Air mobility can be termed as a network of systems that combines airlift, airdrop, aero-medical evacuation, air refuelling, and air mobility support assets, processes, and procedures into an integrated whole. In the Indian context, it is aimed to quickly, effectively and decisively support/ protect nation’s security interests extending from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca.It is a critical enabler to our foreign policy and military strategy which tends to get a low priority in peacetime, but changes rapidly as the crisis/ conflict begins. Challenge is not only to build up the capability but to exercise it as often as possible to sustain core competency. Commencing in 1942, Indian sub-continent was in thick of large scale air mobility operations during WW Operating from 13 primary bases in Assam and six in China, “Hump Operation” had its assets growing to 722 aircraft and more than 84,000 personnel by 1945, airlifted staggering 71,000 tons in July 1945 to China. In the neighbourhood, during the crucial phase in fight against the Japanese during the Battle of Kohima and Battle of Imphal, the Allied Army was entirely supplied by air until the road from Dimapur was cleared, by flying in 19,000 tons of supplies and 12,000 men into Kohima and Imphal, and flying out 13,000 casualties and 43,000 non-combatants during the course of the battle.
The first full time air mobility operations lasting one and half years began within a few months after independence on 27 Oct 1947, wherein Dakotas of No 12 Squadron airlifted troops of the 1st Sikh Regiment ex-Gurgaon to Srinagar. Challenge was successfully met during 1962 and 1965 operations. But the best was to come in 1971, during the Indo-Pak war, when transport aircraft struck troop concentration at Hajipur, Fort Abbas and Skardu. Helilift of brigade strength on 10 December, 1971 from Ashuganj to Raipura and Narsingi over the River Meghna and airdropping 700 troops of the 2 Parachute Battalion Group utilising An-12s, C-119s, 2 Caribous and Dakotas on 11 December at Tangail were the high points in utilisation of air mobility in the Eastern Sector. During the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka, air mobility supported induction and de-induction. It was the stellar role played by IAF’s air mobility in November 88, which quelled the attack on the Government of Maldives.
Air Mobility Response during Disaster Management
Air mobility is also a key enabler during the response to natural calamities and since independence, has played a stellar role in saving thousands of lives in the short window available. The global warming and resultant climate change has been causing havoc. In densely populated country like ours, the air rescue is no longer a luxury but has become essential. Over the years, Armed Forces have acquired considerable capability in this respect, both in fixed wing and rotary wing assets, to be a game changer in this field. Inclusion of heavy lift helicopter will be an added asset. A critical review of our disaster management framework amply brings out this point.
The Indian subcontinent is among the world’s most disaster prone areas. Almost 85 percent of India’s area is vulnerable to one or multiple hazards. Of the 28 states and 7 union territories, 22 are disaster-prone due to wind storms spawned in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, earthquakes caused by active crustal movement in the Himalayan mountains, floods brought by monsoons, and droughts in the country’s arid and semi-arid areas and to tsunamis since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Currently, a comprehensive legal and institutional framework for disaster management has been set up through the Disaster Management Act passed by the Indian Parliament in 2005 and the National Policy on Disaster Management approved in 2009, wherein the primary responsibility of disaster management vests with the State Governments, with the Central Government laying down policies, guidelines, technical, financial and logistic support. At the grass root level, the district administration executes the requisite measures in collaboration with central and state level agencies through local Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies. The above framework is currently in the process of consolidation and capacity building and is effectively tackling variety of small scale disaster associated problems at district level. Conceptually, the Armed Forces ought to be called to aid the civil authorities only when the situation is beyond the capability of the civil administration. In practice, however, once the extent of disaster spreads over couple of districts, the armed forces form the core of the government response capacity and are the crucial immediate responders in all high intensity disaster situations along with National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), para military forces, civil defence, home guards, police and the fire services. Analysis of the past case studies brings out that the defence forces, by and large, have been second responders — unless they are in geographical proximity of the disaster area, in the eye of the storm itself or when the impact area is large or remote. They de facto become first responders when the area in question requires acclimatisation — Leh and upper reaches of Uttarakhand are examples of this terrain. This was also evident during the tsunami rescue operations in 2004, the Kosi floods in 2008, Cyclone Aila relief work in 2009, the Sikkim earthquake in 2011 and Cyclone Phalin rescue operations.
Air rescue & relief operations have the greatest potential to minimise loss of life through timely search, rescue and provision of emergency medical aid to stabilise the survivor prior to moving for further medical assistance. Rescue operations in Uttarakhand in June 2014 aptly bring about the stellar role played by the Armed Forces in rising to the occasion and saving thousands of lives in the short window of opportunity.
Case Study – Uttarakhand Floods of 2014
Billed as the biggest rescue operation in recent times, an estimated 100,000 people were safely evacuated by the Army, Air Force, Indo-Tibetan Border Police and civil rescue workers during Uttarakhand’s 16-18 June 2014 deluge and flooding of the valley which affected 1.6 million people and 4,200 villages in districts of Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Garhwal. Major landslides occurred at 110 places, washing out or damaging 154 bridges and 320 roads. The Kedarnath shrine area got totally cut off, especially the stretch between Gaurikund and Sonprayag. During these two weeks, i.e. 15 to 30 Jun 2014, the country witnessed one of the biggest heliborne rescue operations which can be studied & analysed as an air mobility response envisaged during an operational scenario, i.e., ‘reaction’ to a triggering event with the situation rapidly evolving and escalating, as was the case during Kargil Operations. Reacting from a “Cold Start” situation, based on preliminary reconnaissance sorties, IAF pitched in with 20 helicopters. Initially Air Force Station Sarsawa was made the nucleus as it had helicopters converging from Bhatinda and Hindon. For ease of operation closer to the actual scene, the base for medium-lift helicopters was shifted to Jollygrant at Dehradun. The number of aircraft had to be increased, peaking to 44 as the tempo of rescue built up based on the situation on ground. These machines included 23 Mi-17, 11 ALH, 1 Cheetah, 1 Mi-26 Heavy Lift helicopter, 3 An-32, 1 IL- 76, 1 Avro and, 3 newly-acquired C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. The Army deployed 12 helicopters. Deccan Aviation helicopter also pitched in along with 3 helicopters from Pawan Hans.
The forces pushed the envelope, improvising ways and means to adapt to the circumstances. The Air Force decentralised the operations by distributing aircraft to 8-10 airstrips, which operated as small bases, so they could be closer to the areas of distress. Ways had to be found to fuel the aircraft, which were flying with virtually no air traffic control and negligible ground support. The aircraft managed to carry the fuel in barrels and refuelled when necessary. Makeshift helipads were built in Gaurikund and Jungle Chatti in the Kedarnath valley, but in many other places the aircraft landed wherever they found a patch. Looking at the hundreds trapped in narrow strips of land, dead in their midst, in the pieced up route to Kedarnath, helicopter pilots decided it was pointless to rescue a few and so they dropped army personnel specialising in jungle rescue, with food and medicines for the marooned people so they could survive a few more days. These army personnel fixed ropes to allow people to slither down to the safety of villages or broad roads wherever possible. Garud commandos were also brought in by IAF who descended on ropes to rescue where helicopter could not land to pick up casualties. IAF and Army helicopters, which were doing nonstop sorties needed to be constantly refuelled from bowsers. In order to cut down refuelling trips, two FARPs (Forward Area Refuelling Points) were set up at Dharasu and Gauchar, respectively. Establishing these aviation fuel supply bridges through C-130Js was among the most difficult tasks. At Dharasu, an emergency ALG was created overnight with bulldozers, clearing 6-7 ft high bushes from the makeshift runway. Two C-130Js carried fuel to Dharasu, out of which the first one landed on June 22 morning on a landing strip of only 1,300 meters despite bad weather conditions and no navigation aids or communication facilities on ground, using RT of parked Mi 17 helicopter. It defuelled 8,000 litres of fuel into an empty bowser which was airlifted from Sarsawa by the Mi-26. Two IAF Disaster Management Communication Vehicles were also positioned at site. At the culmination of the rescue phase, close to 20,000 personnel were safely airlifted, with IAF rescuing 18,424 persons, flying 2,137 sorties and dropping/ landing 3,36,930 kg of relief material/ equipment and laying claim to a world aviation record.
Contribution to National Security
Today, the contemporary definition of ‘national security’ has expanded beyond protection of borders. It includes socio-economic factors that influence the well-being of the nation and its diaspora in the extended neighbourhood. In a country as diverse as India, maintaining law and order as part of internal security is a great challenge wherein intermittent spurts of violence may require quick deployment/reallocation of forces within the country at a very short notice. Apart from the primary role, the armed forces will continue to play a crucial role during disaster management. Timely relief efforts in case of natural or man-made disasters to mitigate the adverse effects of the calamity as also towards rehabilitation, the military machinery will have to keep itself at hot standby all the time.
In this respect, during the last decade, we have seen India executing complex humanitarian missions. India continues to grow in power and capacity. With each passing year the response is getting stronger and more effective. Today India has emerged as an effective first responder, to be relied upon, in the region stretching all the way from the Gulf of Aden to Strait of Malacca. Be it Yemen or now Nepal, the performance has not only boosted our foreign policy but India has marked itself into reckoning as a rising power with the fastest growing economy that can no longer be ignored at the geo-political stage. Since the change of guard at New Delhi in 2014, Indian foreign policy has been aggressively presenting India as a security provider, especially in its neighbourhood. The synergy among India’s political, diplomatic, intelligence and forces’ levels during these rescue operations has indeed been refreshing.
Strategic Outreach – Sustained Growth
Today, the IAF is in the process of transformation with an aim to become an “Aerospace power capable of conducting full-spectrum operations and extending its strategic reach from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca.” This incredible outreach can be judged by the recent evacuation of over 4,000 Indian nationals and 900 foreign citizens from the war ravaged Yemen without any casualty or injury. The first Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) of 1,76,000 Indians from Kuwait, undertaken in 1991 during the first Gulf War has emerged as the biggest airlift in history. Rescue & relief operations during Tsunami of 2004 amply demonstrate our capability for quick and sustained response in our neighbourhood. Indian Air Force has been regularly air lifting mobile hospitals, engineer task force with special equipment, specialised teams of National Disaster Relief Force along with tons of relief material including blankets, tents, food, paramedics, stretchers, and medicines. As discussed earlier, rescue operations during Uttarakhand deluge of 2014 amply demonstrates the tactical air mobility capability achieved. Indian Air Force has embarked on a well planned expansion drive, building up its air mobility capability from 2000ton to 5000ton by the middle of 14th Five Year Plan to protect nation’s security interests. C-130s and C-17s are well entrenched in service. Of the total helicopter holding of the IAF of around 400, nearly one-half consists of Mi-8/Mi-17 variants, making India as one of the world’s largest Mi-8 and Mi-17 operators. Of these 150 + are the Mi-17 V5 variant, which fall under the armed helicopter category, with substantial firepower, sophisticated avionics and on board navigation systems and the latest and more powerful engines than the earlier variants. It has on board weather radar, state-of-the-art autopilot, is equipped with the latest generation night vision devices and is thus capable of undertaking all-weather, day-night operations in any kind of terrain. It can carry out an Out of Ground Effect Hover at elevations up to 6,000 metres and represents a great enhancement in the medium-lift helicopter capability of the IAF. Induction of Chinook, Dhruv and Apache will add further punch to its helicopter fleet. With dedicated service specific satellites in the process of being launched, ISRO has been a great contributor in facilitating growth of the aerospace power segment. Today, India has 33 satellites in orbit around the earth and one in the Martian orbit. These include 12 communication satellites; 7 navigation satellites; 10 earth observation satellites and 4 weather monitoring satellites with day, night and cloud cover surveillance capability and Cartosat -2 at 0.65m resolution with one minute spot video. An unprecedented row of five national communication satellites are slated to be put in space this year, consisting of Internet user-friendly GSAT-19 for launch around May; GSAT-17 around June; GSAT-6A, which like GSAT-6, is for the Defence forces, in September; and its largest 5,000-plus GSAT-11 around December.
As India marches towards its rightful place amongst the nations of the world and assumes its responsibilities as a key responder during crisis, both natural and man made, in the sub-continent, enhanced air mobility capability will help us to secure national security interests and nation’s will in times of need by its reach, mobility, flexibility and quick response. It has the inherent capability to escalate and de-escalate a situation quickly with an ability to influence the environment in almost the entire spectrum of ‘conflict.
Air Marshal Suresh Chandra Mukul, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM, is from the fighter stream of the Indian Air Force. He is a former CISC at HQ IDS and former C-in-C Southern Air Command.