NEW DELHI:In the cold winter night of December 1971 during the Battle of Longewala in the Thar desert, Major Kuldeep Singh Chandpuri sought air firepower from the Indian Air Force (IAF). The critical request was turned down; the IAF did not have fighter aircraft with night vision. Before Major Chandpuri and his 120 men of 23rd Punjab Regiment (Sikhs) stood 2,000 Pakistani soldiers with tanks. Eyeball to eyeball, the Punjab Regiment was staring death in the face.
As the sun kissed the sky with its golden glow, the IAF scrambled HF-24 Maruts and Hawker Hunter jets that rained annihilation on the Pakistani soldiers, wiping out 34 of their tanks.
That was then. Forty-four years on, the IAF’s combat capability has soared. However, a dark side of it is that the force’s many airfields still do not have adequate lights that allow night landing and takeoffs.
This grave adversity was highlighted by a Parliamentary panel report last week. It stated that while the IAF is battling a depleting combat strength, it still can’t operate at night at key airfields on the borders with China and Pakistan.
In recent years, the IAF opened three advanced landing grounds (ALG) in Jammu & Kashmir’s Ladakh region at Daulat Beg Oldi, Fuk Che and Nyoma, close to the Line of Actual Control with China. It is also in the process of opening upgraded ALGs at six locations in Arunachal Pradesh by the end of 2016.
On August 20, 2013, a C-130J Super Hercules of the IAF touched down at Daulat Beg Oldie, the world’s highest airfield at a height of 16,614 feet within 10 km of India’s de-facto border with China. Since then, there have been regular C-130J flights to the airfield. An ALG is being developed at Tawang, a border town in Arunachal Pradesh at the core of the Sino-Indian territorial dispute, for landing of transport aircraft and helicopters.
The IAF wants to upgrade the Nyoma ALG, located within 25 km of the border, as well as the Kargil air base into full-fledged airfields capable of handling all types of aircraft, including fighter jets.These airfields are operating without adequate night landing facility.
“The Committee came to know that 11 airfields of IAF do not have Airfield Lighting Systems and the limited requirement is met using mobile airfield lighting system,” the Parliamentary panel said. The IAF has 53 small and medium airfields across India. In seven years, the IAF will lose its edge over Pakistan as it will be reduced to 25 squadrons, equal to that of its neighbour.
“That is exactly the problem. Pakistan has 21 active combat squadrons going to 25. We have 35. A drawdown has already begun and by 2022, we will be around 25. It is a one-to-one match with them. Now we have to look at the threat from China. Though you may be at war with Pakistan, you cannot ignore China,” a senior IAF official told the Parliamentary panel.
The Parliament committee was informed that installation of permanent air field light system is planned under the Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI) project. It was planned in two phases and was to be completed by September 2016. However, the contract for Phase II is yet to be signed.
The committee was also told that the Arunachal Pradesh government has agreed to transfer the maintence of operations of Tuting, Mechuka, Along, Vijaynagar and Ziro ALGs to the Ministry of Defence. Though the Indian Army has operational control of Tawang and Walong, the IAF has allocated Rs 389 crore for developing seven ALGs in the eastern state.
The panel took exception to poor border road connectivity and highlighted the army’s inability to reach the eastern border in case of a war with China. It said about Tawang, “In case of war, the army cannot reach there in a day. While our neighbouring countries can reach borders within two to three hours, our army takes more than a day to reach there.” It also slammed the Border Roads Organisation for its inability to provide roads at the eastern front facing China and instructed it to construct good quality roads in the sector on ‘priority’ basis.
11 airfields with night landing facility hits IAF’s combat and transport ability
IAF has 53 big and small bases in India
In 2022, IAF will have just 25 fighter squadrons, equal to Pakistan’s.