Indian security sources said that, based on their initial analysis, the attack may have been carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammed, or the Army of Mohammed, a militant group based in Pakistan that demands independence for Indian-ruled Kashmir.
"Punjab is also a corridor for drug smuggling and we are now realising that several sleeper cells have been activated in Punjab," said one home ministry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The raid resembled an assault last July by gunmen in uniform on a police post in a Punjabi border town that killed nine people.
However, Saturday's pre-dawn attack was much more audacious in targeting a large military facility, from which India's Russian-made fleet of MiG-21 fighter jets and Mi-35 attack helicopters fly.
The state of Punjab and neighbouring Jammu were on high alert and all defence bases had been sealed.
"Attacking an air base is a serious security threat. The new strategy of the terrorists is to identify defence bases near the border and launch attacks," said the home ministry official.
Security experts say that tight security along the disputed frontier running through Kashmir has pushed the focus of militant activity further south towards softer targets in India's Punjab state.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir since independence and partition in 1947. The Muslim-majority region remains a bone of contention that India only recently agreed to discuss after months of on-off attempts to relaunch talks.
"We have seen the same pattern again and again when there are attempts to restart the peace dialogue," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.
"It may lead to a momentary pause in the peace dialogue and attacks from the opposition for not pursuing a harder line but I don't think it will have a long-term impact."