India has one of the most diverse landscapes and climatic variations spread across its geographical expanse. To the south, we have a vast coastal region along with island territory. To the west, we have deserts, and even salt pans and marshy land. Northeast has lush green hilly regions and mountain ranges with an average height of 5,000 to 10,000 feet. To the north, we have the mighty Himalayas, mountains with average height of 20,000 to 25,000 feet.
To defend this vast territory, we do not have separate specialised forces for each region. Our Army personnel, in rotation, guard the boundaries in all regions. A soldier serving in the west experiences temperatures up to 48°C, but is also exposed to temperatures as low as -50°C when serving in the north. No surprise that our armed forces are ranked high, world over, for their capabilities. They adapt to desired warfare very quickly. And the Indian Air Force (IAF) is no different.
The IAF has a special role to play, not just in wartime, but even in peacetime.
The Army operates in areas that have no rail or road connectivity with the mainland. To provide them with their daily needs, the IAF works 24×7, a fact not known to many. Basically, the forces are air maintained throughout the year. The volume of load that is air-dropped or air-landed is mind-boggling. No country in the world undertakes such mammoth operations in peacetime.
Transport aircraft and helicopters undertake the task of air maintenance in the north, the northeast, and even in the south for our island territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
In the northern sector (Himalayas) and in the northeast, because of the paucity of open spaces due to hilly terrain, the runways are very short — some of them are not even paved (kuccha strip) and are made operational by ground compaction. Such airfields are termed as Advance Landing Grounds (ALGs). Some of these airfields are at a high elevation, and hence, pose restrictions on operations, including load-carrying capability, which reduces due de-gradation of engine output due operations at higher elevation.
Air delivery operations are also conducted in places that do not have a runway and are not even accessible by road. To overcome such difficulties, a small portion of the surface near the Army post is flattened and marked, so that it is visible from the sky. It is called the Dropping Zone. The ration is dropped in these Zones from an altitude of 1,000 ft above ground and attached to a parachute to avoid any damage. Once the load is out of the aircraft, the parachute opens, delivering the load accurately at the marked place.
Dropping zone operations are difficult and, at times, dangerous due to very less manoeuvring space in narrow valleys and high mountains. The strong winds add to the degree of difficulty, by making the aircraft unstable. Even the accurately dropped load can drift due to strong winds. If the target is missed, such loads may not be retrieved because the ground forces cannot approach the area due to difficult terrain. For operations at higher altitudes, once the aircraft door is opened for the drop, the crew has to use 100 per cent oxygen to ensure safety.
The entire Siachen glacier is air maintained by aerial delivery. Helicopters do land and deliver at some smaller places, but because their load-carrying capacity is less, their use is restricted. Many posts in the north and northeast are thus dependent only on aerial drop.
The IAF’s task of delivering essentials becomes tough during the winters because there are areas that become inaccessible by road due to heavy snowfall. The operations undertaken are enormous — around 30,000 tonne, load and passenger combined, is airlifted and airdropped in a year in the northern sector alone. In the northeast, because there is better connectivity now, the delivery load is lesser at 10,000 tonne.
The Himalayan risk
The Himalayas are just not mighty, they pose many challenges too — narrow and sometimes blind valleys (if you enter these, there is no escape), severe icing conditions, extremely low temperatures and mountain waves that can cause turbulence in the aircraft and might just break it mid-air. All these factors increase the operational difficulties of the pilots. Even the aircraft reacts differently in such extreme conditions — its radius of turn increases, thus requiring more space for it to turn. And this extra space in these narrow valleys is hard to find.
The pilots also face whiteouts that occur due to excessive snowfall and clouding — so visually, the sky and ground appear absolutely white and the horizon goes missing. This causes disorientation. How then do the IAF pilots manage flying in such conditions? The training, especially the instrument training, comes handy and makes all the difference between success and failure of a mission. However, there is always an element of chance that is involved with these operations. One has to rely on a machine, which despite good servicing by the engineers may misbehave. The pilots have to anticipate mechanical failures and be thorough with the emergency procedures while remaining alert. Not much can be done about what is beyond one’s control. However, whatever can be controlled, is never left to chance. A lot depends on the weather too. In bad weather, one just can’t operate for days together. But once the conditions improve, you have to make good of the time. After all, so many are dependent on this aerial delivery.
The IAF is always ready to go that extra mile to make the soldiers’ working environment at least liveable, if not better. The air maintenance effort is as much about sustaining the war effort as it is about boosting the morale of the troops. Efforts in wartime are concentrated over a short period of time. The air maintenance effort has to be sustained throughout the year with the same vigour and enthusiasm.
In the Himalayas, the IAF undertakes an unprecedented task of air maintenance of remotely located areas. It has built an aerial bridge from Chandigarh to areas such as Leh, Thoise, Siachen and the Aksai-Chin region. The heart of the IAF’s well-oiled air maintenance machinery is at the Air Force Station in Chandigarh.
Constant exposure to temperatures as low as -50° C and lack of oxygen due to higher altitudes take a toll on the human body. However, lack of roads and advanced medical facilities are a big hurdle in rendering treatment to the local residents and Jawans. Shifting them to plains is the only solution and that also needs to be done in the shortest possible time.
Casualty evacuation is another important, rather crucial, task in the northern sector. Persistent inclement weather, at times, causes hindrance in airlifting the sick to the plains. The medical casualties along the LAC and LoC due to heavy shelling from the adversary adds to the number of soldiers to be airlifted. The IAF helicopter pilots airlift patients from the remotest parts in the hills to Leh or Thoise, from where they are airlifted to Chandigarh for advance treatment by transport aircraft. Many lives have been saved thanks to prompt air evacuation.
Humanitarian assistance role
Humanitarian assistance roles and disaster relief are two major peacetime tasks of the IAF, besides air maintenance. This involves the evacuation of Indian nationals from conflict zones. Many such daredevil evacuations have been executed by the IAF. The Iraq and Yemen evacuations will always find special mention.
Disaster relief is another significant role of the IAF. The IAF’s timely reaction during earthquakes, floods and forest fires have saved many precious lives. The IAF was the first to provide help to the citizens during the Bhuj earthquake. Nepal earthquake was another major disaster in which the IAF contributed immensely. Our reaction was prompt because we could land our C-130 within six hours of the calamity at Kathmandu to assess the damage to the airfield. This was made possible by our daredevil pilots who landed on the available undamaged portion of the runway. It was a critical step for the commencement of humanitarian assistance by air delivery. As soon as the news about the earthquake flashed on TV channels, I ordered the Squadron to remain on standby to get launched, subject to receiving orders from the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Defence. India was the first to act, even before major powers like China and the US. The IAF’s timely action of making the Kathmandu airfield operational was lauded by the entire world because this was instrumental in saving many lives. What followed was a marathon exercise in the history of humanitarian assistance.
Flood relief operations are an annual affair, especially in Leh and Uttarakhand and many other states. Ensuring movement of troops for the peaceful conduction of elections is another task that the IAF undertakes frequently. Thousands of troops are shifted from one end of the country to the other in the shortest possible time.
The IAF was pressed into service even during the demonetisation drive when it had to ensure supply of new currency notes in remote locations.
Today, India is a great democracy and the significant role of the IAF in furthering the democratic traditions can’t be forgotten. Aggression at the LAC has brought the focus on IAF and its capabilities, but our sky warriors are always in action, even when not in focus.
AVM Suryakant Chafekar was the Commanding Officer of the 48 Squadron and retired from the Indian Air Force in 2017. Views are personal.