From the perspective of the Indian Air Force (IAF), 2013 was to be a year replete with opportunities granting high visibility and positive public relations. Apart from the bi-annual Aero India show and historic acquisitions, to shape up by the year-end, IAF had two of its major exercises slated which kicked off with the Iron Fist 2013, to be followed by Live Wire a little later. But things seldom run according to script.
Within the first week of the year began murmurs of discontent from what has been (and will remain) one of its most controversial deployments, Op Triveni – IAF’s non-combat, support operations in the anti-Naxal fight. On January 7, in an encounter in Jharkhand’s Latehar district, which took the lives of nine Central Reserve Police personnel (CRPF) and one of Jharkhand Police, an IAF helicopter was called in by the ground forces to evacuate its injured. Almost about the land, the pilot aborted and flew back for reasons not known. The injured, who were all brought to the makeshift helipad from the encounter site – almost 3 km away had to then be physically lifted across anther 4 km and evacuated by a goods train. The forces, pre-occupied with casualties did not make much noise. But the memory remains.
In the same month came yet another ignominy when the Maoist insurgents not only forced its Mi17 helicopter to land in the jungles of Tamilwada in Chattisgarh’s Bastar region but also brought about an avoidable instance of six IAF personnel abandoning an injured police radio-operator in the stricken helicopter. That the Ministry of Home Affairs has termed the episode as an ‘extremely disturbing’ one and wants the Defence Ministry to act against the personnel is now public.
The force also lost two fighter aircrafts (Mig-27 on February 12 and Sukhoi-30 MKI, a week later) within a fortnight in the same region, presumably over the same exercise. To this add the VVIP helicopter saga which has brought the force yet again to the public stage, for yet another avoidable reason.
Excellent display of enhanced capabilities
On February 22, however, the IAF showed just why it deserves to not be seen through clouded eyes. Enthralling the nation with a gamut of upgraded and cutting-edge abilities, the force made a strong pitch in assuring the nation of its continued dedication to defending our airspace and nation-building through day, dusk and night.
IAF’s strength in precision-bombing was tested more than a decade ago when it was required to rain hell on to the intruders occupying the icy peaks of Kargil. It re-invented itself on this count utilizing advanced avionics, weaponry and skills. That apart, the excellence achieved in executing heli-borne operations, perhaps on display for the first time with the National Security Guard & its Garud commandos, implied the kind of havoc it can wreak if asked to dismantle the terror infrastructure across the border. The edge acquired in Special Forces operations thanks to the wonderful C130J Hercules aircraft too was not lost upon the audience which consisted of not just the Defence Minister but also the President, Prime Minister and foreign invitees.
While watching the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas fire or the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and Advanced Light Helicopter’s (ALH) Sarang team exhibit their manoeuvrings, my pride was dented by the fact that these ‘indigenous’ aircrafts still have a long way to go before they truly can be indigenised. That our nation after producing atomic bombs, satellites & software programs for the world, consistently lacks the scientific know-how to go beyond license-producing planes and helicopters does not allow me my share of joy. To have the longest-serving defence minister of the world’s largest arms importer country say towards the end of his tenure that importing still has to be ‘reduced’, is disappointing to say the least.
Flying into the insurgency-prone zone or the Naxal-affected areas is only going to get trickier. The way things stand at present, the IAF seems threatened by the rebels and in trying to secure itself, is hurting those whom it is to serve. Maoists are known to & have indeed studied on bringing down helicopters way back in 2009. The IAF will have to ensure that the political leadership is made aware and persuaded to act so as to avoid any embarrassing situation in the future. It is only the IAF that stands to lose from it.
Finally, the manner in which corruption seems to have seeped in despite the ministry claiming that the procedures were followed in the VVIP deal only goes to show the sophistication gained by the wrongdoers. Not surprisingly, the ministry has put on hold the project which was to replace the vintage Cheetahs and Chetaks with 197 Light Utility Helicopters for the air force and the army. IAF is neither singularly responsible nor capable to address these issues. But will stand to lose the most.
For a professional and progressive air force, which has truly initiated its journey to transform into an aerospace power, merely factoring in the moves its external adversaries are making is only half the job done. For the real enemy lies within.