According to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) it has flown more than 5,500 strike sorties over the country’s troubled tribal regions since May 2008. In a rare glimpse into Pakistan’s attempt to counter domestic terrorism from the air, the commander of the PAF described some lessons learned to the Air Chiefs Conference here in Dubai on Saturday.
The need for good airborne reconnaissance was paramount, said Air Chief Marshall Rao Qamar Suleiman. When the Pakistan army launched large-scale operations in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in August 2008, the PAF had to rely on Google Earth imagery when planning air support missions, Suleiman admitted.
However, by the time that the army was ready to move against insurgents in the Swat Valley in May 2009, the PAF had acquired Goodrich DB-110 electro-optical reconnaissance pods for its F-16 fighters, together with the same company’s ground station for imagery exploitation. Intelligence analysts could now identify terrorist training camps, ammunition dumps and command and control facilities. Some of these targets were well camouflaged, and protected by bunkers, Suleiman noted.
Two days before the ground offensive was launched, the PAF launched a series of interdiction missions, and followed up with close air support throughout the six-month campaign. From the imagery collected by the PAF, the army was also able to identify suitable landing zones for the airdrops of commandos.
In these mountainous regions, airpower was best delivered from medium altitude by fast jets, Suleiman said. “The army has lost many attack helicopters due to their operating limitations at high elevations, and [due to] hostile fire,” he noted. Fighters could also react more quickly to developing combat situations.
When the army turned its attention to South Waziristan in October 2009, the PAF conducted a seven-day campaign in advance. By now, the service had added FLIR Systems Star Safire III EO/IR sensor ball to one of its C-130 transports. Army staff on board the C-130 was able to track the movement of terrorists at night, and radio maneuvering instructions to soldiers on the ground.
The PAF has completely overhauled its tactics and techniques for the conduct of irregular warfare, Suleiman said. All of the squadrons were put through a training program over a four-month period. Laser-guided bombs have been used in 80 percent of the PAF strikes, the PAF chief revealed. Avoiding collateral damage was a primary concern, he explained, “especially since we were engaging targets within our own country. We engage isolated structures only, away from populated areas.”
More than 10,600 bombs have been dropped, and 4,600 targets destroyed, he said. The PAF has flown more than 500 F-16 sorties with the DB-110 pod, and 650 with the Star Safire EO/IR sensor on the C-130.
The statistics may impress but while Suleiman claimed that “we’ve broken the back of militants in the FATA,” he also warned that offensive military engagement could only accomplish “10 to 15 percent” of the task of pacifying the tribal areas. The rest must be done by dialogue, winning hearts and minds through economic development of these very poor regions, he said.
In his presentation, Pakistan’s Air Chief Marshall Rao Qamar Suleiman did not mention the Selex Galileo Falco UAV. However, Pakistan was the first customer for the reconnaissance drone, which carries the Anglo-Italian company’s own electro-optical/infrared sensor ball. Suleiman later told AIN that there had been problems with the UAV’s data link, caused partly by terrain masking. “Then we put in a relay station, and started flying it higher, so now we are using it more,” he continued.