The Faisal Base of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) located about 10 KMs from the Karachi internationl airport is what the PAF calls a Joint User airfield. It is used by the PAF and the air arms of the Pakistan Army and Navy as well as by the VVIP squadron. All air surveillance movements over the sea -- whether by the PAF or by the Army or by the PN-- are controlled from this base.
Since 1975, the operating base of the Naval Air Arm , called PNS Mehran, is located inside this airfield. All senior officers of the Naval Air Arm operate from PNS Mehran. The Naval Air Arm at PNS Mehran is headed by Commander Naval Aviation (COMNAV). Under him there are four Heads of Department (HOD) designated as Commander Air (Cdr Air), Commander Air Engineering Department (Cdr AED), Commanding Officer MEHRAN (CO MEH) and Officer Commanding Naval Aviation Training School (OC NATS).
The squadrons of the Naval Air Arm are stationed in PNS Mehran.These are the P3C Orion Squadron (28 Sqn), the Atlantic Squadron (29 Sqn), the Fokker Squadron (27 Sqn), the Seaking Squadron (111 Sqn) and the Alouette Squadron (333 Sqn).
While the Naval Air Arm was raised primarily to provide maritime surveillance capability against India, it has been playing, in addition, a counter-terrorism role since the US started its Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in October,2001. This counter-terrorism role consists of air surveillance to prevent any sea-borne intrusions of Al Qaeda and to detect any terrorist plans for attacks on ships bringing supplies for the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The supplies are landed in the Karachi port and then moved by trucks to Afghanistan.
While the Pakistani Army and Air Force have no operational role to play in the US-led military operations in the Afghan territory against Al Qaeda and the Neo Taliban, the Pakistani Navy is a member of the US-led international naval force which patrols the seas to the west of Pakistan to prevent any hostile activity which could hamper the operations in Afghan territory. The Combined Task Force (CTF) 150, established at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, comprises naval forces from France, Germany, Italy, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The task force conducts maritime security operations (MSO) in the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. The leadership of the Task Force is rotated amongst the participating navies. A Pakistani naval officer has been commanding it off and on when the turn of the Pakistan Navy comes.
On November 16,2004,the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that it had accepted Pakistan’s request to buy seven P-3C Orion aircraft with T-56 turboprop engines, communications equipment, training devices, medical services, support and test equipment, engineering technical services, supply support, operation and maintenance training, documentation, spare/repair parts, publications, personnel training, training equipment, contractor technical and logistics personnel services, and other related support elements. The estimated cost would be $970 million.
The DSCA announcement added: "The command-and-control capabilities of these aircraft will improve Pakistan’s ability to restrict the littoral movement of terrorists along Pakistan’s southern border and ensure Pakistan’s overall ability to maintain integrity of their borders. Pakistan intends to use the proposed purchase to develop a long needed fleet of maritime and border surveillance aircraft. The addition of these aircraft will provide Pakistan with search, surveillance, and control capability in support of maritime interdiction operations and increase their ability to support the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom Operations; anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare capabilities; and a control capability over land against transnational terrorists and narcotics smugglers. The modernization will enhance the capabilities of the Pakistani Navy and support its regional influence and meet its legitimate self-defense needs. Pakistan is capable of absorbing and maintaining these additional aircraft in its inventory.”
The first two of these aircraft were delivered in April 2010 and officially inducted into the Naval Air Arm at a function held at PNS Mehran on June 2,2010. Some more of the remaining five have since been inducted, but their number is not known. These planes are generally kept in hangars belonging to the Naval Air Arm and operate from the joint user airfield.
The active role played by the Pakistani Navy in support of the NATO operations in Afghanistan has attracted the anger of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). On March 4, 2008, two unidentified suicide bombers, operating in tandem, attacked the prestigious Naval War College located in a high security area of Lahore. They were both on motor-cycles. One of them rammed his motor-cycle against the security gate at the rear of the building breaking it open. The other drove through this opening into the parking area and blew himself up. Their target was the naval institution and not any particular individual or individuals inside. They wanted to demonstrate their ability to penetrate the campus and cause damage. Six persons were killed-- one of them a naval officer, three members of the security guards at the gate and the two suicide bombers.
On December 2,2009, an alert official of the Pakistani naval intelligence in plain clothes and a naval security guard in uniform deployed outside the building of the Pakistan Navy Headquarters in Islamabad prevented what could have been a major terrorist strike against the Naval Headquarters by an unidentified suicide bomber. Spotting a suspicious-looking individual outside the NHQ, they stopped him and searched him. He turned out to be a suicide bomber wearing a concealed suicide vest. However, they could not prevent him from activating the explosive device in the vest. One person was killed on the spot and another succumbed to his injuries later.
Two Pakistani naval personnel-- a commissioned officer of the rank of Sub-Lieutenant and a sailor-- were among four persons killed in two separate but coordinated explosions in Karachi on April 26, 2011. The explosions targeted two buses of the Pakistan Navy which were transporting naval personnel to their places of work. According to available indications, the improvised explosive devices, which struck the buses, had been planted along routes normally taken by the buses and activated through mobile telephones.
According to the Daily Times of Lahore ( April 27,2011), the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Pakistani Taliban is known, claimed the responsibility for the blasts, and threatened more attacks on security forces. The claim was made in a telephone call to a foreign news agency by a person who identified himself as Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman of the Taliban. He reportedly said: "Security forces will be targeted in the future as well, because they are killing their own people in Waziristan and elsewhere at the behest of the United States.”
Since the raid by the Pakistani military commandos into the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July,2007, there has been a number of retaliatory attacks by the TTP against the Army, the Air Force, the Special Services Group (SSG), the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the para-military forces and the police. It is, however, believed that the attacks on the Navy were connected to its role in providing maritime support to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Navy had no role to play in the Lal Masjid raid. The Pakistani authorities have been apprehending a surge in these attacks on the security forces, including the Navy, in retaliation for the raid by US naval commandos into the residence of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, in which OBL was killed.
At around 10 PM on the night of May 22, an unidentified group of about 15 terrorists armed with explosives, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault weapons was reported to have managed to infiltrate into the PNS Mehran base through a side of the Faisal PAF base where a PAF museum is located and engaged in a fire fight with naval and other security personnel after destroying at least one--according to some other reports two--PC 3 aircraft kept in the hangars. The fire-fight was still going on at well past afternoon on the morning of May 23 when last reports came in.
It has been reported that the survivors among the attackers have taken some hostages and taken shelter inside a building in the base. According to unconfirmed reports, among the hostages are one or more Chinese military personnel working in the base. It has been further reported that some Americans and Turks were also working in the base. It is not known whether any of them has been taken hostage. At least 11 naval personnel are reported to have died in the fire fight so far. No one has claimed responsibility till now.
The daring attack and the inability of the Navy to prevent it are likely to add to the feelings of humiliation in the Pakistani Armed Forces which have been prevalent since the Abbottabad raid. To deflect anger over the security failure at PNS Mehran, attempts could be made to divert suspicion against India. Extra vigilance and extra security would be required along our coast in general and in the Mumbai area in particular. Instructions should be issued to all concerned to avoid any statements and comments which could aggravate the paranoia of the Pakistani Armed Forces and to refrain from exhibiting any sense of glee over the discomfiture of the Pakistani Armed Forces.
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.