There is a confusing debate in our electronic media about the pros and cons of using air power against the Maoist insurgents. The debate has been triggered off by remarks made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P.Chidambaram about all options remaining open, including the use of air power. These comments were made after the Maoists succeeded in butchering 75 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force plus one member of the District Police in a deadly ambush in the forests of the Dantewada District of Chattisgarh on April 6, 2010.
2. There are three concepts involved---use of air power, use of air strikes and use of the Air Force in the operations against the insurgents. Air power is a wide term implying the use of air-borne assets such as aircraft, helicopters and armed or unarmed Drones (pilotless planes) for performing various operational tasks such as intelligence collection, electronic monitoring of ground signals, logistics, humanitarian relief and attacks on the ground positions of the insurgents.
3.Air strike is a restricted term meaning the use of air-borne assets only for the purpose of attacking the insurgents' ground positions.Use of the Air Force means using the air-borne assets of the Air Force.
4. In the history of India's counter-insurgency, we have used air strikes by the Air Force only once----in 1966 when the Mizo National Front (MNF), in a surprise attack, overran practically the whole of Mizoram, including Aizawl, its capital. To dislodge the MNF insurgents from Aizawl, air strikes by the Air Force of a limited duration were ordered. Apart from that we have not used air strikes by the Air Force for dealing with internal security situations. A basic principle followed by many countries is that one cannot resort to air strikes in one's own territory against one's own people.
5.Air strikes on one's own nationals tend to aggravate an insurgency situation by causing casualties of civilians, damaging the environment in forest areas and driving more people to join the ranks of the insurgents. They also attract the attention and criticism of international human rights organisations such as the Amnesty International and humanitarian relief organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
6. There are cases of some nations resorting to air strikes by their Air Froce against their own nationals for dealing with an insurgency.Examples: Pakistan's use of its Air Force against the Baloch nationalists and the Pakistani Taliban, Russia's use of the Air Force against the Chechens and Sri Lanka's use of its Air Force against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In Pakistan and Russia it has aggravated the insurgency problem. In Sri Lanka, the air strikes helped in crushing the insurgency, but it has been facing an embarrassing sequel in the form of international demands for an enquiry into the way it crushed the LTTE.
7. The use of air strikes by our Air Force against the Maoist positions on the ground would be inadvisable. It could brutalise our counter-insurgency operations. Over the years, India has made for itself a name as a role-model in its restrained counter-insurgency approach. We have dealt with serious situations without resorting to air strikes and the use of heavy artillery. We should not deviate from our exemplary record of the past in dealing with alienated sections of our population who have taken to arms against the State.
8. Use of air power without air strikes is permissible in counter-insurgency situations. We are already using air power for dealing with internal security situations. For special interventions for terminating a terrorist attack, we use aircraft under the control of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), a civilian organisation, piloted by Air Force officers taken on deputation by the ARC. They go into action not on behalf of the Air Force, but on behalf of a civilian wing of the Government (the ARC). Similarly, even in Dantewada on April 6, we used air power for logistics and humanitarian purposes such as the evacuation of the injured.
9. Similarly, for years, we have been using the surveillance aircraft of the ARC for intelligence collection purposes while dealing with an insurgency through methods such as aerial photography, electronic monitoring of ground signals etc. It is totally in order for us to continue to use air power for such purposes. It will be equally in order for us to undertake a post-mortem of the adequacy of the airpower available for use in counter-insurgency situations. If there are deficiencies, how to remove them?
10. There are two ways of removing the deficiencies--- augment the air power of para-military organisations such as the CRPF and the Border Security Force (BSF) and supplement their air power by using the air-borne assets of the Air Force. After 1966, we have not used the air-borne assets controlled by the Air Force in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism situations. If we want to use the assets of the Air Force in future on a regular basis, procedural complications might arise because the assets of the Air Force were sanctioned and acquired for use against external adversaries and not for use in internal security situations. That is why the Air Force chief seems to have some reservations on this issue.
11. A correct solution, which will not prove controversial, will be to undertake a crash programme for augmenting the air power of the para-military forces and the ARC.
12. Barring the example of Operation Blue Star in the Golden Temple at Amritsar in 1984, we have avoided using the Armed Forces for counter-insurgency situations in areas away from the border. In the bordering areas, the cross-border dimensions make the use of the armed forces for an active role become unavoidable. But we do avoid in other areas. We should continue doing so. We would not like the Maoists, who have taken to arms against the police and the para-military forces, to start looking upon the armed forces also as their enemies and begin attacking them.
13. The Armed Forces should be used only in a desperate ground situation. The situation in the Maoist-controlled areas is serious, but not desperate. Chidambaram's image as a no-nonsense professional to the core has taken a beating after the way he mishandled the case for the extradition of David Coleman Headley, of the Chicago cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), and the Maoist insurgency . Instead of drawing the right lessons from the set-backs suffered by him so far, he is tending to lose patience and embark on even more escalatory methods. This could prove counter-productive. ( 9-4-2010)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )