Uri and Pathankot: Defending India's Defense Establishments


India was grappling with the specter of proxy war and terrorist attacks well before the Western world was exposed to it. This protracted exposure to terrorism should have made India more resilient to attacks over time, but sadly this isn’t so, and India’s military installations are ill-prepared to deal with this threat. The recent terrorist attack at an army camp in Uri and the Pathankot Air Force Base attack in January 2016 are both cases in point. The high fatality rates of these attacks have been attributed to many reasons, from the lack of capability of intelligence agencies to the absence of a clear-cut command structure in dealing with terrorist attacks. Yes, there is some truth to these claims, but amidst all the furor we overlook something more basic.

Terrorists usually employ either bomb/IED attacks or direct frontal attacks on civilians, law enforcement, paramilitary, or military establishments. An analysis of the terrorist attacks in the past decade finds that just about 30 percent of the total attacks were frontal strikes. However, the alarming fact is that over 70 percent of these “frontal strikes” have happened in the last three years, pointing to a change in the preferred modus operandi of the attackers. India can no longer afford to be complacent and must initiate immediate action to secure military assets and the soldiers charged with their protection.

Uri and Pathankot: Avoidable Breaches

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On September 18, 2016, the perimeter of the Uri Army Base was breached by terrorists. The terrorists were neutralized, but the price was hefty – 18 Indian soldiers dead and 19 wounded. The event was shockingly similar to another attack that happened on January 2, 2016 at the Pathankot Air Force Base. Seven security personnel died in that encounter. Apart from the death toll, these events leave a bad taste as it seems like the terrorists had to do very little to penetrate these high-security installations, some of which (like Pathankot) house equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In Uri, the terrorists merely had to cut through a wire fence and in Pathankot the attack group only needed to secure a rope to the wall and climb over it.

The reason that it’s rather unchallenging to penetrate Indian high-security installations is that security in these bases is anachronistic and reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when digging a moat or building a high wall around a castle made it seemingly impenetrable. Such solutions hold little value in today’s modern age. Today, excellent base defense cannot be achieved by just increasing the number of physical barriers or doubling the number of security personnel patrolling the area. One cannot beat asymmetric warfare by increasing the quantity.

India spends about $40 billion a year on defense, but the contribution toward improving base security through smart technology is insufficient. If India had routed a fraction of the amount spent on defense procurement to adopting smart and cost-effective security solutions in these bases the attackers would’ve been neutralized long before they closed in. Also Indian security forces would have been in a tactically advantageous position to engage them.

What if Pathankot and Uri Housed Modern Security Features?

Imagine a situation where the Pathankot and Uri military establishments housed advanced security systems. Advanced electro-optic and infrared surveillance systems would have detected the terrorists as they approached. Smart surveillance software can sense new or lingering objects in the field of vision, identify it as a threat, and prioritize what needs to be displayed to the viewer in the control room. The personnel in the control room can notify commanders across geographies with the click of a button. Early detection also gives personnel more time to secure high-value assets (like the $50+ million Sukhoi Su 30s at Pathankot Air Force base).

Now, consider a scenario where the terrorists somehow managed to disable the entire surveillance architecture in the base. Then motion sensors and laser fences would pick up the location of breach, overlay it on a GIS map, and send the coordinates to the response unit in real time. The sensors would trigger a Remote Weapon System (RWS) piloted by an operator in the control room, which would have been used to engage the terrorists. There have been instances in India where terrorists used Indian Army fatigues to infiltrate bases. Adequate biometric access control systems at checkpoints and strategic locations will help in such a case. A new technologically enabled security setup could serve as a deterrent for direct frontal attacks.

The only caveat in the case of a new connected security set up is that a networked security solution brings with it the risk of a cyber attack. Thus, adequate cybersecurity elements should be built into the security architecture.

Now, let’s play the devil’s advocate and assume that terrorists somehow managed to orchestrate a cyber attack taking out all surveillance and base defense systems, and they manage to breach the perimeter. How can we improve the survivability of India’s personnel?

The answer is technology (again). A U.S soldier’s combat kit costs $17,500 and includes tactical vests and ballistic plate armor, which increase survivability. The comparable kit for the regular Indian soldier costs a little bit more than an iPhone 6S (most of the cost goes into the primary weapon). There are several sensitive regions and establishments in India that are in a perpetual state of high risk. Soldiers manning these locations need adequate protection without fail; ballistic plate armor and bulletproof vests must be given as standard issue to these soldiers in conflict-prone areas. The Indian defense establishment must peg the value of a soldier’s life commensurate with the value of the high-security asset he defends and also to the risk profile of the region he is posted in. With a $40 billion defense budget, India is a country which can afford to do so.

The Economics Aspect

The common argument as to why a nation with a high defense budget like India spends so little on base security and security personnel defense is because the technology is expensive. This is true to an extent, but the economics aspect is something that can be overcome. My conservative estimate pegs the cost of installation of fundamental but high-tech surveillance equipment, command and control systems, and sensors in a base the size of Pathankot to be upwards on $10 million. If India were to do a blanket upgrade of security features across all bases, the cost would run into the billions, and this is not economically feasible in a single go. However, security at high-risk installations should be upgraded on priority.

As many high-value defense deals gone awry and there is a growing mismatch in the capabilities needed and those fielded, the Indian defense establishment concerns itself with acquiring high military assets like Rafales while investment in security technology is shoved onto the backburner. Discounting the moral argument, does the Indian defense establishment think that it makes more economic sense to compensate for the life cycle and sunk costs of a few fallen soldiers rather than invest millions in new security technology?

The Solution: SMEs, Frugal Engineering and Expert Handholding

However, there is light at the end of this tunnel. The Indian defense establishment has ways to circumvent the high costs associated with the aforementioned technology. The Indian “small and medium enterprise” (SME) sector has significant, but underreported prowess in surveillance, security, and integration. These establishments provide innovative and economical solutions but are mostly limited to the civilian space at present. A small and obscure company of innovators in India has developed a frugally engineered an ATM surveillance system that warns people in different languages if the sensors and camera detect that the line of sight is being blocked on purpose. If the ATM user still does not heed the warnings, a notification is sent to the nearest police station. The solution is a small scale version of what major security firms like Verint and Mer Systems offer and proves that these Indian companies, if honed right by providing sales opportunities and a favorable operational environment, could become the Verints and Mer Groups of India one day.

The cost of this solution in minuscule compared to a similar offering from a foreign vendor. The technology and integration capability for securing military installations is sometimes similar, though the components may have to be modified a bit to add more capabilities. For example, in the case of surveillance, an IP-enabled CCTV camera may be used; for base security, we may need an additional IR and range finding capabilities. Indian SMEs need to be leveraged and supported by the military establishment to develop an in-house economic solution.

India has a good relationship with the Israeli defense industry, which includes defense majors like Elbit Systems that have extensive expertise in deploying perimeter security solutions. India should leverage this relationship and involve a firm like Elbit Systems with proven Indian SMEs in developing indigenous base defense and border security capabilities. A model base should be chosen, and the aforementioned security architecture must be deployed leveraging such a relationship. In the first stage, the select SMEs can act as integrators and can work with Elbit Systems. Over time, through tech sharing and capability building, the technology proficiency of these SMEs can be developed so that they become masters of base security solutions.

These SMEs will eventually grow as they gain more expertise and rack up defense contracts. They will also contribute to increasing employment and if proven, their solutions could be exported and they could become a significant foreign exchange earner for India. This will be a true “Make in India” model that the government is pushing. Instead of foreign defense players making ancillary components in India, which require more manufacturing expertise than technological prowess, India will have a holistic security industry with both R&D and manufacturing in house. This can lead to the development of customizable consulting, integration, production, and managed solution service capabilities in India itself.

Changing Attitudes Toward Security

The Modi government’s approach to defense procurement has been pragmatic so far. Efforts have been initialized to simplify the procurement process. But it seems likely that the establishment may increase the spending on base security as a knee-jerk reaction to the spate of frontal attacks. Instead of purchasing the entire gamut of security solutions as off-the-shelf solutions from foreign manufacturers, the establishment should leverage Indians SMEs’ proven security capabilities and potential and nurture it under the guidance of established foreign firms. The government should broker a mutually beneficial relationship.

The defense establishment should realize that casualties are not the norm anymore. Terrorists often have surprise on their side, but India’s preparedness regarding technology adoption and training should be high enough to thwart a frontal strike with minimal casualties. Empathy toward the Indian soldier and faith in Indian SMEs is the need of the hour in developing a permanent solution to stopping these attacks.

Arjun Sreekumar started his career in the Indian Army before he joined the corporate world. Today he is an Industry Analyst in Defense, Aerospace, and Security with a leading consulting and research firm and works closely with global defense majors. The views expressed in this article are personal and do not represent the views of the company.

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