Nurturing air power to meet rising demand

In early April, Pakistan Air Traffic Controller sent a laudatory message to Air India for operating special flights to Frankfurt with relief material and evacuated European nationals. This is indicative of the important role of Indian air power, which has been particularly visible in the last two months. Air power is the total aviation capability of a nation, military and civilian put together.

Soon after the novel coronavirus began spreading, Air India evacuated Indian nationals from Wuhan, China. India’s flag carrier has since continued its yeoman service by evacuating Indians from other countries as well as foreign nationals from India on the request of their embassies. C-17 Globemasters and IL-76 aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) have been on the job too. While going where national interests require them to, they are also showcasing Indian air power subtly. This was seen recently when India’s Consulate staff from Herat in Afghanistan were evacuated by a C-130 Super Hercules aircraft in secrecy. Incidentally, 58 IAF aerial assets (transport aircraft and helicopters) are carrying out internal COVID-19-related tasks like transporting medicines, equipment and medical samples for evaluation from inaccessible areas. While the civilian fleet is an important adjunct, it’s the IAF’s aerial assets that constitute the potency in national airlift capability. This piece is about the importance of nurturing India’s air power assets.

Rescue efforts

Recent history is witness to their untiring work in building brand India. In 1957, and then in 1978, the IAF was sent to Sri Lanka for flood relief efforts, as it was to Bangladesh in 1991 after the cyclone. Following the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, 30 transport aircraft and 16 helicopters flew round the clock in India’s island territories; two IL-78 aerial refuelling tankers were stripped of their fuselage fuel tanks overnight and the aircraft pressed into relief. In addition, six Mi 8 helicopters were sent to help Sri Lanka.

In the international academic circuit, however, the Berlin airlift is quoted as the gold standard for an air logistics campaign. True, it was staggering — 2.3 million tonnes of load were transported into West Berlin between June 1948 and September 1949. However, a modern-day airlift of similar importance has not been heralded as much. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Indian nationals were flown out via Amman. Air India, along with IL-76s of the IAF, flew home 1,11,000 Indians (some documents say 1,76,000) in 488 flights from Amman to Mumbai in just two months. Translated to payload that is almost 10 million kg! It’s true that the circumstances were different, but this brought to fore the airlift capability of India’s air power. And only Air India was used. The civil airline fleet has grown manifold, and when required, more, literally all, aircraft can be requisitioned.

The IAF transport fleet was in the forefront to retrieve casualties from Kabul following the 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy. The only delay then was the clearance from Islamabad to overfly Pakistan. The Uttarakhand flash floods in 2013 saw what was perhaps the biggest helicopter evacuation in history, with 23,892 pilgrims evacuated in only a week. At any given time during that calamity, there were 54 helicopters of all types, of which 45 were from the IAF. The trajectory of the COVID-19 infestation in India is still unknown, so the IAF will surely be called into action many more times.

The IL-76 fleet of 10-odd aircraft has been around for almost four decades now. The same is true for the short haul An-32s, which number 100. While these will soldier on for a few more years, it is the fleet of the eleven C-17s that will shoulder the responsibility of national tasks. In some humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) tasks, the C-130J Super Hercules have also been pressed into service. While there is no doubt that emergency situations demand all hands on deck, the temptation of using these aircraft with their superb short-field operations capability, but whose primary role is covert special operations, needs to be really thought through. Utilising their flying hours for sub-optimal tasks would be operationally and financially unviable. The helicopter fleet is well placed with around 250 Mi-17 series helicopters, about 80 ALH Dhruv, and 15 new Chinook heavy-lift machines. The Chetak/Cheetah fleet will be around for a few more years and will be indispensable for narrow valleys and high-altitude operations. With the capability of a C-17 to carry a Chinook in its hold, Indian air power can, quickly, come to the aid of friends in the neighbourhood, and at some distance too. The foresight exhibited by the civilian and military leadership in the past to equip the IAF with these assets, as a result of which India can confidently claim to be a regional HADR provider, is now bearing fruit. The same far-sightedness is required to meet the challenges of the coming decades.


The biggest challenge is that all of India’s medium- and heavy-lift assets are foreign sourced, except the Dhruv and Chetak/Cheetah helicopters. The IL-76 and An-32, which have been the IAF’s workhorses, will be phased out soon and so will the short haul Avros. Finances will have to be found for their replacements. Planning for this must happen now. Despite the fact that the latest parliamentary committee report has adversely commented on the funding for capital acquisitions in FY-2019-20 being just 65% of projections, the government has to take a call. As India takes on a greater regional leadership role and as climate change results in an increase in the frequency and number of natural calamities, the demands on Indian air power for HADR will mount, including from countries in the neighbourhood. The requirements for internal law and order and air maintenance airlift for the Army for forward areas, both of which are substantial, will also continue. Increased utilisation of airlift assets would mean higher maintenance requirements, and since most are foreign sourced, they will have to be sent abroad for major servicing. This will result in reduced aircraft availability for long durations.

If we look at India’s forward planning, the scene isn’t very rosy. The COVID-19 crisis will demand massive financial resources to be transferred to the social sector for the next few years — and rightly so. The GDP’s downward trend may only get steeper as manufacturing, agriculture and employment take a hit. The Ministry of Defence will need all its persuasive powers to generate the required monies from the scarce resources with the Finance Ministry, if Indian air power’s HADR capability is to be in the forefront of its military diplomacy. There is no other alternative considering the intense ongoing geopolitical power play in the region. We also need to spare a thought for Air India: where would Indian air power be without it in times of calamities?

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd) is Additional Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal

In article has been edited for clarity. The line “Translated to tonnage, that is almost 10 million tonnes” has been changed to: “Translated to payload that is almost 10 million kg”. Another sentence, “However, a modern-day airlift of greater proportions has not been heralded as much” has been recast to: “However, a modern-day airlift of similar importance has not been heralded as much.”

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 4:56:25 AM |

Next Story