“The IAF aircraft has landed. Mission completed. On to the next,” was tweeted by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, when a C-17 Globemaster (heavy-lift transport aircraft) of the Indian Air Force (IAF) brought back 58 Indians from Iran on10 March 2020, who were stranded there due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The aircraft was sent to Tehran just a day prior. This was the second such evacuation by the C-17 Globemaster in the last two weeks. On 27 February, 76 Indians and 36 foreign nationals were brought back from the Chinese city of Wuhan by an IAF aircraft.
The C-17 Globemaster, the largest military aircraft in the IAF’s inventory, can carry large combat equipment, troops and humanitarian aid across long distances in all weather conditions. This aircraft, along with other aircraft of the IAF and trained air warriors have made IAF play a key role in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Role (HADR) as well as Non-Combat Evacuation (NCE) operations.
The role of IAF has been unique because of its efficiency to respond fast and inherent characteristics of range, mobility, and flexibility. Other than countless rescue missions within the country, many nations have witnessed the HADR and NCE mission capabilities of the IAF. Few examples will help in assessing its capability to augment confidence-building measures of India across the world, especially in the neighbourhood
Role of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the Tsunami Relief (2004)
India launched ‘Operation Sea Wave’ for relief, rescue, and evacuation in the aftermath of the deadliest Tsunami of the century that hit the coasts of several countries of South and Southeast Asia early morning on 26 December 2004. Besides India, the countries seriously impacted were Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia.
On receipt of the first information about the disaster, at 0815 h, Air Headquarter swung into action and set its machinery in motion. Assistance to Sri Lanka was provided by the launch of operation Rainbow’. This entailed the provision of six medium-lift helicopters to Sri Lanka to undertake relief Operations. Operation Castor was conducted for providing assistance to the Maldives. Here, two Para-drop
modified, long range AVROs proceeded to Maldives and undertook Casualty Evacuation, air landing of food, water and other supplies and deployment of medical teams. The Indian help even reached as far as Indonesia for limited duration of 90 days.
Evacuation of Indian Citizens
The successful evacuation of 111,711 Indian citizens from Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan in 1990 by operating 488 refugee flights over a period of 59 days by Air India and IAF has been a world record. Similar missions were carried out from Lebanon in 2006 (Operation Sukoon) and in Libya in 2011. The Indian Air Force (IAF) also carried out ‘Operation Rahat’ (Yemen Evacuation 2015), when Yemen faced a civil war situation in 2015.
The Government of India assessed a requirement of the immediate evacuation of over 4000 Indian nationals based at various locations in Yemen. Indian Air Force deployed three C-17 aircraft to ferry back Indian nationals from Djibouti to Kochi and Mumbai. As many as 11 evacuation trips were undertaken by IAF aircraft that facilitated the safe evacuation of 2096 Indian nationals. All this was successfully executed in a war zone situation.
Indian Air Force Operation Neer: Male (2014) and Cyclone and Flood Relief
The city of Male (capital of Maldives) on 04 September 2014, suffered a major drinking water crisis with a breakdown of its main RO plant. The city had to be sustained with over 100T of drinking water per day till the plant was re-operationalized. Based on a request by the Government of Maldives, the IAF responded with alacrity and deployed three C-17 and three IL- 76 aircraft to airlift packaged water from Delhi to Arakkonam, and thereon to Male.
The Indian Air Force airlifted 374 tonnes of drinking water to Male between 05 September and 07 September 2014. India also dispatched cyclone relief materials to Fiji in February 2016 and was the “first responder” to calls of assistance—providing relief supplies and medical assistance to flood-ravaged peoples of Sri Lanka in June 2017 and in the rescue of Bangladeshis swept off the coast due to cyclone Mora.
Indian Air Force – Missions in India
Other than these operations and missions carried out beyond Indian borders, the IAF, has carried out many relief and rescue operations within the country.
In the 21st century, with the rapid pace of urban development and fast industrialization, India has been facing increased frequency and magnitude of natural disasters, bringing its high vulnerability to the fore. The massive floods in Assam (2000 CE), the Bhuj earthquake on 26 January 2001, the unforgettable Tsunami of December 2004, the devastating earthquake in Urusa sector of Kashmir in 2005, the 2008 Bihar Kosi disaster, the August 2010 cloud burst in Leh; and the September 2011 Sikkim earthquake have seen the IAF’s capabilities in handling the disasters effectively.
Similarly, the 2013 cloudburst in Uttarakhand and 2014 floods in J&K have witnessed the coordination between Indian Air Force and Indian Army which were the key players in all rescue missions. Chennai floods in December 2015 had filled the media with all praises of the Indian Air Force for its selfless service to the nation.
The Indian defense forces are not mandated to be relief providers, but when the situation so demands, they are proficient to perform such tasks. It just requires joint planning to use mutually complementing attributes of each service to overcome a situation. The unique attribute of swift response through the medium of air makes the IAF the best suited for some situations. For example, in case of natural disaster in any nearby IOR nation, rescue teams of the Indian Army or National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) can be dispatched in a much shorter time by Indian Air Force C-17 aircraft along with relief material.
These aircraft can also evacuate people who are in urgent need of medical help followed by quick re-supplies. The Indian Navy ships can follow the HADR assistance subsequently and provide further help. However, the arrival of help in the shortest time by IAF aircraft is a definite way of nation-building and projection of soft power as it happened in Tsunami of 2004.
The growth of a country or a region is not only ensured by economic growth but also by security from traditional and non- traditional threats. For the latter part, it is important to have the capability to save the men and material (even if overseas) by having proficient defense forces and good diplomatic relations. Given the current and ever-increasing global spread of the Indian diaspora (the census of December 2018 is 30,995,729) an increasing number of unpredictable volatile manmade or natural disasters, a situation requiring evacuation could arise at short notice.
The Indian Air Force, due to its fast responsiveness, is always ready to execute this task as and when a situation arises. With the announcement of a charter of responsibilities for newly appointed Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), more Out Of Area Contingency (OOAC) operations shall be taking place in near future and the Indian Air Force will play a crucial role in this domain of military diplomacy, requiring enhanced defence cooperation.
International exercises and defense cooperation are crucial in achieving the desired level of efficiency during real-time operations. In order to carry out all these international missions, it is essential that Indian defense forces are on the same frequency with other forces and are maintaining goodwill with them.
The Indian Air Force has evolved to be a global air force and can reach anywhere in the world to provide succor in times of distress, be it in form of providing relief material, medicines, or safe evacuation of own as well as citizens of friendly countries. Indian Air Force is thus an important medium to project soft power diplomacy as well as safeguarding the national interests of India and other friendly countries.
Wg Cdr Vikas Kalyani is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. The views expressed are personal