MH370: India’s wake-up call

Fighting terrorism involves imagining and preparing for the unimaginable. India has a dangerously poor record of doing either

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:25 pm IST

Published - March 20, 2014 01:02 am IST

Late in the summer of 2012, two young men sat at either end of an Internet connection linking Karachi with Kathmandu, weaving online fantasies. Their dreams, unlike those of most people their age, didn’t centre around music, or money, or love. Muhammad Zarar Siddibapa, alleged to have been the operational head of the Indian Mujahideen’s urban bombing campaign against India, wanted to know if his Karachi-based boss, Riyaz Ahmad Shahbandri, could find him a nuclear bomb. The two men, the National Investigation Agency says, discussed attacking Surat “with nuclear warheads if they could be procured.”

It was a meaningless, idle daydream — the kernel from which all hideous nightmares are born. The surreal disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is a good occasion for Indians to start thinking about what might happen if we are ever compelled to live those nightmares.

Bar online speculation as idle as the Indian Mujahideen’s Internet chatter, there’s no reason to think that MH370 was hijacked to stage a 9/11-type attack on an Indian city or nuclear installation. There’s even less reason to think the aircraft might have been fitted with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Yet, on the morning of September 11, 2001, there was no good reason at all to believe a terrorist attack involving hijacked jets might bring down the Twin Towers in New York.

Threats from the air The fact is, however, that speculation is a useful intellectual tool. MH370, which succeeded in evading detection during its suspected flight across multiple countries, was in range of Indian cities, industrial sites housing toxic chemicals and nuclear facilities — which necessitates asking the question, “what if”?

Fighting terrorism involves imagining and preparing for the unimaginable: and India has a dangerously poor record of doing either.

Though the prospect of a terrorist group acquiring nuclear weapons or radiological assets remains small, Indian nuclear installations remain at risk from aircraft used as weapons. Though newer nuclear reactors have double-domed concrete structures, in theory capable of withstanding a direct hit, there are obvious reasons to avoid testing the engineering in the real world. In the wake of 9/11, New Delhi promulgated no-fly regulations around several nuclear facilities. However, the scholar, Sitakanta Mishra noted in a 2009 paper for the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, the rules “have not been strictly implemented.” “Surprisingly,” he wrote, “even today, aircrafts can fly over the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.”

It isn’t only nuclear installations that are at risk. There have, government sources say, been repeated restricted air space violations over New Delhi, each a potential threat to critical targets like Parliament, defence and intelligence complexes, the President’s estate and the Prime Minister’s home and office. None reached crisis-point — but there is little clarity on what would happen if they did.

Air Force sources familiar with air-defence systems at these facilities say one key problem is pre-delegation — instructions for when commanders on the ground can use lethal force against a potential threat. Had MH370 appeared on radar screens guarding Indian nuclear installations, officials up the chain of command would have had minutes to make a decision — knowing all the while that it might be the wrong one. There has never been an explicit political mandate for the exact circumstances in which these choices could be made.

For military planners, the dilemmas involved in such decisions are significant. In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 flying from New York to Seoul. The flight’s malfunctioning autopilot system had, subsequent international investigations revealed, led it into the strategically crucial Kamchatka Peninsula, raising Soviet fears that it might be a hostile aircraft.

Declassified Soviet documents show that the commander of the Soviet Far East District Air Defense Forces, General Valery Kamensky, wanted the aircraft destroyed — but only after it was positively identified not to be civilian. His subordinate, General Anatoly Kornukov, commander of Sokol Air base, disagreed. “What civilian,” the documents show him exclaiming, “[It] has flown over Kamchatka! It [came] from the ocean without identification. I am giving the order to attack if it crosses the State border.”

Minutes later, a Sukhoi 15 interceptor fired Kaliningrad K-8 air-to-air missiles at the Korean Airlines jet: 246 passengers and 23 crew died.

During the run-up to the New Delhi Commonwealth Games, intelligence officials repeatedly discussed the prospect of an attack on a high-profile target using either hijacked aircraft or a remotely-piloted drone fitted with explosives. The Air Force took charge of surveillance, but no firm decision was taken on precisely what events would trigger an armed intervention.

Flailing on the seas To this day, India does not have a central command centre, where military, intelligence and civilian officials can observe and liaise on real time threats — and take a decision when needed. In emergencies, power rests with the Crisis Management Group, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. This mechanism allows for effective decision-making after a crisis — but is useless when there are minutes, not hours, to take a call.

In the summer of 2011, a rusting ship floated gently towards Mumbai’s Juhu beach, unnoticed almost until it nudged the shore. The Pavit , a 1,000-tonne Panama-flagged merchant ship that had been abandoned by its crew and reported sunk, had drifted through Indian waters for more than a hundred hours, undetected by the Navy, the Coast Guard and spanking-new police patrol boats purchased after 26/11.

The dangers were unmistakable: the ship could have been carrying terrorists or explosive or toxic chemicals, each with the potential to kill thousands. It isn’t only in the air, the story shows, that India’s borders remain vulnerable.

No official investigation of the failures that enabled the Pavit to drift ashore undetected — or a similar incident involving the merchant ship, Wisdom earlier that month — has ever been made public. In private, though, naval and intelligence sources admit the failures of coordination and technology, like a coastal surveillance radar.

Few of those problems seem to have been addressed: just last year, it transpired that the Seaman Guard Ohio , a 394-tonne floating armoury serving anti-piracy mercenaries, had been operated in Indian waters for 45 days, evading multiple Coast Guard patrols as well as a port search at Kochi. The mercenaries on board were in fact protecting Indian sailors — but could just as easily have been terrorists.

India’s fishing fleet still hasn’t been fitted with a satellite-based tracking and identification system, necessary to stop attacks coming in from across the high seas. Last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General said that “72 per cent of the fast patrol vessels (FPVs)/inshore patrol vessels (IPVs), 47 per cent of the advanced offshore patrol vessels (AOPVs) and 37 per cent of interceptor boats (IBs) were either on extended life or their extended life had expired.” It recorded that 36 of 50 coastal police outposts remained non-functional, since no police were posted there.

The Ministry of Home Affairs’ annual reports have dutifully recorded its determination to act — and then nothing has been done. In 2011-12, the Home Ministry’s annual report said it had asked all States to “carry out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements.” However, its 2010-2011 report, had said they had already “carried out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements.” The 2009-2010 report had said the Ministry had “carried out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements.” Little changed except the page numbers on to which the text was cut-and-pasted.

India’s security system must do better. The resources needed to combat future terrorism will also make the everyday lives of Indians safer: infrastructure for a terrorist chemical weapons attack, for example, will save lives during a catastrophic industrial accident.

It isn’t that nothing is being done: the Central Industrial Security Force now has United States-trained units specialising in guarding nuclear installations; the Border Security Force has at least one battalion with expertise in operating in a nuclear, chemical or bacteriological environment. The Defence Research and Development Organisation has made extensive efforts to train police, while the National Disaster Management Authority has worked to build the rudiments of a proper emergency-response force.

These efforts are too little, though — and too focussed on the catastrophes of the past, not the ones which might confront us tomorrow. Local administrators, moreover, have lacked the resolve needed to give them meaning at the level of cities and towns: not one Indian urban centre regularly rehearses its disaster responses. MH370 might yet go down as one more wake-up call India’s counter-terrorism system slept through.

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