BSF Air Wing should be strengthened through planned systematic and structured modernisation
The Border Security Force’s (BSF) air wing was established on 1 May 1969 with the induction of Queen Air C-80 aircraft. At that time, it was exclusively under the command of director general, BSF. After the India-Pakistan war of 1971, the air wing was strengthened with the induction of five Dakota DC-3 aircraft.
However, in 1974, there was a realisation that the air assets needed to be controlled centrally so that they could be utilised by other Central Police Organisations (CPO). Hence, command and control of the air wing was transferred to ministry of home affairs (MHA) for operational and administrative purpose. Over the years, such platforms such as Avro, Super King and Cheetah helicopter were inducted and Dakota was phased out. The BSF air wing is now the exclusive domain of MHA with the service being mere asset holder, responsible to operate it as per the directions of the ministry. The BSF has no operational and administrative freedom in operation of the air wing.
Role and Task
The BSF air wing’s operational role is administrative and peacetime centric. It includes movement of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) personnel to remote field areas for operational deployment; transportation of operational stores and administrative essentials, such as arms, ammunition, winter clothing, medicines, communication equipment, food and other logistic stores; providing air facilities to VIPs/ VVIPs, officials of MHA and other central/state ministers, foreign delegations, medical teams during natural disasters; aerial survey of areas devastated by natural disasters; evacuation of casualties; transportation of criminals and terrorists as per the instructions of MHA; airlift advance security liaison teams whenever needed; airlift enquiry commissions, investigative teams and fact-finding bodies; border surveillance and maintenance of border outposts; and any other role given by the MHA.
Of the roles listed above, operational tasks are a low priority for the MHA and the air wing is hardly ever utilised for border surveillance. The utility of aircraft is more for tasks which are not related with border surveillance. Be that as it may, the practicality of using them for border surveillance during peacetime does need a detailed analysis.
The BSF air wing has bases at different locations across the country based on such considerations as terrain, isolation of border outposts (which then will have to be air maintained), weather conditions, probability of natural calamities, internal security and insurgency environment. Consequently, these bases are located at Raipur (Chhattisgarh), Guwahati (Assam), Agartala (Tripura), Ranchi (Jharkhand) and Srinagar (J&K). Fixed wing aircraft such as Avro and Embraer are based in Delhi.
The general perception is that the BSF air wing is under-utilised in operational roles and over utilised for VIP movement. It is partly correct, but this is something beyond the control of the BSF and the tasking is decided by the ministry. In the past, Cheetah helicopters were used for movement of senior commanders to remote locations in Jammu and Kashmir. It has also been used very effectively to replenish arms and ammunition during intense trans-border firing on international border in Jammu.
The air platforms of the BSF are registered with Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) under both civil and military norms. The current holdings include eight Mi-17 V5, six Mi-17 IV, six ALH ‘Dhruv’, one Chetak helicopter. In the fixed wing category, there is one Avro, which is almost on its way out and one Embraer jet, which until two years ago was used to fly VIPs. Now it has been transferred to military regulations.
According to a news report, ‘The Border Security Force (BSF) will soon have its own set of regulations for its air wing, after the Lok Sabha passed key amendments to the Aircraft Act, 1934 and BSF, like the defence forces will be outside the ambit of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The new regulations could be a combination of civilian and defence regulations, owing to the unique position of the BSF’s Air Wing in India.’ (The Print, 19 March 2020). The bill is now a law.
Hence, as the Aircraft Amendment Act 2020 says:
(a) after the words ‘or air forces of the Union’, the words ‘or other armed forces of the Union constituted by any law for the time being in force’ shall be inserted;
(b) the following proviso shall be inserted, namely: ‘Provided that any aircraft belonging to an armed force of the Union other than naval, military or air forces of the Union, for which the provisions of this Act and the rules made thereunder are applicable on the date of commencement of the Aircraft (Amendment) Act, 2020, shall continue to be so governed by this Act and the rules made thereunder till such date as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify’.
The larger aim of the Aircraft Amendment Act 2020 is to make aircraft operations in India more secure, in line with globally accepted standards and practices laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). However, in the interim MHA/BSF has to create infrastructure to meet military norm standards on operations and maintenance of aircraft and intimate DGCA to enable it to issue necessary notification.
At the time of its inception, professionals were needed to raise the air wing including induction of aircraft, maintenance, operational rules and regulations as per DGCA and military norms, establishment rules and training of staff.
Since 2004, the BSF air wing is commanded by an officer of the rank of Air Vice Marshal on deputation from the IAF. In the BSF, he is called IG (Air). There have been honourable exceptions where BSF cadre and IPS officers have also commanded the air wing. IG (Air) reports to the DG BSF. A mix of IAF pilots on deputation to the service and CAPF pilots on attachment fly the aircraft covered under both military and DGCA norms.
Nothing could be more ad hoc than this. Organisational and human resources management policy call for development of indigenous cadre for professional development of any organisation/ branch. The BSF air wing should be no exception. However, it has been an exception in terms of integration of CAPF pilots in the BSF air wing structure due to factors, which fall, in the domain of ministry of home affairs. The need is to allow professional development of CAPF pilots and give them opportunities to rise and make the BSF air wing truly an independent entity commanded and operated by CAPF pilots.
Air wing tasking for operational commitments is by MHA after formal approval of competent authority. Operational control of some air assets is delegated to local authority by MHA as per operational necessity. IG Air approves inescapable flying requirements mandated by regulatory stipulations because of their technical nature.
Training of air crew and ground staff both belonging to the BSF and air force is carried out as per regulatory needs stipulated for civil registered and military registered fleet as under:
(a) Civil Registered Fleet: Training includes compulsory ground training for pilots as per DGCA for commercial pilot licence holders and commercial helicopter pilot licence holders. In addition, crew and meteorological training is ensured for concerned staff annually. Training also includes mandatory flying training for pilots. The flying training include instrument-rating checks, pilot proficiency and route checks for pilots flying, monitoring and simulator flying training. The training schedules are mandatory ensured meticulously.
(b) Military Registered Fleet: Military flying training is done as per IAF guidelines.
(c) Test Flying: Test flying for civil registered fleet is as per the DGCA guidelines. DGCA mandates pilot in command and co-pilot to be Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) holders. Sometimes the BSF hire IAF pilots with ATPL. The military flying training, operation and evaluation is done as per the IAF rules.
The BSF air wing organisational structure suffers from inbuilt deficiencies, which need attention for the air wing to become an effective operational organisation. For instance, no manpower is sanctioned for aviation support functions mandated by regulatory bodies like the DGCA and the IAF. These include flight safety, flight operation supervision and maintenance activity and for administrative support functions. The BSF general duty cadre can only carry out administrative support functions since they do not possess aviation expertise. Worse, many mandatory posts for operational and safety which need to be manned by technical and specialised staff are not sanctioned.
While today the BSF air wing is a small entity, it is envisaged that it will come out of the DGCA ambit in the near future and operate under military norms. Hopefully, once that happens, the aircraft which are currently underutilised due to various reasons, can be put to operational use.
CAPFs form the mainstay of internal security operation in the country. Hence, the BSF air wing need to be strengthened in a way that the MHA does not have to look towards private airlines for running courier routes for the CAPF soldiers. The air bases need strengthening with modern infrastructural facilities and aircraft to reduce reaction time for medical/ casualty evacuation and reinforcements to operational areas. These facilities can also be used for helping civilian population in times of need. The government needs to consider making the air wing a nodal agency of the MHA along with NDRF for disaster management operations. Strengthening of the air wing will also provide respite to the IAF as it has to divert its resources for disaster relief.
Here are some of the reforms that can be considered by the government.
- Make the air wing exclusively responsible for disaster rescue and relief operations under the MHA. The IAF should be the last resort, not the first responder.
- Real time movement of troops for reinforcement in operational areas where land transport is dangerous or time-consuming. For instance, the LWE affected forested areas.
- Operation of courier services for movement of troops after return from leave/ duty, a service presently rented to private airlines.
- Use rotary wing aircraft for border domination where required, for instance riverine terrain.
- Reconnaissance operations in insurgency and LWE prone areas.
The BSF air wing caters to the air transport needs of CAPFs, which have a combined strength of a million plus. Once modernised, it can play an important role in the operations of the CAPF, apart from during natural calamities. There is need for modernisation of infrastructure, induction of modern aircraft and training of staff. In addition to better administrative management, the air wing should be placed under the overall command of DG BSF with MHA as final supervisory authority. Also, along with the induction of new aircraft, flying crew, ground and technical staff should also be inducted into the BSF air wing with proper structured recruitment and promotion rules. The BSF air wing must become self-sufficient in all aviation aspects and must be headed by a senior pilot from the force.
To become a well-rounded, self-sufficient force, the air wing should look at inducting large transport aircraft, medium transport aircraft, medium and light helicopters and al least a couple of executive jets (for VIP duties).
Currently, the air wing is flying ALH Dhruv and Avro fleet under the DGCA regulations and Embraer and MI17 helicopters under military norms. This dual regulatory framework within one organisation creates confusion. There is division and duplication of resources since regulatory needs of each organisation has to be met to maintain airworthiness and maintenance standards, which are necessary for safety. Also, with the passing of the Aircraft Amendment Bill, the DGCA will no longer be able to exercise regulatory supervision after government specifies and necessary infrastructure/wherewithal is created.
With the BSF air wing coming out of the DGCA framework, there is an urgent necessity to create regulatory infrastructure for testing and operations of aircraft. The government needs to institute self-regulatory provisions for air wing, similar to those of the military /IAF where head of organisation is not only the overall custodian of assets but also responsible for their operational performance and safety.
The air wing is an important asset, which need to be strengthened through planned systematic and structured modernisation. The prevalent adhocism is only laying it to waste.