Forty minutes from their Manesar headquarters to the Delhi airport, three hours in an IL-76 plane to Mumbai and another 40 odd minutes to get to the terror-hit spots. That time lag of November 26, 2008 when the National Security Guards (NSG) took about five hours to take up position to combat India's worst terror attack will never be repeated, promises chief of the Elite Commando Force N.P.S. Aulakh.
"We lost time during the Mumbai serial attacks. But things have changed and now we can take up any challenge within just 30 minutes of notice and that too anywhere," NSG Director General N.P.S. Aulakh told IANS in an exhaustive interview.
One year since terrorists sneaked into Mumbai and laid a three-day siege, killing 170 people, valuable lessons have been learnt.
Reflecting on some of the lessons learnt in Operation Black Tornado where the NSG lost two valiant men, Aulakh states precious time was lost at the very outset when the commandos, popularly known as Black Cats, were called from Manesar, their headquarters, to the Delhi airport - a drive that lasts 40 minutes.
Loading their weapons and equipment into trucks from Manesar to Delhi, offloading the same at the airport and going through the tedious process in Mumbai again took precious time.
But much water has flowed under the bridge. The government has opened four NSG hubs in Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai, each having a strength of 241 personnel.
"Post-26/11, we are also upgrading equipment and buying sophisticated weaponry. It is not that we were not prepared for any challenge earlier. But what is happening now is that we are increasing our capabilities and our operational preparedness," Aulakh, who took over in March this year, said.
Despite the delay in getting down to work, NSG commandos, in their black nomex overalls and balaclavas, played a critical role killing nine of the 10 terrorists who laid a three-day siege over Mumbai.
They battled terrorists holed up at the iconic Hotel Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and the the Oberoi Trident and the Chhabad House in Nariman Point and engaged them for nearly 60 hours. The NSG commandos were instrumental in rescuing hundreds of hostages from the assailants armed with grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and RDX.
Hoping that the story will never be repeated and the country's security personnel will be better equipped, the union home ministry is soon opening bids for state-of-the-art corner shot weapons and hand-held see-through wall radars in a bid to prepare the elite commandos for future urban terror strikes and hostage situations.
Corner shot weapons allows commandos to shoot around corners without endangering themselves, and wall surveillance radars help monitor events inside a room without entering it for troopers.
The other new weaponry and sophisticated gadgets that will be acquired include Ghille suits (camouflage clothing), hostage rescue bullet-proof cover, protective goggles, and hand-held thermal imagers, mini remotely operated vehicles, ECG monitors for dogs and climbing devices.
Many of the purchases are from Israel which is said to have the best security equipment.
"I am personally reviewing the work. It will take time to put everything in place. But work is going on schedule," adds Aulakh.
Modeled on the lines of Britain's SAS (Special Air Squadron) and Germany's GSG-9, the NSG has two complementary elements, the Special Action Group (SAG) and the Special Ranger Group (SRG).
The SAG, which constitutes over half the force, is its elite offensive wing and its cadres are drawn only from the Indian Army while the SRG has men on deputation from central police organizations.
Aulakh also pointed out that it would soon be possible to take up joint training in anti-terror operations with foreign countries to hone skills of the commandos.
"A French delegation visited us and wants to conduct training. It could be here or outside. The government has to decide on this."
The NSG has certainly come a long way, in one year.
(Sahil Makkar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)