The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Pakistani Taliban is known, has claimed responsibility for a successful raid into the Minhas base of the Northern Command of the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) early on the morning of August 16, 2012.
According to the Dawn of Karachi, Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed that nine heavily armed TTP militants stormed the PAF Minhas airbase at Kamra, located about 70 kms from the capital Islamabad in Punjab’s Attock city, leading to an intense gun battle lasting almost five hours.
“The attack was launched from two different sides. A team of four members entered from one side and five from the other and then they launched a collective attack inside the camp,” Ehsan reportedly told Dawn. He added that all the nine attackers were killed.
He claimed that the raiders killed more than a dozen security personnel. Ehsan said the TTP had carried out the attack “to avenge the deaths of Osama bin Laden, the TTP Amir Baitullah Mehsud and other fighters who had been killed by the Pakistani security forces.”
According to the official version of the Pakistani authorities, only one security guard was killed and one aircraft was damaged by a rocket-propelled grenade. A PAF spokesman has been quoted by the Pakistani media as saying that the terrorists were wearing uniform, but he did not specify whether they were wearing the uniform of the Air Force or the Army. Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, the commanding officer of the PAF Base, was reported to have been seriously injured. PAF officials denied media reports that there were nuclear weapons stored inside the base.
The significance of the Minhas base as a Taliban target arises from two factors. Firstly, it is the base in which the entire PAF holdings of aircraft fitted with Airborne Early Warning Systems are located. In 2007, the PAF had ordered five Swedish-made SAAB 2000 aircraft, four of them fitted with Saab-Ericsson Erieye Airborne Early Warning system. The first of these fitted with Erieye was delivered to the PAF on April 3, 2008, and the second in April last year. The PAF has also ordered from Sweden six ground receiving stations.
In addition, the PAF has reportedly ordered four Shaanxi ZDK-03 ‘Karakoram Eagle’ airborne early warning and control (AEW & C) aircraft from China, the first of which was delivered in November 2010.Thus, the PAF presently has two SAAB 2000 and one Chinese ZDK-03 planes fitted with airborne early warning systems.
According to reliable Pakistani sources, the main objective of the TTP raiders into the Minhas base was to locate and destroy these three planes fitted with airborne early warning systems. These sources say that the raiders managed to damage at least one of them.
The Minhas raid resembled the TTP raid into PNS Mehran, the headquarters of the Pakistani Naval Air Arm, located inside the Faisal base of the Pakistan Air Force at Karachi on the night of May 22, 2011, during which the TTP managed to destroy two of the three US-made Orion P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft of the Pakistan Navy. After having destroyed two of the maritime surveillance aircraft, the TTP has now tried to destroy the aircraft of the PAF fitted with Airborne early warning systems.
The second significance of Minhas as the target arises from the fact that the Sino-Pakistan aircraft manufacturing complex at Kamra is located next to the PAF base. At this complex, Chinese engineers are helping Pakistan in the assembly and ultimate manufacture of Chinese-made JF-17 aircraft. According to the Dawn, 11 Chinese engineers are presently based in Kamra. The details of the raid available so far do not indicate that the TTP tried to attack the manufacturing complex too.
The Dawn has reported as follows: “All Chinese and others foreign engineers and technicians involved in co-production of Chinese and Pakistan JF-17 Thunder aircraft project were shifted to a high profile secure location, official sources told Dawn.com, adding that the engineers were not present near the attack area.”
Who are these other foreign engineers? Could these be North Koreans since China would not like to associate any other country with the assembly and manufacture of its aircraft? An answer to this question is not available.
Sections of the Pakistani media have reported that advance intelligence regarding the likelihood of TTP attacks on PAF establishments around this period had been conveyed by the Ministry of the Interior under which the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the internal intelligence agency, functions. If true, despite this, the PAF has been taken by surprise. The repeated successful raids of the TTP into supposedly heavily-protected military establishments underline once again the poor state of physical security in these establishments and the likely complicity of insiders with the TTP raiders.
Despite this, the Pakistani Foreign Office on August 16 once again maintained that its strategic nuclear assets are safe under a robust command and control system. In his weekly media briefing, spokesman Moazzam Ahmad Khan said the world should not have concerns for the safety of the country’s nuclear assets. He said elaborate measures are in place to secure the nuclear weapons.
This may please be read in continuation of my article of July 14, 2012, titled Back In Business
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies