Guest Column - Force Magazine
Joint Strike
IAF-Navy operations have to be synchronised to tackle any threat on our eastern sea board
AVM Manmohan Bahadur (retd)By AVM Manmohan Bahadur (retd)

India had its most famous victory in December 1971 while resolving the geo-political absurdity of the British when they left India and made two culturally different entities of West Punjab and East Bengal under a single nation called Pakistan. It had to go one day, and in its dismemberment the Indian armed forces had their most famous hour too. While the formation of Bangladesh was the proverbial icing on the cake, what also emerged was the synergy amongst the three Services as the overall plan was put in action. Sure, there were some mismatches, but that can be expected when a war plan rolls into action.

While the joint role of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army (IA) in the Bangladesh war is well known, knowledge of the combined efforts of the IAF and the Indian Navy are conspicuous by their absence. To be sure, they were few due to the totally different directions of approach and the fact that there was no amphibious operation. But that was way back in 1971. What the future holds for IAF-Indian Navy (IN) operations on our Eastern sea board in the Bay of Bengal and the adjoining portion of the Indian Ocean is the aim of this essay.

Preparations for war start in peace and here the IAF and the IN have been involved in an intimate way. The IAF trains a large percentage of IN pilots and navigators, by imparting basic training at the Air Force Academy, Hyderabad, and advanced training to All Purpose Flying Instructors at the Flying Instructors School, Tambaram. There is a long established exchange programme under which aircrew of the two Services fly in operational squadrons and units of each other’s Service.

While these two aspects are fairly well known (and the most famous example is of the retired Naval Chief Admiral Arun Prakash having won his Vir Chakra while flying with an IAF Squadron in the 1971 war), it is the presence of an IAF Fighter Combat Leader (FCL) in the Naval Operational Squadron that is the key to exchange of tactics and imparting of specialist operational combat training to naval aircrew. The author hastens to add that this billet should not be construed as showing the IAF in a superior position, but just as an acceptance by the navy of the need to imbibe from an institution that is unique in our country – and in it, one sees the openness of the naval aviator’s mind, which is an exceptionally good thing.

Ever since the IAF acquired the Il-78 aerial refueling aircraft, Naval Sea Harrier pilots have been topping up their aircraft from these tankers. The arrival of the MiG 29K in the navy’s inventory has multiplied the IN’s strike capability many fold and brought along with it additional tasking for the already over worked aerial refuellers.

Luckily, six additional flight refueling aircraft are being contracted for by the IAF for delivery in the near future and this would have a good effect on availability of strike power in air, both for the air force and the navy. The air force also has a pilot or two flying naval helicopters, but these have been generally restricted to Chetaks and the odd aircrew on the Sea King. This, however, does not speak of good jointmanship that very few air force pilots have been cleared for deck landings. This calls for an introspection and on some more aspects which will be covered subsequently.

The Indian nation has been blessed with an ocean that carries its name, which shows that it is an important landmass in its midst. But, do we truly exercise control over the Indian Ocean and are we in a position to do so in future to safeguard our interests? It is time that experts from both the Services sat down together to take a joint approach to this vital geo-political positional advantage that India has in an ocean which carries more than a quarter of the world’s container shipping, 75 per cent of China’s oil imports and has vital choke points on the West to East shipping lanes, the most famous being the Malacca Straits.

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