New Delhi: India's air force may be responsible for the defence of the air space over the land and water territories covering the entire landscape from the Himayalas in the North to the Indian Ocean in the South and from Bay of Bengal in the East to the Arabian Sea in the West, but its fleet of aircraft, helicopters and other force multipliers are capable of operating from out of its area, far away from the Indian mainland, if need be.
To aid this strategic reach, Indian Air Force (IAF) has acquired numerous platforms in the recent years, be it the heavy airlifter C-17 from US manufacture Boeing or the C-130J strategic airlifter from Lockheed Martin or the Sukhoi combat jets from Russia, all of which could be used to carry out an expedition beyond the Indian territorial limits in far away enemy shores.
While IAF has consciously acquired this capability, it is worthwhile to go back into history to see how its had acquitted itself in the operations it has been involved in over the years.
PRE-INDEPENDENCE BURMA OPS
In British India's operations during the World War II in Burma, what is presently known as Myanmar, IAF Lysanders have flown tactical recce missions from Toungoo, Mangaladon and Lashio. They have also done unescorted low-flying missions to bomb principal Japanese air bases at Mae-Haungsaun, Cheingmai, Chirangrai in Thailand, by handing pairs of 200-pound bombs.
Royal IAF's 1, 2 and 4 squadrons were flying the Westland Lysanders then, before shifting to Hurricane fighters. With Havard planes joining the flying training schools across India, IAF inducted the Vengence dive-bombers since 1943, which took over the coastal defence roles. All of these IAF planes saw action during the World War II against Japanese targets from Double Moorings, Chittagong and against dissident tribesmen in North Waziristan, started operations in the Arakan from an airstrip at Uderbund, near Kumbigram, before the Spitfires joined the fleet in 1944-45 for operations in Kangaw, disrupting the enemy's lines of communication and constantly harrassing Japanese forces until victory and re-occupation of then Rangoon and present-day Yangon in May 1945.
OP PAWAN IN SRI LANKA
The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) sent to Sri Lanka after the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardane accord in 1987 to intervene in the civil war, fought fiercely by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in northern and eastern parts of the island nation lasted nearly 30 months, when the IAF carried out nearly 70,000 sorties between the two nations and within the island nation, without losing a single aircraft or aborting a mission.
As a support force to the over one-lakh troopers on the ground, IAF flew its 19 Squadron's AN-32s from South India to IPKF Divisional HQs at Palaly in Jaffna,Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa in Sri Lanka, ferrying men, material and evacuating casualties in its outbound flights.
In October 1987, within a matter of three weeks, the IAF carried out 3000 tactical transport and assault helicopter sorties during their initial induction phase when bitter fighting to disarm the LTTE as a key component of the India-Sri Lanka pact was in progress.
Mi-8s of 109 and 119 Helicopter Units operated to and from tens of scattered helipads throughout the northern and eastern Sri Lankan provinces, thereby turning into the critical lifeline for the troopers on ground, as well as providing air transportation to Sri Lankan civil administration during the elections. Mi-25s gunships of 125 Helicopter Unit carried out suppressive fire against militant strong points and to interdict coastal and clandestine riverine traffic.
OP CACTUS IN MALDIVES
In what was then the most watched event by world strategic affairs community and taken note of was India's intervention in the remote Indian Ocean atoll nation of Maldives. On the night of November 3, 1988, the IAF's airlifted its specialists parachute commando battalions out of Agra and flew them non-stop over 2,000 km to Maldives out South-West beyond the Indian coast in Kerala.
That flight was to interdict a group of mercenaries from a Lankan seperatist Tamil group that wanted to overrun the existing civilian governmnet in Maldives in an armed coup and to take over the atoll nation for them. The Indian military action was in response to a request from the then government in Maldives headed by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was widely seen as a dictator.
IAF's Soviet-origin IL-76s of 44 Squadron landed at Hulule half an hour after midnight with the Indian commandos securing the airfield and restoring civilian government rule in Maldivian capital, Male, within hours.
Buildup of Indian forces in Maldives continued the next day, with IL-76s, AN-2s and AN-32s flying from Tiruvananthapuram to Maldives, even as IAF's Mirage-2000 combat jets making a low-level passes over the scattered atolls in a show of force and solidarity with the Maldivian peopl. The most immediate reality that emerged from this brief, and bloodless, action was the swift and effective Indian military response, made possible by the IAF's strategic airlift capability.
An unusual commitment of the IAF was to support United Nations operations on the Congo in 1961-62. Following an appeal by the United Nations for both troops and combat aircraft to restore law and order and keep peace, six Canberras from the IAF's 5 Squadron flew from Agra to Central Africa. Operating from Leopoldville and Kamina, the Canberras soon destroyed the rebel air force, raided Katangan targets and generally provided the UN ground forces with its only long-range air support force under Operation Rumpunch. This also enabled the UN to show their robust presence with a show of UN flag.
The Canberras started their operations in 1961 by attacking and destroying certain mercenary position in strategically significant town of Kolwezi. The rebels had a substantial air element of old aircraft, which posed a great danger to UN forces' movement in the area. The Squadron was given the task to locate and destroy this element.
At times the targets were 1,000 km away, with an intense cloud cover over the way. The Indian pilots used many ingenious methods to lead themselves to the targets. They intensively used a lake, which was a prominent mark to the west of Kolwezi and then used good old map reading over the final leg to the airfield, using the Green Satin airborne navigation aid.
Wing Commander Suares was the first to carry out the daring yet risky engagement profile using 20 mm cannon. This was followed by another attack by Flight Lieutenant Gautam, thus destroying the Fouga Magister aircraft. By the efforts of these two officers, the IAF was able to establish a near air supremacy over the skies of Elizabethville and Kamina.
The IAF took part in UN peace keeping duties in Somalia from October 1993 to December 1994 following the downfall of President Said Barra in January 1991 and a bloody power struggle and clashes among the indigenous clans erupted, leading to death and destruction of several hundreds of locals and an exodus in thousands from their homes, forcing the need for emergency humanitarian assistance.
In April 1992, in response to UN Secretary General recommendation, the Security Council resolved to establish UN Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM) and the first batch of Indian troopers landed in capital Mogadishu in August 1993. The Indian hospital and aviation was operational immediately on completion of induction in October and the Indian contingent formally took charge of its area of responsibility in November. IAF carried out road opening and convoy escorting, aerial recce, casualty evacuation, and communication using its helicopters. However, its first battle casualties took place in December 1994 when a rocket propelled grenade fired by Somali militia during their inter-clan battle exploded on the roof of the barrack in which IAF officers and men were staying, leading to injury to two officers and an airman.
The IAF in Somalia had nine officers, 22 other ranks and 3 non-combatants. The first sortie in Somalia took place within an hour of landing from India when the two anti-tank guided missile helicopters were flown to their helipad in the Indian camp named 'Lal Quila'. The first operational flight was carried out only in October that year with the Brigade Commander and his Deputy on board to recce the area of responsibility in and around Baidoa, the brigade's permanent location. It was also the first time the IAF used Global Positioning System, a navigational aid, without which it would have been difficult in the featureless Somalia landscape. In February 1994, the helicopters gave air cover to an Indian battalion escorting 500 refugees from Mogadishu to their villages. In March, some bandits attacked a convoy and the Indian soldiers fired back, killing some and injuring some, who had to be evacuated by the IAF in a twist of fate.
India's largest contingent of 3,000 peacekeepers were part of the UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) in 2000, though New Delhi had no strategic interest there. Part of the deployment was a full functional and independent aviation unit and from day one, the IAF contingent carried out casualty evacuation, medical evacuation, armed rescue, communication and logistic support.
In May 2000, IAF evacuated three Kenyan battle casualties and 11 UN military observers from the besieged garrison of Makeni. Immediately after landing at Makeni helipad, the helicopter came under heavy firing from the rebels. The IAF crew successfully offloaded supplied and got the casualties and observers on board and flew out despite rebels firing at the chopper, which was damaged. The hit chopper had to be abandoned later at a clear patch due to the risk of flying it and another helicopters came to the rescue of the passengers and the crew of the damaged helicopter.
IAF aircrew used it ingenuity in Sierra Leone and converted the Mi-8s and Chetaks that it had in its fleet into air cover helicopters by fitting these with mounted guns.This tactics worked, causing panic among the rebel forces. Under Operation Khukri, the IAF contingent was asked to extract 222 peacekeepers being held hostage by the rebel forces, which was accomplished successfully by flying 98 sorties for over 66 hours with the use of eight helicopters, including three Mi-35 gunships, three Mi-8s and two Chetaks.
MONUC or UN Mission in Congo was the third major contribution of the IAF under the UN flag from 2004 to 2011. As the situation in North-East Congo turned grave with repeated massacres and killings of civilians, UN decided to strengthen military presence and India contributed armed helicopters and utility helicopters in the Congolese provinces of North Kivu and Ituri.
The IAF unit in Goma/Bunia is called the Indian Aviation Contingent (IAC-1) and the major lodger units include one Mi-25 squadron have four choppers and one Mi-17 squadron with five choppers, along with crew and ground support personnel.The air assets enhanced MONUC's sphere of influence in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and UN forces were able to reach areas that were hitherto out of its control. The IAC-1 was followed by IAC-2 and IAC-3, conferring greater degree of firepower to deter various rebel groups, who then feared retributive air strikes from the IAF contingent operating from Goma and Bunia bases.
The Mi-17s in this mission were tasked with troop insertion/extraction, casualty evacuation, disarmament, demobilization and resettlement support, logistics supply, search and rescue, observation and reconnaissance. They flew over 13,000 sorties and 8,000 flight hours during their operations. The IAC also assisted various DRC/foreign troops including troops from Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Uruguay, and Guatemala in their ground operations.
The Mi-25 squadron formed the sword arm of IAC and been instrumental in restoring peace and stability in North Kivu and Ituri regions. The Vipers' roles included armed recce and surveillance, fire support to heliborne forces during critical phases of flight, armed escort to UN aircraft and ground forces. The span of operations of Vipers spreads across the jungles and inaccessible regions of eastern DRC. During their deployment, the unit clocked over 5,000 flight hours.
EX-REDFLAG UNITED STATES
The IAF joined several other US allies in the world renowned Red Flag air exercise at the Nellis air base in Nevada, US in August 2008, when it flew eight Su-30s, two IL-78 midair refuelers, an IL-76 heavy lift transporter and 247 air warriors all the way from India to the Americas covering several thousand miles in distances and crossing over a dozen nation's air space, along with intermittent stops and midair refuelling.
The IAF machines and men competed with the French Air Force's Rafale, South Korean Air Force's F-15s and US Air Force's F-15s and F-16s. IAF and other visiting Air Forces, along with a large USAF element, were part of the Blue Forces that engaged in air combat with the enemy Red Forces that flew the F-15s and F-16s from the USAF.
After nearly a three-week deployment at Nellis, the IAF contingent returned to India the same way it had flown all the way to the US.