and terror is contained. Action by security forces gets emboldened when supported by air power and that serves as a deterrent.

Many nations consider air power as the key element, among all military tools, to wage war against terror since it force-multiplies the efficacy of the entire mechanism. Armed UAVs offer a flexible and quick targeting response option without putting troops on the ground. It is time India considered extending the canvas of counter operations into the air domain. Conceptually speaking, air power must be inducted to provide our security forces with a tool to engage terrorists from a medium that they cannot challenge—the air. This would not only engender more confidence and aggressiveness but also enhance their chances of success. Since there seem no easy military or political solutions in the offing at present, our endeavour must be to strengthen our security forces so that they can dominate the encounters with the terrorists. Intervention by air power would best fit this notion.