AirPower Employment in Asymmetric Warfare And Collateral Damage: A Case Study Of Operations Rah-e-Rast And Rah-e-Nijat

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Accurate assessment of collateral damage during operations Rah e Rast, Rah e Nijat, Zarb e Azb and Radd ul Fasaad is not easy as figures which were given out by various sources cannot be independently verified. Civilian casualties did result during the two campaigns but to what extent is difficult to gauge, given the peculiar nature of the conflicts. Because of the remoteness of the region, especially in South Waziristan and the inaccessibility of even neutral observers, no independent sources can verify the figures that the militants periodically announce after each aerial strike by the state. Swat, by comparison, is not as remote and it should have been possible to ascertain a reasonably accurate figure of civilian victims due to airstrikes. There too no reliable statistics are available because first, the militant targets and hideouts engaged by the fixed-wing assets were mostly in sparsely populated areas of the Valley that were dominated by the TTP who would grant access to the bombed sites only to their sympathisers. And second, under the garb of religious rituals, the dead would be interred overnight in graves without any outsiders bearing witness to the identity of the victims. The figures dished out by the militants would, therefore, be highly unreliable.

On the other hand, the data released by the government sources are at best rough estimates based to an extent on an educated guess and partly on human intelligence. Given the nature of the conflict where the importance of psychological warfare to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population is critical, both sides will go to great lengths to demonise each other while projecting their cause as virtuous; hence neither source can be truly relied upon.

Some scholars oppose the employment of fixed-wing air elements against the relatively lightly armed rebels. They consider that compared to the use of ground forces with their intrinsic firepower, aerial bombardment tend to escalate collateral damage and hence is counterproductive. How accurate is this point of view, and is it unwise to use firepower from aerial platforms against 4GW opponents?  While it may not be possible for independent observers to arrive at an accurate figure of collateral damage caused by fixed-wing aerial attacks during the two campaigns, a critical analysis of the conduct of air operations there should provide some clue.

Twice earlier, the military had been inducted in Swat and South Waziristan to flush out the insurgents, but on each occasion, operations were called off, and a truce declared. Two major factors were responsible for the failure of earlier attempts. First, lack of public support severely curtailed the freedom of action of the government, which despite having the upper hand militarily had to accept a ceasefire. Second, lack of experience in combating a 4GW adversary was responsible for the adoption of conventional military tactics against a very slippery foe. The resultant collateral damage, which may have been acceptable against a conventional force, was unacceptable in this form of warfare. Under growing public resentment, the government had to back down – twice.

The use of fixed-wing air power during the earlier military incursions into Swat and South Waziristan was limited. The Army relied heavily on its artillery and rotary-wing platforms to engage distant targets. Fixed-wing combat aircraft were sporadically employed to take out targets beyond the range of artillery and Cobra helicopter gunships. Other assets of the PAF, like tactical reconnaissance capabilities, were not adequately tapped. There was a definite lack of inter-service ‘jointness’ between the Army and Air Force during the operation.

The public sentiments turned against the militants in 2009, and for the first time, the government found the political ambience favourable for launching a decisive military campaign against the groups that had struck terror in Swat and S. Waziristan.

Swat operation codenamed Rah e Rast was launched in 2009. Many valuable lessons that were learnt on asymmetric warfare from the earlier unsuccessful attempts were applied, and the military was now better prepared to deal with the contingencies. The PAF was made an integral part of the operations both in the planning and execution phases. With its newly acquired advanced photo-reconnaissance capability, the PAF was able to provide to the Army aerial photographs of enemy ambush sites mostly situated on hilltops along the axis of approach through the Valley. The photo intelligence further collaborated with human intelligence network, and a fairly accurate picture of TTP’s defensive strategy to counter the Army’s offensive emerged.

A couple of days before the launching of the land offensive, PAF combat jets systematically neutralised the ambush sites through airstrikes. When the Army commenced its offensive, they faced relatively much lower levels of resistance en route. They were able to reach the main population centres in the Valley rapidly and with far fewer casualties than what was experienced in the earlier campaigns. In the population centres, the Army had to engage the enemy in a classic ‘Urban Warfare’ battles. Higher own casualties and collateral damage were incurred in this phase of operations, but these are considered unavoidable when flushing out the enemy from urban centres. Airpower in the shape of Cobra helicopter gunships was extensively employed but PAF combat jets, as a matter of policy, avoided engaging enemy targets in the urban setting. This was one of the rules of engagement framed by the service to keep collateral damage to the bare minimum.

Besides photo-reconnaissance support and pre-invasion softening of the enemy defences, PAF’s strike platforms were available on short notice to provide close support to the troops engaged in combat. The PAF attacked targets such as ammunition dumps and fortified enemy bunkers beyond the range of artillery. Here again, the rules of engagement were strictly followed, and the PAF carefully avoided urban targets. When engaging targets outside the urban setting, where there was even a remote possibility of causing damage to the life and property of non-combatants, laser-guided bombs with their pinpoint accuracy were dropped.  Where free-falling bombs were used in sparsely populated regions, these were delivered from very steep dive angles to minimise the margin for error.

As a result of close cooperation between the Army and the Air Force and the overall improvement in training, technique and equipment related to 4GW warfare setting, major military objectives were achieved ahead of schedule. It took just a few months for the military to dislodge the militants from the Valley. Besides, the cost in terms of owns casualties and collateral damage was considerably lower than earlier operations of similar nature and magnitude. The Armed Forces of Pakistan had finally arrived at a winning formula against a force employing asymmetric warfare strategy.

The next operation in S. Waziristan codenamed Rah e Rast witnessed an even closer Air-Land cooperation. Pre-launch photo reconnaissance and softening of the TTP defences preceded the land offensive, and it paid rich dividends. PAF had by then developed the ability for wide-area video coverage facility that could be made available live to the land commanders directly through data link in their operational headquarters. This facility gave a vantage point to the operational commander from where he could direct his forces very effectively.

PAF combat jets armed with lethal laser-guided bombs maintained a continuous presence over the combat zone, ready to provide close support at a moment’s notice, in addition to having fully armed aircraft on the ground ready to respond to any emergency close support request. Coordinates of enemy fire from camouflaged ambush sites that could not be immediately engaged by the ground forces were communicated to the airborne fighters. Using their GPS navigation system, the sites were neutralised by laser-guided bombs within minutes of their detection. Where earlier the small bands of insurgents were able to fire their weapons against the approaching formations and slip away before the Army could respond, now they were being eliminated well before they could melt away. From the interrogation of the captured TTP fighters, the unseen whistling death (sound of the laser-guided bomb seconds before impact) was a great demoralising factor.

As a result of the synergy created by the land and air assaults, the offensive made impressive gains. The overall own and civilian casualty suffered during the campaign so far has been much lower than the earlier efforts.

After the end of major operations in Swat journalists from the print and broadcast media were given access to the Valley. They have also visited parts of S. Waziristan from where TTP has been expelled. Their general observation is that the level of collateral damage due to aerial attacks by the PAF was much lower than what they had earlier anticipated. This was because the PAF had and continues to exercise all restraints to minimise collateral damage during air raids. The rules of engagement framed to prevent civilian casualties are strictly followed.According to the PAF, the collateral damage during air operations have been less than five per cent – this compares favourably with NATO standards in neighbouring Afghanistan where they attempt to limit the collateral damage figure to fifteen per cent or less.In the calculation of collateral damage, the criterion for who is a non-combatant is also important. For the Armed Forces, any civilian willingly giving shelter and support to the TTP fighters is a combatant and hence a legitimate target. This is perhaps one of the factors for the significant discrepancy between the figures on civilian casualties announced by the government from the ones issued from other sources.

The doctrinal and tactical employment of the PAF during the two campaigns has played an essential role in the success of the military operations, which has been internationally acknowledged. The careful selection of targets and the use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) have kept collateral damage to the bare minimum. Without the employment of its fixed-wing platforms besides appreciably slowing down the progress of the offensive, a much higher price in terms of own and civilian casualties would have resulted. From the experience of operations Rah e Rast and Rah e Nijat, the paper concludes that discriminate and selective use of combat jets against the insurgents in combination with sound electronic and human intelligence will aid in lowering, rather than adding to the collateral damage.

In conclusion, despite all efforts and best intentions, in this form of warfare where the enemy is often embedded with the local population, mistakes can still occur, mistakes that result in the tragic loss of innocent lives.  Fogs of war that can distort communications between the sensor and the shooter could be one factor, or it could occur due to an honest error of judgment by either the intelligence agencies or by the operators of the weapons delivery platforms. Besides, since the adversary reaps significant benefits from such incidents, they will not be averse to intentionally mislead the state into engaging civilian targets through misinformation and even take steps to deliberately put civilians in harm’s way. Incidences have come to light where militants who have taken shelter in the compounds of their sympathisers were housed in the sections reserved for the family, and the family members were shifted to the portion meant for visiting guests. This was done with the knowledge that should the state apparatus learn about the presence of the militants there they will very likely target the guest portion rather than the area where traditionally the family members reside. Use of civilians as human shields is considered a legitimate ploy by them. Unlike the state, the non-state actors have no moral standards to uphold, and they will justify any means fair or foul, that promote their cause.

When civilian casualties do take place due to an aerial attack, for the state to maintain credibility, it is important to resist the temptation to cover up the incident. While the enemy’s propaganda must be countered if a mistake has been made, it is far better to acknowledge it, accept responsibility for the error and initiate steps for damage control. Proper investigation to determine the cause must follow and remedial measures implemented to prevent a recurrence. 

Where the onus of minimising civilian casualties lies only with the state and where the other side actively uses the civilians as human shields, the challenge to prevent non-combatants from harm becomes even more severe. It is a challenge that must be accepted.

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Air Cdre Jamal Hussain (Retd)
About Air Cdre Jamal Hussain (Retd) 8 Articles
Air Cdre Jamal Hussain (Retd) is a former fighter pilot from Pakistan Air Force. He has over 30 years’ experience and expertise on air power history, strategy and employment concepts. Has been writing, teaching and lecturing on defence related subjects especially about nuclear dynamics and all aspects of air power particularly in the context of Pakistan and South Asia.

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