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VIEW: No More Sitting Ducks - taking a Chapter from the 1980s Playbook

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 31, 2011

These days Pakistan can be found standing at the crossroads mulling over its future role in an ongoing war. A shaky alliance merits the deployment of its sophisticated air defence network on the western front. Its cash-strapped economy in turn merits the reassessment of the defence budget to sustain this expansive proposition. After 26/11, Pak military’s mission statement has undergone some necessary overhauls; it must now rethink safeguards against a powerful ally and identify the limitations of its proposed strategy.

The primary goal is to strengthen the western border defences. It has been done before. No Soviet could get past their watchful gaze in the 1980s. Pakistan’s current capability allowed swift detection of an intruding Indian helicopter from the east recently. And yet there have been two air violations from the west in a span of six months. Two!

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, radars had been deployed on the western front to keep an eye on those Soviets. That kind of surveillance however comes at a cost and calls for a war-footing scenario. The armed forces managed to maintain a round the clock (low level and high level) air cover and doing so, they will tell you, meant that it paid a high price due to excessive wear and tear.

Those wondering why the changed nature of threat perception did not warrant such a deployment long before 26/11 or Abbottabad raid are treated to some depressing news. Keeping the impressive looking Eyries (AEW&C platforms) in the air while maintaining continuous low level coverage of the entire border, analysts say, is cost prohibitive. This is why there are other deterrents in place. The threat of retaliation, whether it is through military might or by finding the right leverage (economic, diplomatic), generally keeps foreign military misadventures in check.

At present Pakistan is monitoring the airspace using two kinds of radars — one of which has a range of 250 miles (high level). The other, with its limited cone of coverage will not be much use unless deployed in bulk. More than a dozen (high level) radars working on a 24/7 basis deployed alongside 250 or so low level counterparts integrated through a computerised network may be considered enough to cover the entire airspace. Here more depressing news follows. Apparently the shelf life of low level radars that demand periodic overhaul is reduced considerably if operated on a constant basis.

The high level coverage is up and running. But clearly there were major gaps in the low level aspect of the defence network — information that the US Navy SEALS team used to their advantage this past May. To overcome these limitations, point defences at key checkposts close to the border are likely to be deployed along the Durand Line. A US military commander who maintains that the strike was accidental cannot guarantee that something like 26/11 will not be repeated. The tacit agreement between both allies that once prevented Pakistan’s armed forces from engaging the intruding drones is at the moment void. Local commanders can guarantee that a fitting response will be offered should there be a repeat performance by NATO troops.

Coming back to the two violations — in one the US Navy SEALS swooped in and out reportedly unchallenged and in the other NATO combat aircraft engaged unfortunate Pakistani checkposts seemingly unprovoked. In both cases, the response everyone expected and waited for with bated breath was either too late or not forthcoming at all.

The communication network in the first instance was not knocked out — experts say that the modified Blackhawk copters used in Operation Neptune Spear would only have resorted to jamming after being alerted by their radar warning receivers (RWR) because they are virtually invisible to the current generation radars. The second event is harder to deconstruct. Radars on the Pakistani side of the border claim to have picked up activity before they came under attack; they blame their lack of response on downed communication that kept the news of the actual firefight from filtering down.

In the end, the biggest deterrent is not the oft ignored ‘No Trespassing’ sign, but the increasingly downplayed ‘relationship’ card — 26/11 cost the allies’ valuable logistic support, hard earned goodwill and a free (overhead) pass to the tribal zone; that alone can provide some incentive to perhaps not stray too far from the red lines next time.

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