History of PAF’s role in counterinsurgency operations

Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain believes, tracing and accurately recording the history of PAF’s role in counterinsurgency operations is essential not only for posterity but also to ensure that many valuable lessons learnt from some of the recent campaigns are not lost, past mistakes are not repeated, and the service is better prepared for future operations.

PAF counterinsurgency

Although not explicitly raised for counterinsurgency operations, Pakistan Air Force since its very inception has been called upon to undertake such missions. While at the beginning of the insurgency, the threat may have been mere pinpricks, since the beginning of the current century it has assumed alarmingly dangerous proportions, challenging the very writ of the state.

PAF’s ability to conduct limited counterinsurgency operations was inbuilt in its force structure but could at best be described as a ‘dumbed down’ version of an operational campaign against a traditional adversary. For as long as the service was not called upon to undertake a serious insurgency campaign, it was not a cause for concern.

However, as the threat of insurgency grew in the country’s Tribal Belts, PAF has been repeatedly tasked to conduct major COIN operations against an adversary exploiting the 4GW technique. Many serious shortcomings soon became apparent. It was realised that counterinsurgency operations require a different set of calculus than the ones needed against a conventional foe.

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New strategies were needed, and new capabilities had to be developed for this new form of warfare. Tracing and accurately recording the history of PAF’s role in counterinsurgency operations is, therefore, essential not only for posterity but also to ensure that many valuable lessons learnt from some of the recent campaigns are not lost, past mistakes are not repeated, and the service is better prepared for future operations.

PAF’s Baptism of Fire in Counterinsurgency Operations

The insurgency in Waziristan by the legendary Faqir of Ipi (nee Mirza Ali Khan) against the British rule in India had erupted in 1937. Two Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons operating from Risalpur and Kohat were employed in the counterinsurgency role to quell the rebellion. Air actions against the legendary Faqir proved ineffective, and as the insurgency lingered on, RAF squadrons were reinforced by Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) units operating from Miranshah.

Neither side could gain a decisive victory while the stalemate lingered on. RAF and RIAF squadrons continued to operate in ‘watch and ward’ duties in Waziristan year after year until, in 1947, when it was handed over to the nascent Royal Pakistan Air Force (RPAF).

On August 15 1947, just a day after the new state of Pakistan had come into existence in the Indian subcontinent, RPAF undertook its first operational assignment in Waziristan. Two Tempest squadrons from Peshawar took over the ‘watch and ward’ role from the British by deploying small detachments in rotation at Miranshah.

When the USA decided to invade Afghanistan in October 2001, following the 9/11 attack on its soil, Pakistan was sucked into somebody else’s long-drawn war which it could ill afford

From December 17 1947, RPAF became a part of GHQ’s ‘Operation Curzon’ aimed at extraditing the Pakistan Army troops from Razmak in Waziristan. While transport support for airlifting of troops and freight was provided by two Dakotas of No. 6 RPAF squadron and Tempest fighter bombers of 5 and 9 squadrons flew 47 sorties to ensure the marauding tribesmen did not interfere with the evacuation process.

The RPAF air operations continued till June 1949, and in total the service flew 139 sorties dropping 72 bombs, 108 rockets and 4600 rounds of 20 mm on the rebels. After 1949, the rebellion by the Faqir declined appreciably although he never surrendered or was captured. On November 4 1954, the surrender of a key rebel leader and a notorious outlaw Meher Dil in effect brought the Waziristan insurrection to an end.

While the Pakistan Army and the RPAF had successfully contained the Faqir of Ipi led insurgency, the watch and ward duties continued. Tempests were replaced by Furies operating from Kohat. In 1960 trouble erupted again, this time in Dir – Bajaur area and PAF (RPAF’s nomenclature had been changed to PAF in 1956) was again deployed operationally to quell the rebellion.

Flying in support of the Pakistan Army troops, PAF flew strafing, reconnaissance, bombing and extensive leaflet dropping missions. Furies and the newly acquired Sabre jets flew the bulk of the missions during the campaign that also saw meaningful participation by the RT-33 jets, Freighter transport planes and the H-43 helicopters.

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During the entire operations that continued until 1962, PAF did not suffer a single mishap, and the air-land cooperation between the Army and the Air Force was considered very satisfactory. The Dir-Bajaur rebellion was successfully put down by 1962, which witnessed the end of nearly two and a half decades of watch and ward duties by the service in Pakistan’s tribal belts.

Waziristan Revisited – Army Operation Al Mizan – 2004

When the USA decided to invade Afghanistan in October 2001, following the 9/11 attack on its soil, Pakistan was sucked into somebody else’s long-drawn war which it could ill afford. Before 9/11, Pakistan was one of the only three countries to recognise and have ties with the Taliban regime.

It had to take a complete summersault in its Afghan policy and permit the US and Coalition forces to use its territory to topple the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, in effect becoming a key coalition partner. The move did not go well with the public, and the wave of anti-American sentiments that was generated has still not subsided.

The defeated Taliban leadership and foot soldiers were not destroyed, and they melted away and took refuge among their Pakistani Pashtun clansmen across the Durand Line (the official border between Pakistan and Afghanistan). When the focus of USA shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003, the Taliban recuperated and regrouped in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to start a campaign to regain power in Afghanistan.

ATLIS equipped F-16s flew over the area trained their ATLIS pods over the suspected sites and brought back video footages for analysis

The sanctuaries that the Taliban enjoyed in Pakistani held territories from where they could conduct their operations against the NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan became a severe bone of contention between USA and Pakistan. Under intense US pressure, Pakistan was forced to launch a military campaign in South Waziristan where the Taliban were firmly established.

South Waziristan is one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that was a part of Pakistan but had enjoyed a very high degree of autonomy – the tribes followed their practices and customs. They would not welcome any interference from the federal government. Even the British in their heydays had shied away from establishing their authority if the tribes did not harm their core interests.

Operation Al Mizan was launched in South Waziristan by the Pakistan Army in June 2004. During the planning phase at GHQ, Air Headquarters was not taken on board although air support from the PAF was envisaged and it was recognised that the campaign was likely to be conducted as a classical air-land battle where air support would form a key ingredient.

As the battle unfolded, PAF was requested to fly emergency surveillance and reconnaissance missions to identify enemy ambush sites, supply depots and compounds from where their leadership and foot soldiers operated and having pinpointed the targets follow up with interdiction missions to neutralise them.

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Since the Army was working against insurgents employing 4GW technique, the targets to be identified were small, generally located amidst local population and in many instances fleeting in nature. PAF’s tactical reconnaissance capabilities had been developed for operations against conventional forces. The sophisticated cameras in its reconnaissance fleet were optimised to capture relatively large stationary targets and were not ideally suited to locate and identify small ones.

The service had to improvise in an emergency, and instead of employing the specialist Mirage reconnaissance fleet, it opted for the ATLIS pod equipped F-16s to accomplish the task. The ATLIS pods are airborne auto laser designators for the delivery of laser-guided bombs during surgical strikes. It has an inbuilt TV camera that video records the target for post-mission analysis. Given the peculiar nature of the task the auto laser designators although not initially designed for pinpoint reconnaissance were considered more appropriate.

The Army provided the PAF approximate coordinates of observed enemy fire, likely ambush sites and suspected enemy hideouts. ATLIS equipped F-16s flew over the area trained their ATLIS pods over the suspected sites and brought back video footages for analysis.

The results were subsequently conveyed to the GHQ, and with their input, interdiction targets were selected for subsequent airstrikes. Because no special communication setup had been established for the purpose, the entire process could take up to 24 hours. Where targets were fleeting, the time delay resulted in lost opportunities.

However, where these were of a fixed nature like specific houses/compounds which served as their supply dumps/command and control centres and where their commanders and foot soldiers resided, the intelligence gathered proved very useful.  More than a dozen ATLIS equipped F-16 sorties were launched, and on occasions, Mirage reconnaissance platforms were also flown.

A ceasefire followed by a peace accord was eventually signed with the rebels in the hope that the tribesmen would cease supporting the foreign elements that had taken shelter with them

The PAF mounted a concerted effort and provided close support to friendly forces engaged in combat during the duration of the campaign. Interdiction targets generally comprised specific houses/compounds within a village or in isolation.

On receipt of target information from the Army in the shape of coordinates, PAF would first fly a reconnaissance mission using ATLIS equipped F-16s to accurately identify target location and engage it with F-16s armed with Laser Guided Bombs (LGBs), staying well clear of the ranges of enemy small arms fire and shoulder-fired hand-held SAMs.

The entire campaign and air operations lasted for about three months. About 60 to 70 interdiction/close support missions were flown, all by the F-16 fleet and only GBU 12 and GBU 10 (500 and 2000 pounds LGBs) were dropped.

Operation Al Mizan achieved partial success but was unable to gain a decisive victory. Lacking skill and experience of fighting an insurgency war in unfamiliar and hostile terrain, the campaign failed to achieve its primary military objective of eliminating the presence of a sizeable number of foreign fighters in the region whose subversive activities across the Durand Line had earned Pakistan the wrath of the world’s lone superpower, which threatened its security.

A ceasefire followed by a peace accord was eventually signed with the rebels in the hope that the tribesmen would cease supporting the foreign elements that had taken shelter with them.

Insufficient level of joint planning between GHQ and AHQ at the conceptual stage, inadequate imagery facility, shortage of specialised weapons systems, lack of training for this type of warfare and absence of online systems for quick information dissemination and sharing among the various elements involved in the operations were some of the key lessons that emerged after the conclusion of Operation Al Mizan.

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The first incursion by the Pakistani armed forces in Waziristan in 1947 had continued in fits and starts for a decade and a half – the terms and conditions of the fragile peace accord of 2004 suggested that history was likely to repeat itself and the Pakistani armed forces would once again be called upon to mount further efforts soon to stabilise the troubled region.

Operation Falcon Sweep (PAF) and Sherdil (Army) – Swat, Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies – August 2008 to April 2009

Despite peace overtures and political concessions by the Federal Government of Pakistan to pacify the tribesmen, the situation continued to deteriorate. TTP’s influence spread beyond the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) into the Swat and adjoining Buner valleys.

Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Tehreek e Nifaze Shariate Muhammadi (TNSM), an extremist religious outfit affiliated with the Al Qaeda philosophy, established a reign of terror in the valleys virtually paralysing the civil administration. Pak Army was tasked to subdue the rebellion and re-establish the writ of the government.

Operation Sherdil was conceived and launched by the Pakistan Army, and the PAF’s Operation Falcon Sweep supported it. While AHQ was aware of the impending Army action, it had not been involved in the planning stages. It did, however, carry out contingency plans to provide the kind of air support that had been asked for in earlier operations of a similar nature.

After an intense battle, the land forces working in tandem with the PAF had inflicted heavy losses on the insurgents, but Mullah Fazlullah and many of his followers managed to survive the blitz

During the campaign, PAF was tasked to engage an array of targets ranging from enemy hideouts, surface and underground structures housing their Command and Control Centres, ammunition dumps, supply depots, training camps and infiltration and exit routes of the insurgents. Air attacks were conducted in Swat, Matta, Khwazakhela and Peochar sectors. Some of the targets were situated among the local population, while others were in more isolated regions.

The Taliban had captured a strategic pass at Loe Sam through which regular intake of trained militants from Afghanistan to the Swat Valley was being conducted via Bajaur Agency.

The Taliban forces had to be ejected from the Loe Sam pass. When an infantry unit along with its armour support was moving through the narrow town bazaar street in a built-up area on their way to Loe Sam, the insurgents knocked off the lead, and rear tanks trapping the troops and ambushed them from the sides.

An emergency close support call to help rescue the beleaguered troops was made to the PAF which responded within an hour. PGM equipped F-16s were launched, and the enemy positions from where ambush fire was being directed were identified, engaged and destroyed with pinpoint accuracy. Because of the timely air support and bold counterattack by the troops, the ambush was neutralised.

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Standard interdiction missions against enemy caves, tunnels and other targets were continuously flown as requested by the Army for the duration of the campaign that stretched to about four months. The scale and tempo of air operations during Operation Falcon Sweep were of a much larger magnitude than the earlier ones.

Despite an improvement in procedures, innovations and aircrew training, some of the lessons from the previous COIN operations had still not been adequately addressed. While there had been better air-land cooperation during the campaign, the need to fully integrate air and land operational plans at the initial planning stages of any air-land battle was still missing.

After an intense battle, the land forces working in tandem with the PAF had inflicted heavy losses on the insurgents, but Mullah Fazlullah and many of his followers managed to survive the blitz. The government, due to political expediencies, ordered a ceasefire and signed a peace accord with the rebels that still left the Valley under the latter’s control. While major operations in the valleys were over in about four months, sporadic air operations against militants in FATA continued till April 2009.

Operation Tri-Star – Lifting the Siege of Fort Laddah – January 2009

The unprecedented magnitude of military incursion in South Waziristan by the security forces of Pakistan had stirred up a hornets’ nest in the rest of the tribal areas of the country. It gave birth to a new terror outfit under the nomenclature of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

While maintaining its ideological link to the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda, TTP directed its terror activities primarily on civilian and military targets within the tribal areas and in the rest of the country. Under Baitullah Mehsud, a Waziri, TTP besieged Fort Laddah in South Waziristan where a sizeable number of Frontier Constabulary (FC) troops of Pakistan were stationed.

The success of Operation Tri-Star vindicated the need for full integration of land and air plans from the conceptual stage to the end state of the campaign

They murdered the FC troops around the water source close to the Fort, capturing it and laid a siege around it. FC troops at Fort Laddah were virtually isolated and could not be reinforced with either ration or ammunition. Unless the blockade was broken the troops at Fort Laddah faced an imminent capitulation to the forces of Baitullah Mehsud.

Under the codename Tri-Star, GHQ planned and launched a military manoeuvre against the renegades under Baitullah Mehsud at Ladda. PAF was taken into confidence and was requested to engage the militants’ strongholds, firing positions, ammunition dumps, residential quarters and training camps in the vicinity of the Fort.

The PAF unleashed a focussed interdiction campaign against the besiegers primarily with PGMs for better effectiveness and lower collateral damage. Operation Tri-Star was completed in 15 days. With the help of PAF’s very lethal interdiction campaign and the professionalism and bravery of the troops of Pakistan Army that had taken part in the Operation, Baitullah’s forces were routed, and the siege lifted.

The battlefield environment during Operation Tri-Star was closer to a conventional set up in which identification of enemy targets was comparatively more straightforward than in a classical insurgency where the insurgents by design position themselves among the local populace.

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That the PAF was forewarned about the impending Operation and that accurate intelligence data about the enemy was available both from the Army and the PAF’s resources made the interdiction campaign very effective. The success of Operation Tri-Star vindicated the need for full integration of land and air plans from the conceptual stage to the end state of the campaign.

Advanced Preparation by the Air Staff for Subsequent COIN Operations

The Air Staff was convinced that the peace accord in Swat was very fragile and was likely to breakdown. Anticipating another major combined land-air operation soon it decided to prepare in advance for such an eventuality.

PAF had recently received fresh high-resolution reconnaissance pods for its F-16 fleet from the USA which was made operational in record time. A comprehensive aerial survey and imagery of the entire Swat and Buner valleys along with Bajaur and Mohmand agencies was conducted using these pods. The excellent results of the imaging came in very handy in subsequent operations.

On PAF’s recommendations, airstrikes preceded the land offensive by two days. Over 150 F-16 sorties with LGBs struck the identified enemy targets effectively destroying them

The importance of joint planning during any air-land operations had been accepted in principle by both GHQ and AHQ but more needed to be done to turn the theory into reality. The then boss of air operations at the Air Staff, Air Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman, was convinced that rather than respond to Army’s requests for air support as the campaign unfolds, it would be far better if PAF at the planning phase reached out and offered them the kind of support the service can provide at every stage of the campaign.

The PAF Operation Burq and Army Rah e Rast Unleashed in Swat – May 7 2009

The Swat peace accord did crumble as anticipated, and in May 2009 the Armed Forces of Pakistan were once again tasked to crush the forces of Mullah Fazlullah. Contingency plans for such an eventuality that had already been worked out during joint sessions between senior planning staff of GHQ and AHQ were set in motion. The stage was set for the launch of a full-fledged air and land assault under the codenames Burq and Rah e Rast respectively.

Attractive tourist spots of Swat and Buner valleys had a high density of civil population. Any military action against the rebels who had embedded themselves with the civilians ran the risk of unacceptably great collateral damage. On the recommendation of the Armed Forces, the Federal Government took the difficult decision of asking the people in the valleys to uproot and relocate outside the likely war zones for the duration of the conflict.

The people of Swat and Buner who had been traumatised by the brutality of TNSM rule were willing to pay the price to end the tyranny. A clear majority decided to heed the government’s request and left their hearths and homes – some seeking shelter with their relatives in other parts of the country, and the rest are roughing it out in the hastily arranged state-run refugee camps.

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Ensuring temporary shelters for the mass exodus of the human population from the likely war zones was a logistics’ nightmare. Besides taxing the administrative ability of the state functionaries to the very limit, it put a heavy financial burden on the already cash strapped national economy.

It did, however, give a relatively free run to the military to go after the insurgents without fear of causing high civilian casualties. Even after taking such a radical step, the danger of collateral damage could not be ruled out, and both at GHQ and AHQ strict rules of engagements were formulated and enforced to keep it to a bare minimum.

For the formulation of a comprehensive air plan, the updated imagery of the valleys and agencies were studied, and in coordination with GHQ and inputs from relevant human intelligence sources, enemy ambush sites, supply depots, ammunition dumps, ingress and escape routes and their command and control centres were identified.

Members of mid and high-level leadership of the insurgents are considered prime and legitimate targets in COIN operations. Being aware that they will continuously be under surveillance and threat of attack, their movements are planned in secrecy, and they scrupulously avoid staying at one place for any length of time.

Action on any intelligence on their movement or whereabouts, therefore, must be immediate. The Americans, based on their COIN experience had developed the Time Sensitive Targeting (TST) concept where after fusion of human and electronic intelligence, systems were put in place where information on the location and/or movement of key targets get disseminated to the decision-makers in real-time.

The valiant men of the Pakistan Army ably supported by the PAF could accomplish the mission in record time with far lower casualties than it had suffered in the earlier operations of similar scale and magnitude

Appropriate strike platforms (aircraft/drones) available on very short notice are then released to neutralise them. The Air Staff evaluated TST concept and after validation, through air Exercise Highmark, was modified to suit the local conditions and adopted for future COIN operations.

On PAF’s recommendations, airstrikes preceded the land offensive by two days. Over 150 F-16 sorties with LGBs struck the identified enemy targets effectively destroying them. During this phase, besides attacking the ambush sites and logistics chain, even the possible escape routes and passes of the enemy were targeted, reducing their ability to melt away from the battle zones.

Because of the targeted and intense interdiction campaign, the ability of the insurgents to resist the advancing Army formations was severely degraded. During this phase, LGB carrying Mirage platforms were also employed where target lasing was accomplished by the commandoes of PAF’s Special Surface Wing (SSW), using hand-held ground laser designators.

An illustration of the degree of air-land cooperation can be gauged from the episode of the heliborne landing of a 1500 strong Commando force in the Peochar Valley. On being briefed about the impending Operation, the air planners at JO Directorate studied the latest imagery of the landing area.

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They noticed several suspicious sites from where deadly ambush fire could be directed against the landing helicopters. After further scrutiny and discussion with the army commanders, it was decided that an air interdiction campaign in the Valley to take out the ambush sites should precede the landing. Through a concerted interdiction effort, the militant strongholds and ambush sites that could bring fire on landing helicopters were neutralised.

As a result, the helicopter landings of 1500 Commando troops was accomplished without any mishap. Even after the successful landing of heliborne force, PAF the aircraft maintained their presence over the Valley providing immediate Close Support to the troops. A detachment of the PAF Commando Force (Special Services Wing – SSW) had also participated in the mission along with the Army Special Services Groups (SSG).

Ensuring collateral damage is kept to the bare minimum is one of the cardinal principals during COIN operations. To that end, PAF Rules of Engagement (ROE) spelt out that no aerial attack over the built-up area by fixed-wing platforms of the service will be conducted unless the vacation of civilians can be guaranteed by the Pakistan Army, civil administration of the area and resident notables.

In one instance when a formation of the Pakistan Army was engaged in heavy close quarter battle in an urban warfare scenario, pinpoint airstrikes on the rebel forces operating from houses located in a densely built-up area would have brought a swift end to the rebel resistance at a fraction of cost to own casualty. The aerial bombardment would, however, cause extensive damage to the city property.

The drones (UAVs) with the service were not as advanced and could not carry weapons, but they were very useful in the electronic and video surveillance and eavesdropping mode

The Army opted to accept higher casualties in its ranks and did not ask for any interdiction bombing missions. The enemy was eventually overpowered through hand to hand combat using small arms fire and mortar shells. At a high cost to own casualties, the damage to the city property was kept to a relatively low level by the Army formation.

Between May 7 and until the end of the campaign over 500 combat missions were flown by the PAF and more than 1700 LGBs were dropped. The valiant men of the Pakistan Army ably supported by the PAF could accomplish the mission in record time with far lower casualties than it had suffered in the earlier operations of similar scale and magnitude.

Fazlullah and his TNSM forces were routed and expelled from the valleys. Freed from the clutches of the barbaric TNSM rule the brave people of Swat and Buner who had migrated during the conflict started to return home.

Swat and Buner had been liberated from the clutches of the TNSM brigands and the displaced persons returned to their homeland, but the war on the terror outfits elsewhere had still to be won. The danger of TNSM forces making a comeback could not be ruled out. Army formations in the valleys maintained their presence there.

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At the same time, the PAF continued to keep an aerial vigil on the activities and movements of the rebel forces in and around the region. Post-Rah e Rast and Operation Burq, PAF continued to attack militant targets in Buner, Lower Dir, Bajaur, Mohmand, Orakzai and Kurram Agencies.

During the military operations, TNSM ranks had been swelled by reinforcements from TTP and the Taliban from across the Durand Line. On being routed from the valleys, some of them managed to escape to their sanctuaries in South Waziristan from where they continued their terror and subversive activities.  Another military expedition in South Waziristan appeared imminent.

1. Waziristan Once Again – Operation Rah e Nijat

After the successful military action, a degree of normality had returned in Swat, but unrest in South Waziristan failed to abate and continued to brew, fuelled further by the TNSM, TTP and Al Qaeda escapees from Swat and Buner. Another major operation there was on the card. AHQ and GHQ decided to prepare a contingency plan for such an eventuality.

The PAF flew fresh reconnaissance missions in S. Waziristan, updating the target data and identifying new ones. Air operations of Operation Burq were analysed and procedures refined. Network for sharing of online intelligence, imagery and other key information was set up between AHQ – GHQ and AHQ – Operational Bases. An air support team headed by a two-star PAF officer was established at Joint Operations Directorate at GHQ to coordinate all air activities for the duration of the campaign.

On confirmed reports of the presence of Taliban combatants/commanders at a specified compound in the Tribal Area, PAF had launched a dawn strike to take them out

PAF did not possess the superior electronic eavesdropping facility that US forces possessed, nor did it own sophisticated armed drones of the Predator or Reaper class. Its human intelligence capability was, however, more effective than those of ISAF and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The drones (UAVs) with the service were not as advanced and could not carry weapons, but they were very useful in the electronic and video surveillance and eavesdropping mode. The drones were made a component of PAF’s TST operations and were extensively employed for the purpose during Operation Rah e Nijat.

A concept of Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was conceived where armed aircraft and pilots in ready status were made available to take on any Time Sensitive Targets at short notice. For even faster reaction, armed aircraft were airborne and positioned on predetermined stations, similar to the concept of Combat Air Patrol (CAP), ready to react immediately on receipt of attack orders – except in this case they were configured to take on ground targets instead of airborne ones.

Air interdiction campaign was launched on October 10 2009, ahead of the land offensive followed five days later. One hundred fifty targets that had been mutually coordinated with GHQ were successfully engaged during the first phase. Enemy defences and logistics stamina were softened.

Army offensive commenced on the 17th – the two days’ delay occurred due to inclement weather. Once the land manoeuvre got underway, PAF continued to fly interdiction and close support (CS) missions. TST concept was extensively employed, and during critical phases of the battle, CAP stations were maintained for immediate reaction to any CS requests.

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The employment of ground-based laser designation for LGB carrying Mirages was also an integral part of the air campaign. The Star Sapphire equipped C-130s continued to provide live video images of the critical battle zones to the field commanders on a near 24/7 basis. The PAF drones were extensively flown on Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Overall, PAF had flown over 600 operational sorties during the conduct phase of the battle.

Some of the psychological impacts of PAF’s innovative actions came to light after the campaign through the interrogation of the captured Taliban fighters. Small teams of Taliban foot soldiers lightly armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs needing little logistics support would take positions on hilltops overlooking the movement of Pak Army formations.

As the Army units would be passing through the Valley, they would fire their weapons and RPGs, aiming to cripple the lead and rear vehicles. The trapped elements then became vulnerable to enemy fire from ambush parties appropriately positioned for the purpose.

In the earlier campaigns, once the ambush party’s position was revealed the Army would train their artillery fire and direct the Cobra gunships towards the site. The reaction time before accurate artillery fire was brought to bear on the target or the Cobra gunships could react allowed the ambush posse to melt away safely.

During Operation Rah e Nijat, in line with the TST concept, LGB equipped F-16s patrolled over the battlefield within striking distance. As soon as the ambush party opened fire and revealed their position, target coordination was passed on to the pilots. From a height where the aircraft could neither have been seen nor heard, the F-16s would launch their deadly accurate laser-guided bombs.

Major air and land operations during Rah e Nijat were officially over by November 2009. Within one year PAF and Pakistan Army had successfully fought and won two major campaigns in Swat and South Waziristan

The victims would realise the mortal danger only in the form of a sharp whistle of the bomb just seconds before its impact. This invisible angel of death created a major scare among the Taliban ranks. Those who experienced the attacks but managed to survive referred to them as the whistling death, which they could neither see nor react against. It was, in their opinion, a great demoralising factor.

The strategy required for ensuring minimum collateral damage by the PAF was a very challenging one. While the service took all precautions to minimise chances of collateral damage even at the cost of tying one hand behind the back where necessary, the adversary as a matter of deliberate policy adopted steps to promote it, using civilians as human shields were standard practice with them. They were not even averse to putting their women and children in the line of fire to protect their combatants.

A bizarre case of unintentional collateral damage came to light during one of the air raids. On confirmed reports of the presence of Taliban combatants/commanders at a specified compound in the Tribal Area, PAF had launched a dawn strike to take them out.

Being aware of the cultural nuances of the locals where the guests are accommodated in the guest house portion of the complex while the family members reside in a separate section, only the guest house section was targeted to avoid harming the women and children.

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Post bombing assessment revealed that the arrangement had been reversed because the Taliban were aware that if the news about the presence of their combatants got compromised, PAF would not target the family residential part of the house. To protect their fighters and commanders, they were willing to put their womenfolk and children in harm’s way. The PAF subsequently took further steps through even better intelligence to avoid recurrence of such nature.

As a consequence of the excellent cooperation between the PAF and the Pakistan Army, Operation Rah e Nijat achieved its mission objectives ahead of schedule and with far lower than anticipated casualties. A truly joint air-land campaign extracted maximum benefits from each other’s specific strengths and created the synergy, so critical in any form of warfare, especially those conducted under a 4GW setting.

The brilliant success of air operations during Rah e Rast and Rah e Nijat notwithstanding, there were still some areas that needed to be addressed. During the operations, PAF lacked precision night engagement capability, and this limitation allowed the enemy a degree of freedom of movement at night. The recent induction of Block 52 F-16 aircraft will provide the service with the ability to maintain pressure on the adversary on a 24/7 basis.

PAF yet does not have air-to-air refuelling facility for its combat fleet. A couple of Probe and Drogue Russian tankers have been acquired, and efforts are afoot to modify some of the Mirages to give them the ability to carry out mid-air refuelling.

Plans to have the entire JF-17 fleet capable of aerial refuelling are on the table while procurement of a Boom and Receptacle (Flying Boom) tanker to provide a similar capability for the F-16 fleet is under active consideration. With the availability of air-to-air refuelling, PAF’s ability to maintain round the clock presence over the battlefield will be further enhanced.

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ISR is an essential component in any form of warfare, and in a 4GW setting, it is critical. While the PAF has made much progress in the recent past in this field, the exponential rate at which computer technology and miniaturisation is advancing has resulted in very rapid development and availability of better systems.

The service must continue to remain abreast of the latest technological developments in the ISR department and acquire them wherever possible. Developing indigenous capability in this area should continue to be accorded a very high priority.

Major air and land operations during Rah e Nijat were officially over by November 2009. Within one year PAF and Pakistan Army had successfully fought and won two major campaigns in Swat and South Waziristan. While the battles had been won, the war on militancy and extremism still raged. The service remains vigilant and is prepared for future air actions of similar or even greater magnitude.

Note: All operational details were obtained from briefing and files from the PAF’s Directorate of Operations.

Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh) and national newspapers including Dawn, The News, and The Nation. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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