INDIAN AIR POWER ASSETS FOR COVERT OPERATIONS

The ‘surgical’ strikes by the Indian Army after the Uri terror episode generated, literally overnight, a multitude of literature and spawned a large number of ‘analysts,’ each giving his or her theories on what the Indian Army did across the Line of Control (LoC) on the night of 28/29 September. In some initial reports from ‘sources’ (always termed reliable), it was mentioned that helicopters had been used for infiltration and exfiltration of the Special Forces (SF). Subsequent accounts, however, have said that the SF commandos had gone in on foot and exfiltrated in a similar manner. Possibly, the reported shallow incursions did not necessitate the use of helicopters – but what if, the next time around, the SF raiding parties need a ride in and/or out from the area of operations? What would be the special equipment that would need to be on board the helicopters to ensure success? Who should be coordinating such a delicate operation? This article looks into these aspects which assume great importance, now that India has broken the self imposed restriction of not crossing an activeboundary, the International Boundary (IB) or the LOC; the span of discussion would not be restricted just to helicopters but fixed wing assets and other involved issues too.

Historical Lessons
It would be instructive to recount some well known ‘surgical’ operations to use as a base in developing the arguments for capability that is being advocated by this author. The most famous is the 04 July 1976 raid by Israel to free its hostages from Entebbe, about 4000 km away from its shores; the aircraft used were C-130 Hercules. Another was the American raid on the POW camp at Son Tay on 21 November 1970 where HH-53 helicopters formatted on a C-130 Hercules which flew its almost three hour mission at 105 knots, just 5 knots above its stalling speed for the transit; the execution of the raid was perfect but no POWs were found! An absolutely unsuccessful raid was the US effort to rescue its hostages in April 1980 from Iran under Operation Eagle Claw, which ended in disaster. These rescue missions bring out the following mandatory requirements to mount a successful mission.

Choice of Aircraft. The C-130 was the ideal aircraft and was used in all three quoted missions. It all boils down to the aircraft’s flying qualities that need to be good requiring minimum pilot compensation. For the C-130 to have flown the ingress part at a speed just 5 knots above stalling speed in the Son Tay raid speaks volumes of the aircraft. The helicopters used in the Iran and Son Tay raid were various version of the JollyGreen Giant. While night vision devices were not available for the Son Tay raid, the Iran rescue attempt may have had them, as it was a decade later. However, all modern aircraft would have FLIR and NVGs as the basic minimum kit for any operation. The availability of well equipped aircraft is, thus, the starting point of all planning.

Accurate Intelligence. The Israelis had constructed a full mock up of the Entebbe airport taking help from Israeli construction companies which had been involved for the building of the airport. In the Son Tay raid too, a mock-up was made based on accurate CIA intelligence inputs. As per Sgt Buckler who was part of the raid (account is available on you tube), they were always intrigued during practices by the presence of a bicycle outside one of the model huts; in the event, when they landed in the POW camp, the bicycle was indeed there! Accurate HUMINT is, however, vital for success; it was a failure as far as Son Tay was concerned (as the POWs had been moved out some months before) but was pretty spot-on in Entebbe. In the Iran hostage rescue attempt, availability of accurate information was questionable.

Realistic Combined Training. All participants – aircrew, ground troops and anyone else part of the raid – must train together. This basic requirement was met in the Entebbe and Son Tay raid but absence of joint training was one of the major reasons of the failure of the Iran rescue attempt.

Information about Landing Zone (LZ). While information about Entebbe airport was well known, the Son Tay raid hadmany blank spots.The desert landing area in the Iran hostage was well reconnoitred, including prior covert landings by a Twin Otter aircraft of CIA to collect soil samples to check hardness of the surface. That this landing itself went undetected speaks volumes of the planning and professionalism, which came to nought when the helicopters flew in to the landing strip from the aircraft carriers and got involved in accidents while re-positioning on ground post a successful transit from the carriers – actually a helicopter was being repositioned to make way for refuelling an EC-130 when it collided with another C- 130.

Real time Communication.
The Son Tay raiders maintained total radio silence, though American intelligence was monitoring North Vietnamese communication to keep track of the mission getting detected. The Israelis had a Boeing 707 flying high at an intermediate spot to act as a radio relayback to the leadership in Tel Aviv. The US mission for the hostages in Iran also had communication back to Washington. President Carter spoke to the leader of the mission while the latter was on ground in Iran and the aircraft mishaps had taken place; on getting the report first hand he agreed with the leader to call off the mission and recover the raiders back. Where does India stand now with respect to its airborne capability for covert operations as we move towards the quarter way mark in the twenty first century?

Fixed Wing Assets
The IAF has five C-130 Super Hercules aircraft specially configured for Special Operations; the replacement for the sixth that had crashed will arrive in the next couple of years. The aircraft, as the name suggests, and history shows, are tailor made for covert operations. Blessed with real good flying qualities, the C-130 has sensors for covert ingress at night – FLIRelectro optical equipment and a fully NVG compatible cockpit and cargo hold area; with Gen-V NVGs (which India has made a bid for) the aircraft can fly real low level with great accuracy, due its navigation equipment, and thus avoid radar detection. Its short field landing and take-off characteristics and ability to operate from unpaved surfaces makes it an ideal platform for transport of Special Forces.

The C-295 is going to be the replacement for Avro aircraft. The C-295 has short field operations capability and would be arriving with a NVG compatible lighting suite. If some of these aircraft get equipped with other night op devices, then the country would have another smaller and versatile platform for special ops.

Rotary Wing Assets
The IAF’s main helicopter is the Mi-17 V5 now. Coming from a good lineage, the V5 has an NVG compatible cockpit andcargo compartment with Russian Gen III NVGs for the aircrew. A full glass cockpit eases pilot work load. There is a standard GPS navigation package as also a Doppler navigation system. The availability of a weather radar and wire cutters as a standard fit augments flight safety in low level flight. The navigation system, when coupled to the autopilot, can ensure hands off transit and hover at the desired map coordinates that have been fed-in. Thus, if there is a requirement to induct troops or exfiltrate them, the Mi-17 V5 would be the IAF’s helicopter of choice, if the drop/landing zone size can accommodate it.

Weapon System Integrated Advanced Light Helicopter Rudra has better night flying equipment than the Mi-17 V5 as it has a FLIR as a standard fit besides an NVG compatible cockpit. Being smaller in size and with lesser All Up Weight (AUW), the Rudra has a less intense rotor downwash and can get into a smaller jungle clearing or landing spot. In addition, the Rudra has air to ground rockets and a turret gun besides MICA, the French air to air missile for combat. Depending on the weapon load it is carrying, the Rudra can carry around five to eight troops for the assault role. A big advantage of the Rudra is its much better manoeuvrability and care free engine handling that allows the pilot to fly the aircraft into restricted spaces with ease. In all probability, it would have been the Rudra that would have been used in the post-Uri surgical strikes, if there was a requirement for helicopter support. The IAF has fewer Rudras than Army Aviation and, in all probability, the latter’s assets would have been tasked.

Some reports stated that IAF helicopters were in a readiness mode to come to the rescue in case the strikes had gone awry. This is a contingency that would have been catered for during planning and one is sure that some Mi-17 V5s and Mi-35 helicopters would have been on combat readiness. Both these helicopters are of medium category with their attendant operational issues and one awaits the arrival of the Apache attack helicopters, whose contract hasbeen signed, and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), whose flight tests are ongoing at HAL; both are dedicated attack helicopters and would be ideal to provide armed support for covert missions.

Joint Training
The aspect of joint and realistic training of personnel cannot be over emphasised; a special ops force can have the best of equipment but lack of joint training implies that any covert mission would be doomed from the start. Thus, the creation of a joint special operations entity is a mandatory requirement to ensure standardisation of procedures and execution of tasks. Some missions would require fighter assets to provide top cover and electronic support and counter measures too. Most advanced nations have joint Special Operations schools/formations/commands that are charged with creating and maintaining covert capability; personnel and equipment of the concerned Services are pooled together under one command to ensure jointness. It is understood that the Chiefs of Staff Committee has recommended the setting of a Special Operations Command (SOC) and it would be in national interest that this is accepted and the SOC raised at the earliest. With the uncertain security scenario in India’s neighbourhood and Pakistan continuing to support terrorist strikes, the chances of mounting furthercovert missions has only increased. The nation can ill afford to delay setting up a Special Forces Command to coordinate and fine tune this niche capability.

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur, retired from the Indian Air Force after 36 years of distinguished service. He is an Experimental Test Pilot from the French Test Pilots School, a graduate of the Air Command and Staff College, USA and a post graduate in Defence and Strategic Studies from Madras University. He has commanded a frontline Helicopter Unit and two Flying Bases, was the Contingent Cdr of the first IAF United Nations Mission in Sudan and has been Head of Training (Air) at Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. As Asst Chief of Air Staff, the author was the operational head of Transport and Helicopter Operations of the Indian Air Force for two and a half years. His last assignment was as Asst Chief of Integrated Defence Staff incharge of perspective planning and force structure of the Services. He writes for leading national newspapers and professional journals and his core interests concern Air Power and Strategic Affairs. AVM Bahadur is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.Views expressed in this article are personal).

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