What (If Anything) Went Wrong With Operation Dhangu At Pathankot Air Base

Over the past few days commentators on social media have expressed their thoughts on the Pathankot terror attack. A recurring theme (besides the sympathy and admiration for the soldiers who lost their lives), has revolved around the following:

  1. The time it took for Indian forces to neutralise (what we have been told officially) 6 terrorists;
  2. With over 1000 army men in the operation, why didn’t we just use overwhelming force to kill the terrorists?
  3. What went wrong? Six terrorists managed to kill 7 Indian personnel and injure over 20.
The following is merely my opinion on this and I’m not going to be mentioning names of any Army/IAF/NSA/RAW/IB personnel deceased or otherwise.


I’m guessing most of you asking the above questions are basing your comments on the data gathered from reading news articles and commentary from so called ‘special correspondents’ of various news channels. What we need to keep in mind is that whilst most of these correspondents are really good at their jobs, the need to get ‘in-front’ of the story and before other competing channels often results in information being shared that doesn’t come from official sources and ‘analysis’ are done based on hearsay or pure conjecture.

Moreover, as we have seen in the past, certain media reports have the habit of twisting events to make things sound either ‘pro-‘ or ‘anti-‘ the incumbent government.

Lets take a look at some facts:

The Target: Pathankhot Air Force Base

The Location: Dhangu Village, Pathankot – Majra Road

AO (Area of Operation): Approx 800 hectares/2000 acres/3.125 square miles. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly 1800 football fields!

Distance from Pakistan border: Approx 30km

The primary mission objective: To destroy fighter jets, helicopters, and other assets; target personnel and cause as much death and chaos before being killed. (Yes, if possible these guys don’t want to be caught.)

Possible secondary mission objective: Disrupt base operations, thereby crippling border recon

The Plan: A group of armed insurgents infiltrate a highly secure IAF base. They split up with one group hoping to provide cover and engage the troops and another goes about laying explosives and destroying as many assets. They picked the pre-dawn time of 3:00 am for the main assault as this period is commonly believed to be ideal for conducting covert operations and is often employed by special forces.

The outcome: All 6 terrorists were neutralised and no major damage to any base asset .

Counter Operation Codenamed: Dhangu Suraksha


So if you were to look at it with a simplistic view, they failed in their objective. The Indian security forces prevented what could have been a catastrophe. That cannot be denied. Now with that out of the way, let’s look at the following:

1. What went right from the our (Indian) point of view.

  • Early intercepts of the attack resulted in a massive deployment of counter forces;
  • What could have ended up with hundreds of lives lost and millions of dollars worth equipment damaged was prevented
  • The threat was nuetralised, the base sanitised and was brought back to normal operations within a couple of days.

2. What went wrong from our (Indian) point of view.

We had early warning about the attack, why couldn’t we stop them from entering the base in the first place? Here is an answer:

  • Please understand, the early warning about a ‘potential’ attack didn’t necessarily mean our forces had specifics. Generic intelligence about possible attacks come in almost every single day but such generic information has to be further verified and narrowed down into actionable intelligence.
  • In this case however, the intelligence was filtered and verified into actionable intelligence and NSA identified Pathankot Air Base as the definite target, sometime late afternoon of Jan 1.
  • At this point, unlike in the movies, the NSA can’t just pick up the phone and get troops moved around; there’s a set of procedures set into motion, the first of which being conveying a meeting with the three service chiefs, and heads of RAW and IB. Now, in normal circumstances, there would also have been a meeting with the Cabinet Committe on Security but there just wasn’t enough time for that.
  • The verified intelligence data was shared and a plan of action was agreed to and put into motion. The first of which being moving 9 columns of the Army (approx 1000 men) from nearby cantonments into the base and begin securing the base by forming multiple rings of security. Keep in mind, this is your defensive layer not the offensive or the ‘tip of the spear’. That’s where the NSG and SOG (Special Operations Group) come in. But that doesn’t happen until later.
  • The army columns start arriving at the base later that evening and are deployed to key locations along with Garud commandos to secure the assets, base personnel, including about 3000 families, and the base goes into effective lockdown.

Special Security


Why the Special Forces weren’t deployed immediately?

Please understand the SOG and the NSG are trained to handle counter-hostage situations/utilised to engage/neutralise the enemy. At this point, whilst it was certain the base is the target, there is absolutely no information on the location of the terrorists. You can’t have SOG and NSG teams deployed securing assets! That’s not their primary role. What will be done at this point is to get the teams into mission-ready status and keep them in the closest staging area possible and this is what was done.

The attack and the counter-ops

The attack started around 3.30 am on Jan 2 and the operation against it went on for almost three days. This is where the next question comes in.

What did it take three days? Now that the terrorists had revealed themselves, why couldn’t we use our much larger and overwhelming force to neutralise them immediately?

The answer to this is simple, the terrorists were already on the base. Using an overwhelming and indiscriminate force would have resulted in our own troops causing damage to assets on the base, but more importantly, there were over 3000 family members on the base who could have very well become collateral damage. This is what was on the minds of the people running Operation Dhangu.

As we couldn’t use overwhelming force, we had to use a more precision-based approach. It also meant taking into consideration the terrorists who were armed with kilos of ammunitions (in excess of 100 kg overall including grenades, ammo, assault rifles, mines, etc.) and were placing booby traps and other anti-personnel explosives. (One NSG commando was killed by the booby-trapped body of a slain terrorist.) This made the job for our SOG even more difficult as they had to clear the areas while moving very cautiously.

It is easy for everyone including myself to become armchair critics and ‘experts’ suggesting how things could have gone down, but it’s not fair to the men and women who were in the thick of the operation and prevented a massive disaster from happening.




Instead of focussing on the time it took and the time it should have taken, there are more poignant questions that come to mind:

  1. Though it’s easy to get military uniforms/fatigues , the base is secured with 11 foot high walls, razor wires, security lights and regular patrols. Reports of angles of security lights being tampered with and non-functioning lights are of concern. Internal complicity or assistance is a big concern. Just because this group of terrorists have been neutralised does not mean we can get complacent. If we can’t identify the people who helped them from inside the possibility of this happening again is almost certain.
  2. Are the reports of at least two terrorists having been on the base for at least 12 hours true? If so, this is extremely worrying.
  3. Are the reports of malfunctioning HHTI ( Hand Held Thermal Imagers) on the BSF posts accurate?
  4. Are reports of major holes in the stories given by Gurdaspur SP true?
This post doesn’t go into the whole background of the terrorists, role of ISI and its S-Wing the Jaish-e-Mohammed. That’s a whole other can of worms for another day. Let us understand that what could have been an attack of epic proportions was prevented. The men who lost their lives died doing a job they prepared for every single day. Given the chance they would do it all over again. Hundreds of lives were most definitely saved and millions of dollars of equipment/assets saved.

Let’s now focus on the real questions such as that of internal hand and get some answers to that. We should fix some of the core underlying problems such as porous borders and malfunctioning equipment, and not spend our energies in the needless discussion of whether the special forces could have gone in and neutralised these terrorists within the duration of a Bollywood movie. Jai Hind!


The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of TopYaps, or any other entity of TopYaps.com.

Facebook Discussions