Flying to Sustain

IAF plays a prominent role in the northern sector 

Smruti D

As the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops continues and high-level talks between the two countries have still not brought out any concrete solutions, Indian military has started to prepare for Ladakh winter.

IAF C 130J Super Hercules landing at Daulat Beg Oldie

Ladakh is known as a cold desert with a difficult terrain and hostile weather. The movement of troops is hampered because of lack of infrastructure due to weather conditions. Even if infrastructure is built, it has low shelf life because of the weather. The IAF has been playing a tremendously important role in Ladakh for decades. Apart from deploying aircraft at frontline bases to be combat-ready, the IAF has been a lifeline for the Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) deployed at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The prominence of their role increases manifold now as they are tasked with serving more numbers of troops because of the Indo-China standoff.

Air maintenance happens in two parts. Air Vice Marshal (retd) Manmohan AVM Bahadur says, “Air maintenance starts from Chandigarh. Fixed wing aircraft take the logistics material to Leh and Thoise air force stations and subsequently from there the helicopters take them to the forward posts. That is the overall procedure that happens in air maintenance in the north. Similarly, air maintenance is carried out in Northeast also, in certain places although its much reduced now due to growing road connectivity. The bulk is carried out by the transport aircraft, some of which is airdropped at the glacier and some items like letters, mail, fresh food articles are carried by the helicopter to border areas.”

Air maintenance is carried out by the IAF in the northern sector in parts including Siachen glacier and Sub-Sector North in Ladakh near Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO). DBO is located just 10 km from the LAC.

“Any army or ITBP post in remote areas, especially in mountains and high altitudes, are air maintained because there is no access to reach there by road for people, supplies as well as ammunition. Most of these remote places and hostile areas have to be air maintained by aircraft and helicopters with airlifts, airdrops, heli-lifts and heli-drops because there is no other way. But in the recent past, the road infrastructure has started improving which will greatly ease the movement of men and material to our border areas. Air maintenance has been going on for decades both in Ladakh and Eastern sector,” says former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major (retd).

In winter, the garrison in Leh and Thoise is maintained by air by supplying items such as fresh food. “As road links improve, air maintenance reduces but there are certain places where roads just cannot reach or they close down because of bad weather and snow. In some places over the Siachen glacier, you cannot do without air maintenance. So, air maintenance should be done,” says AVM Bahadur.

Soldiers can be equipped with basic necessities such as food, clothing and fuel only during summer when these are transported by road. Even though the road infrastructure has improved over the years, it still can’t support large troop deployment. Besides, with the onset of winter, high altitude roads get covered in snow.So, part of the logistics is carried out by the army well before winter sets in.

Later in winter, the IAF carries out all operations. As the weather becomes more hostile, the IAF caters even to the locals in the area. From Srinagar there are two ways to reach Ladakh—the Rohtang pass and Zoji La—but both of these roads are packed during winter. The only thing about the weather that helps the IAF in carrying out duties is that the load carrying capacities of the aircraft increases and in summer months, it decreases.

A report in The Indian Express compared the cost of truck and air logistics. While one round trip between Srinagar and Leh for a truck carrying 10 tonnes of supplies costs approximatelyRs 1 lakh, a C-17 Globemaster aircraft carrying about 50 tonnes in an hour-long flight costs roughly upto Rs 24 lakh. Our troops are currently stationed at an altitude of more than 14,000 feet. With the onset of winter, troops require Special Clothing and Mountaineering Equipment (SCME) along with weather-proof housing.

At such a time, the IAF’s helicopters come to the rescue and undertake the task. These aircraft not only provide necessities, they airlift troops, tanks and armoured vehicles to the borders. In July, when the T-90 tanks had to be deployed in Ladakh, most were taken by road and some were airlifted.

Currently, as tensions run high between India and China, and more troops are stationed at the border, the IAF has more at hand to do than usual. In Eastern Ladakh, to keep a vigil, the IAF has been carrying out night time patrols.

In June it was reported that the Chandigarh air base, which caters to requirements in Ladakh, was bustling with activity as men and material were being transported to forward locations. The aircraft that the IAF has been using to carry out sorties currently are C-17 Globemaster III, AN-32, C-130J Super Hercules. Chinook heavy-lift helicopters along with the Russian Mi-17 V5 are the ones carrying out regular sorties for support at the forward bases. The current Indian fleet of helicopters also include the Mi-17 helicopters, Ilyushin-76 and Cheetal light helicopters. Apache, Ah-64E, Sukhoi-30s, MiG-29 fighter jets are other multi-mission copters in Ladakh, currently.

Carrying out sorties for air maintenance is not an easy task. Weather conditions make it challenging. The aircraft that are operated by the pilots react differently in this kind of weather than they would in usual weather conditions. As oxygen is 40 times less in the area, the speed at which the aircraft flies is much higher than what is projected on the metre. For this, it is only the rigorous training and experience of pilots which comes handy in controlling the aircraft suitably. Before the pilot is inducted into the northern sector, he has to undergo hours of training which includes theory and practical flying. Terrain, aero-dynamics at high altitude and weather feature in the course of his/her learning.

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