Indian Air Force (IAF) has build up considerable strategic lift capability over the years which can provide mobility and flexibility in a two front scenario while also enhancing response for HADR missions thus proving to be national assets. Here is a review.
India’s vast land frontiers and multiple island territories with a dual front threat from China and Pakistan requires maintaining a large transport fleet for strategic lift of troops, equipment and stores.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has task of maintenance of troops across multiple fronts with terrain vagaries ranging from high altitude to deserts and swamps even during normal times when peace prevails.
In times of a hot war or impending one there is a necessity for movement of units and formation within a theatre or from one theatre to another.
Legacy of IAF Strategic Lift Operations
During the 1971 War of Liberation of Bangladesh wherein the Eastern as well as Western front was activated sizeable troops were moved from the East to the West once the situation stabilised in the former zone.
In the year 2020, the IAF was called upon to lift large number of troops, tanks and guns from the hinterland to Ladakh with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) incursions in the Eastern sector.
Tanks such as the 46 ton T-90 was lifted by C-17, which has a capacity of 77 tonnes though this is reduced in the high altitude area of Ladakh. The rapid deployment enabled checking further incursions by the PLA.
During operations airborne and air transported operations also assume importance which are undertaken by the IAF using the strategic as well as the tactical lift assets.
During extra territorial deployments, the Indian Air Force has been employed in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
In June 1987 food supply drops were carried out to express solidarity with the Tamils in the Jaffna peninsula.
Induction of Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) was carried out from 30 July, the same year. 70,000 sorties were flown by IAF's transport and helicopter force to and within Sri Lanka during the period of Operation Pawan deployment of IPKF for 30 months as per the IAF Website.
In November 1988 five Il-76 and 30 An-32 aircraft were employed to counter a coup in the Maldives as reported by the India Strategic.
IL-76s of No. 44 Squadron landed at Hulule at 0030 hours and paratroopers secured the airfield and restored Government rule at Male within hours.
For build up of forces IL-76s, An-2s and An-32s were also flown to the Maldives from Trivandrum,
The IAF has also been used in a strategic role for multiple HADR missions particularly during the Tsunami of 2004.
This apart the necessity for airlifting large number of Indian citizens from abroad in times of crisis such as in Yemen or providing transportation of oxygen concentrators during the second wave of COVID 19 in the country in mid 2021 also underlines the important role that is played by the IAF strategic lift capabilities.
IAF aircraft have also been used for transportation of vaccines to remote airfields and advanced landing grounds in states such as Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh as per Business Today.
The strategic lift capability of the IAF will be a key determinant of the campaign winning factors such as mobility, flexibility in response at the national as well as the military strategic level and provide options for deterrence, surprise and deception and effective logistics support.
IAF Strategic and Tactical Lift Inventory
In terms of strategic lift the Indian Air Force has a wide variety of transport aircraft summarised as given below and as indicated in the IAF website, tactical lift transport aircraft have also been included but others such as for VIP communication have excluded:-
Transports AircraftC-130J : Role is paradrop, heavy drop, casuality evacuation operating from short and semi prepared surfaces. C-130J is the heaviest aircraft to land at DBO in Aug 2013 and thereafter has carried out multiple sorties to that strategic airfield in Eastern Ladakh. Operational range is approximately 3000 kms
Transports AircraftC-17 : The aircraft is capable of carrying a payload of 40-70 tons up to a distance of 4200-9000 km in a single hop. The C 17 provides heavy lift capability with long range thus is ideal in extra territorial disaster relief and rescue missions apart from being able to move large number of troops, weapons and equipment.
Transports AircraftIL-76 : Has been the IAF long haul for many decades prior to induction of the C 17 and can carry 225 paratroopers or 40 tonnes freight, wheeled or tracked armoured vehicles. The range is 3500 to 7000 kms.
Transports AircraftAN-32 : The twin engine turboprop, medium tactical transport aircraft has a capacity to carry 39 paratroopers or max load of 6.7 tonnes. It has a max cruise speed of 530 km/hr and a range of 2500 km. 53 AN-32 have been upgraded while 41 are in the process. However this does not impact the overall lift capability.
AVRO is a twin engine turboprop, with a capacity of 48 paratroopers or 6 tonnes freight and max cruise speed of 452 km/hr and 3500 km range. Indian cabinet has approved induction of fifty six C-295MW transport of 5-10 Tonne capability in the month of September this year to replaced the AVRO. The C 295 MW has cargo as well as paradropping capability. 16 aircraft will be delivered within 4 years of signing the contract while 40 will be manufactured in India.
Dornier : Twin engine turboprop, logistic air support staff transport aircraft of German origin capable of carrying 19 passengers or 2057 kg freight. It has a max speed of 428 km/hr.
Capability for Strategic Air Lift
12 transport aircraft C 17 – 12 x 188 passengers alternately about a squadron of tanks in one lift. The transport fleet is adequate for movement of a brigade group in one lift.
17 transport aircraft IL 76 with capability of 225 paratroopers or 40 tonnes freight. The entire transport fleet of IL 76 can lift a brigade plus in one lift.
Tactical Lifters employed for Strategic lifts
12 transport aircraft C 130 J which has a maximum payload capacity of approximately 19 tonnes or 92 fully equipped troops and can carry a BMP 2. Two to three battalion groups can be lifted in one go.
104 AN 32 with 39 paratroopers or max load of 6.7 tonnes. 10 to 12 battalion groups can be lifted by using AN 32 in one go.
57 AVRO which can take on 48 paratroopers or 6 tonnes freight. 56 C-295MW transport 5-10 Tonne capacity will be inducted starting 2024-25. These can lift up to 6 to 7 battalion groups as a whole.
50 Dornier transport aircraft can carry 19 passengers or 2057 kg freight. These have not been counted and would be used to supplement the lift where necessary.
Operational Evaluation and Testing of Strategic Lift Capability
A number of instances of the IAF having supported operations within and outside the country have been covered in first part of the paper.
However the IAF constantly evaluates the lift capability. The perpetual deployment of the Indian Air Force for supporting peace time operations is supplemented by periodic training and testing sorties. In 2018 the IAF is reported to have on December 18 airlifted a record 463 tonnes of load from its airbase at Chandigarh to airfields and drop zones in the Ladakh region, in a single wave. The effort was accomplished with the aid of a fleet of 16 fixed wing transport aircraft comprising of C-17 Globemaster, the Ilyushin-76 Gajraj and the Medium lift Tactical aircraft, Antonov-32 Sutlej. The Exercise was named as Bahubali or giant lifter.
Gaps in Strategic Air Lift
While the overall profile has been evaluated as given above there are a number of gaps in strategic airlift capability.
The IAF is desirous of adding at least six C 17 to the fleet but this is not possible now as Boeing has terminated the assembly line.
The IAF also does not have a transport aircraft in the medium category such as the 18-20 tonnes. A joint India Russia Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) has not moved forward despite heavy investment by both countries even though this has not been curiously scrapped.
The ageing fleet of the IAF is evident with aircraft as the AN 32 and IL 76 on extended support. In addition timely replacements for C 130 J and C 17 fleets will have to be thought through given the long acquisition period.