The Pakistan Navy stands partially blinded till December this year after the destruction of two Orions (P-3C) at the PNS Mehran base in Karachi on Sunday night, The News has learnt.
Sources in the Pakistan Navy revealed the defenders of seas’ capability to counter any threat from the sea had virtually come down to around 20 percent for the time being with three old Orions stationed in the US for routine repairs, check-up and upgrade. The Navy now has one Orion, a Fokker (upgraded with the required gadget for surveillance) and a Gulfstream jet (upgraded for the purpose). These three stations are not enough to guard the maritime frontiers of the country. The first of the three Orions sent for maintenance is expected to return in December this year. The second and the third Orion are expected to resume service in June and December next year.
With its 120 nautical-mile (222.24 km) radar and diverse detect and destroy capability, this $36 million aircraft is considered the backbone of Pakistan Navy. Apart from diverse surveillance capability, this aircraft has a broader envelope with the prowess to search and destroy all sea targets in its combat radius (18 hours non-stop flight with an onboard radar, which can detect the target at 360 degrees up to 222.24 kms) with its payload of depth chargers, Harpoon Missiles and Mak-46 torpedoes. In addition to this, these aircraft also assist in indirect or alternate attacks from other sea and air platforms with the help of its sophisticated target detection capability, which helps in searching and locking multiple targets in the sea as well as in the air.
Initial investigations into the incident by the Pakistan Navy do not rule out the possibility of foreign involvement in the sabotage operation carried out by just four extremely well-trained intruders, who were armed with sophisticated modern-day assault weaponry. It is learnt the navy is amazed at the level of preparedness and pre-mission information, including intricate details about tower-positions, light movement frequency, patrolling, cameras and exact location and comprehensive knowledge of the target once in sight.
Sources revealed four guerrillas, dressed in black, entered the premises from the Korangi (Faisal Town) side, using bushes on the bank of the drain as camouflage. After reaching the boundary wall, they not only blew a hole with sophisticated explosive, having little spark and sound, they also cut the charged wires after climbing up, using ladders. Once in the compound, they used the blind spots left within the two towers 100 metres apart. It seemed they had worked on the movement of lights to minute details, figuring exactly when to sneak ahead by evading the moving lights. They also had complete information vis-i-vis placement of cameras (including their panning circumference and timing) in and around the hangars, housing the aircraft. The investigators believe the information on the periphery of the compound could have been gathered from intense surveillance atop the Karsaz bridge, which gives a panoramic view of the northern side of the base.
However, it is believed, the exact info on the details of the complex, which is not visible otherwise, the hangar and the aircraft suggests the plan just cannot be a work of amateur terrorists. The way the entire mission was executed, the sources in Pakistan Navy believe, it seems some specialists must have worked on the plan quite extensively. Moreover, the ex-Navy officials were of the view it was an inside job, implying that someone from within had provided vital information to saboteurs for the mission. And, if the investigation zeroes in on the possibility of sabotage from outside, the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), Mossad (Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) or even the CIA (Central Investigation Agency) could be a suspect. Interestingly, in such a scenario, the US technicians, working on the new Orions, might have to be interrogated.
More interesting is the fact the attackers precisely knew about the maintenance-cycle of Orions, and possibly had prior information with regard to presence of seven US and 11 Chinese technicians working in the PNS Mehran for the certification. The Pakistan Navy officials have arrived to this notion after juxtaposing the modus operandi of the assailants and timing of the incident. These foreign experts were housed half a kilometer south of the hangar, where the gunbattle raged on Sunday. The foreigners were evacuated immediately from the other gate on the order of Admiral Abbas Raza as soon as the first plane exploded.
These attackers were equipped with four RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers), Russian made AK-47s, night vision goggles (NVGs), hand-grenades and a sniper rifle with silencer. They had extra rounds for all rifles. However, they didn’t have any extra round for the RPGs, which they threw away after firing the loaded rounds. Once reaching the tarmac, one of the attackers fired an RPG round on one of the Orions.
The naval officials believe this strike had a purpose, that is, they knew the explosion would entail a blackout. And, it happened exactly that way. After the blackout, as the PNS Mehran’s unit of Rapid Reaction Force, comprising around 12 personnel, including three firefighters and two paramedics, reached the spot. With lights gone off, these assailants engaged the coming force, using night vision goggles. During the crossfire, these terrorists took out Lt Yasir and three firefighters with gunshots and grenades.
The attackers could see them with the NVGs, while the coming reaction force personnel were not equipped with the same gadget thus becoming easy targets. After injuring a couple of more, and forcing the rest to retreat, the attackers fired another RPG round on the second Orion. They then proceeded further for attaching magnetic explosives near the wings of the burning aircrafts. These explosives are highly sophisticated, and are not available easily even in the black-market. It is important to note the attackers did not touch any other aircraft (Fokker) or helicopter (Chinese ZA-6) parked in the same vicinity.
Within 15 minutes of the first fire shot, the 16-member Quick (Immediate) Response Force (QRF) of the Naval SSGs (Special Services Group of the Pakistan Navy also called Navy Seals), arrived at the spot from PNS Iqbal and engaged the attackers. By this time, three terrorists had taken position on the roof of an adjacent two-storey building used by Pakistan Navy for pre and post flight briefings and debriefings. This building has a crew room, a lounge, a briefing room and a leisure room, besides small offices, etc. The gang-leader, however, stayed in front of the building, taking a position on the ground. As the QRF engaged, the leader also went inside the building. The sniper on the rooftop, meanwhile, kept firing rounds on the SSG personnel for taking out men with the help of the night vision capability. The two others kept engaging the closer targets as crossfire raged. After cordoning the building off, and giving the warning to the terrorists to surrender, three SSG personnel, a Hawaldar (leading man) and two sailors tried to enter the building from the same front door in a bid to engage the leader.
They received a volley of bullets from the leader, getting critically injured. However, one of them got the leg of the leader, who blew himself up immediately as he was wearing an explosive jacket over the bullet-proof vest. All of them had both jackets on. The QRF, after having secured the assets and necessary information about the compound, formed the inner cordon. Some SSG personnel from the QRF then entered the building in search of the rest of attackers. After another 25 minutes, the QRF was reinforced by the 60-member Deliberate Response Force (DRF). This contingent formed the outer cordon at around 150 meters of the building. The inner cordon, 50 meters of the building, then crossed fire with some men searching inside.
The SSG personnel inside got themselves locked in a room-to-room battle with two assailants equipped with AK-47s and hand-grenades. One of the attackers was shot in the head who fell on the ground instantly. Since the bullet entered the brain, the attacker couldn’t blow himself up. The other attacker also got hit, and he blew himself up. He had 17 bullet-hits. Meanwhile, the SSG personnel outside the building spotted the last terrorist, the sharpshooter, at the roof. He was spotted because of the spark of the gunshot. He was also taken out. The operation ended by dawn in less than seven hours. However, the naval SSG commandos took more hours for sweeping the entire runway and other places in the PNS Mehran.
During the entire operation, the naval SSG exercised complete command, while the Rangers, who had rushed to the spot from the gate as well as the reinforcements, stayed behind the SSG’s outer cordon. The naval SSGs lost three men, who were shot at the front door by the gang leader. The Rapid Response Team of simple marines from the PNS Mehran lost four men, while one Rangers’ personnel was also martyred.
No Army SSG or regular force personnel was engaged in the operation. As against the GHQ attack, where the Zarar Company of the SSG carried out the operation, 25 people, including two senior Army officials, got killed at the hands of eight terrorists in a gunbattle that continued for around 20 hours, the naval SSG personal managed the situation relatively easily.
Ironically, the Pakistan Navy is being criticised for the security lapse, very few are acknowledging the brave effort of the Pakistan Navy Seals and other personnel, who have sacrificed their lives for the motherland. In these troubled times, when the terrorism menace and external sabotage activities are getting out of control, the loss of precious lives amongst the armed forces deserves more respect.