Kamra base attack: some thoughts

On the night of August 15 and the Holy night of 27th Ramadan a bunch of militants pounded the heart of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base Minhas situated at Kamra, this is also the place where Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) a leading aviation and defence production centre of Pakistanis located.

The intruders were not just a bunch of well trained, twisted-minded terrorists who could jump in the fire for fun. Neither was it a random attack by suicide bombers with loads of ammunition in their backpacks. It was deliberate and well-planned attack that was precisely executed and skilfully targeted. Unlike most of the earlier attacks on Pakistani forces the targets were not the soldiers.

The terrorists adopted the same mission profile they used in attack on PNS Mehran at Karachi on 22 May 2011, in which terrorists took advantage of civilian populated section of the base, using night as a cover, military uniforms for deception, lethal and automatic weapons like Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) for quick and precise attack. They were aided by modern equipment like Night Vision Goggles (NVG) for better situational awareness at night. Furthermore, this time terrorists took the advantage of strategic surprise by attacking on the Holy night of 27 Ramadan…any practicing Muslim would have been praying that night. Arabs did the same with the Israelis in the Yom Kippur War 1973. Attack on Yom Kippur, an important religious day for Jews, caught the Israeli forces by surprise and the advancing Arab forces accrued great advantage from this tactic.
The Kamra attack raises two major questions: why Minhas Air Force Base (AFB)? And why attack air surveillance systems only?

Minhas AFB is one of the most important air bases of PAF. The major part of the geographic location is shared by PAC, which comprises of four factories i.e. Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMF), Avionics Production Factory (APF), Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) and Aircraft Rebuild Factory (ARF). These factories build, repair and overhaul major weapons systems of PAF including JF-17 Thunder, Mirage-III/V, F-7P/PG, K-8, Mushshak/Super Mushshak aircraft, low-level and high-level radar systems and engine overhaul of C-130, Y-12 and Boeing-777 aircraft.

Minhas AFB is home to two operational fighter squadrons (namely No.14 squadron equipped with Chinese F-7P aircraft and No.16 squadron with Pak-China JF-17 Thunder aircraft), a Search and Rescue Squadron with Alouette-III helicopters and an air-surveillance squadron comprising of Saab-2000 Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AEW&C). Some C-130 transport aircraft and IL-78 Multirole tanker and transport aircraft are also stationed on the base.

Minhas AFB is located near densely populated city of Attock. Back in 1974, it was amongst the lowest populated areas of the district Attock. Today various villages are situated in the outskirts of the base…For reader’s interest; the main road of PAC (on which all four factories are located) was fully open to public till the suicide attack on the road of the base in late 2007.

All these reasons made Minhas AFB the prized target for terrorists. Now coming to the second question i.e. why attack air surveillance systems only?
As mentioned in the beginning of this article that the terrorists adopted mission profile used in attack on PNS Mehran, in which RPG were fired on P-3 Orion Maritime Surveillance Aircraft. That resulted in complete destruction of two of such systems and one Sea King Helicopter as well.

Just like P-3 Orions of Pak Navy (PN), Saab-2000 AEW&C aircraft are very expensive, long range air-surveillance systems. The Saab-2000 AEW&C has a range of up to 450km. It can provide battlefield picture, information about enemy targets (in air, land or sea), enhance situation awareness of combat fleet of PAF by sharing target information. Also, it can continuously remain in the air for a very long period of time.

Saab-2000 AEW&C is not a system to be used in on-going fight in Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). It is an India-centric system. The long-range, high-endurance and deep radar coverage capability of Saab-2000 AEW&C can challenge India’s air superiority in the region. This aircraft is a part of Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I) network centric system of PAF. For India, achieving air-superiority without getting the best of such air surveillance systems is not possible. Air battles of today and future will not entirely rely on well-equipped fighter units penetrating enemy air space. 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. Now, AEW&C systems are not much of a threat for 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 at a whole new level. It is a manifestation of sub-conventional warfare. What would Pakistani decision-makers do to counter this strategic nightmare? My sense is that they will have to go to whatever limits they consider essential, in their threat perception.

To address these challenges, Pakistani armed forces have to beef up the security of its military installations. Particularly, all those bases with force multiplier systems and air-surveillance systems should be given extra security. All those military bases with residential areas in their outskirts need to be monitored on routinely basis. One must complement the Air Force for a job very well done, as there is no room for complacency. In the present on-going security situation we cannot be relaxed at any given time. Multi-layered security should be made possible in all areas of bases…One thing is for sure, the attackers don’t use the front door anymore.
God bless Pakistan. Amen

A slightly different version of this article was published in The Express Tribune, August 19, 2012. Link