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Skyfall

 

Editorial. Cecil Victor. VII. XXIV. XIV


 

AIRCRAFT IN DANGER

 



Cecil Victor-fnbworld  By Cecil Victor

 

 

 

Missile
launcher-fnbworld


Malaysian
Airways MH 17 blown to smithereens-fnbworld

 

The possibility of passenger aircraft being shot down by ground fire has become a reality with the horrendous Malaysian Airways Flight MH-17 destruction and the death of a woman passenger and injuries to two flight stewards on the Pakistan International Airways flight from Saudi Arabia to Peshawar on 25 June.  The PIA aircraft was between 250 to 500 ft above the ground when it was hit. If the bullets had hit the engine the aircraft could have blown up.


While the Malaysian aircraft could not have been shot out of the sky without state-owned military assets being made avail to the perpetrators, anyone with a rifle can bring down an airliner at two moments when it is most vulnerable – when it is taking off and when it is coming in to land.


While nobody is going to admit giving terrorists surface-to-air missiles and adjunct paraphernalia like search radar and meteorological radar that could find and hit a jet flying at 33,000 ft.  a rifleshot at a flying aircraft can be a freelance job.


About 16 years ago when the danger to Indian aviation became apparent this author had warned the Government of India of the possibility of terrorists perpetrating just such an act to draw attention to themselves and their “mission”. He had reconnoitered Palam airport and its hinterland in Delhi and pointed out spots from which a terrorist armed with a shoulder-fired missile could attempt to take a shot at an aircraft when it was taking off or coming in to land. The government took cognizance of the report and extended the deployment of the Central Industrial Security Force from inside the aerodrome to about a kilometer outside the periphery of the Palam complex.


However, the deployment left much to be desired because it left wide gaps both in terms of distance as well as timing which could be exploited by anyone who was determined to complete his mission. A second reconnaissance some years later showed that a multi-storied building  lay within the funnel that an incoming aircraft must traverse during landing and takeoff. It  gave clear line of sight from the ground floor to the roof to any aircraft using that runway.    


About 50 meters from the end of the runway was a wall about eight feet high. Anyone standing next to the wall would have the same clear line of sight to the airfield as they would if standing at any level of the building aforementioned. It would take about five seconds for a well-prepared team of two terrorists on a motorcycle to drive up to the wall, take aim and unleash the surface-to-air missile at a plane coming in to land without the CISF being any the wiser.


The Pakistan Army Inter-Services Intelligence has supplied the homemade and China-improved versions of the Anza manpads (man-portable air defence system) to the Kashmiri terrorists. Two were seized in separate raids in the Kupwara district in 2001 and 2002. There may be many more because Pakistan has been trying to organize the Kashmiris into groups of 40 to replicate an infantry platoon and had supplied appropriate weaponry, clothing and food for the group to act cohesively. Underground hideouts capable of accommodating 40 fully armed personnel have been discovered in the Hilkaka area of Kashmir some years ago. There could be many more.


The Pakistan Army Northern Light Infantry which infiltrated into the Kargil-Dras salient in 1999 used the shoulder-fired surface-to-air Stinger missile - which the US supplied for fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan - to knock down an Indian MiG-27 and a Mi-17 helicopter during the Kargil war. Americans tried to stop the weapon from falling into the hands of terrorists by offering a high price for each missile launcher that was returned to the Americans. Very few were returned. The bulk of the Stingers was stashed away by the mother of all terrorists - the Pakistan Army  -  for use against India. A third Anza was reported to have been fired at an Indian Air Force An-32 transport aircraft within sight of the Line of Control. The aircraft landed safely.


With aircraft now becoming prime targets for disgruntled elements  the government of India needs to revamp its security posture in and around airfields throughout India. The CISF which has been entrusted with the task of defending major Indian airports both within and on the periphery needs to relearn the potential for destruction of all kinds of shoulder-fired missiles that have been known to be in the possession of every kind of militant outfit be it the badly battered remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of Sri Lanka (which fielded some amazing homemade gadgets in its war against the Government of Sri Lanka) or the Kashmiri terrorists. There have been many reports suggesting collaborative arrangements between foreign terrorist outfits and Indian insurgents like the Maoists and ULFA of the north east.


Defences should be capable of nullifying the range of the potential strike weapon. Most such weapons have a range of up to 5000 meters (five km). The Indian Air Force which was entrusted with the task of preventing any buildings being built along the flight path of commercial aircraft needs to be questioned for allowing the buildings to come up so close to the end of the runway at Palam.


Even a hand-held rifle can cause damage to the aircraft or passengers which may or may not be fatal. The Peshawar shooting proves the point.


In gun-crazy Pakistan and its Kalashnikov culture anyone could have taken a potshot at the aircraft more particularly someone with the mindset of the Pakistani-American son of a former Pakistan Air Force Air Marshal who tried to blow up Times Square. Or the son of a Pakistani  Brigadier who had assembled an anti-aircraft gun on the terrace of his home in Pakistan.

 

The Peshawar attack came soon after the attack on Karachi airport for which the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed credit. It appears shooting at aircraft and airports is fast becoming the vogue. The CISF cannot afford to be casual in its approach to airport security. A technical reassessment of capabilities in the hands of terrorists needs to be made and more realistic and failsafe mobile defences need to be put in place.

 

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