Linked by Air

Overhaul of transport aircraft would be a step towards better connectivity

Rohan Ramesh | Bengaluru

The Indian armed forces operate in some of the toughest terrain anywhere in the world. The road infrastructure across the country is abominable, and in border areas, it is worse. In fact, so bad that a separate organisation called Border Roads Organisation (BRO) had to be created. The army has to operate in icy wastes of Siachen, and in event of a conflict - in the salty marshes of Gujarat, the deserts of Rajasthan and in the plains of Punjab, where on either side the elaborate canal system makes logistics a nightmare. Quick transport of troops from bases to forward positions poses a major challenge. In that backdrop, air transport becomes crucial.

C-17 Globemaster III in Leh

For militaries the world over, air transport or air lift of troops, both in peacetime as well as during war is a major challenge. Battles can be won or lost for delay in injection of troops at the appropriate time, or failure of air forces to keep up supplies to forward lines. At Stalingrad, Dien Bien Phu and in the battle for East Pakistan, the failure of air forces to supply troops led to monumental defeats.

In peace time, too, to maintain operational readiness, air transport is critically important. For instance, without air lifting supplies, holding on to Kargil is virtually untenable. Air transport is crucial for medical evacuation, in reaching supplies to troops in remote locations which are difficult to reach by land routes, and to transport urgently needed supplies in hostile weather.

Airlift vehicles are among the most important part of any air force, as well as aviation arms of armies and navies. These could be large heavy-lifting fixed wing aircraft such as Boeing C-17 Globemasters, Lockheed-Martin C130J Super Hercules, besides the venerable IL-76s and An-32s, that have met the needs of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for decades. But super-lifters are not limited to fixed-wing aircraft. Helicopters, too, are favoured for similar duties, but on a smaller scale. The advantage with helicopters is that they can take off and land from limited area of land in virtually any terrain, such as the Russian MIs and the American Chinooks. The airlift aircraft that India operates include:


Strategic and Tactical Lifters

Ilyushin IL-76: The Il-76 Candid is a strategic airlifter in service with the IAF. Twenty Il-76s, including 14 Il-76MDs which serve as strategic heavy-lifters, six Il-78MKIs which are used for air-to-air refuelling, and three Beriev A-50 mounted with Israeli-made Phalcon radars for AEW&C duties.

In 1967, Ilyushin designed the IL-76 to meet a requirement for a freighter able to carry a payload of 40 tonnes (88,000 lb) over a range of 5,000 km. The aircraft can do it in less than six hours besides being able to use short and unprepared airstrips.

The IL-76s in the IAF service are in need of an avionics upgrade. The aircraft are still using Soviet-era vintage Eighties avionics. According to a story in DefenceWorld.Net dated 24 April 2018, ‘Russia is ready to both upgrade the IL-76, IL-78 and IL-38s aircraft already in service and supply new equipment meeting long-term requirements of Indian partners, United Aircraft Corporation’s Vice President for Transport Aviation and CEO of Ilyushin Aleksey Rogozin has said’.


Boeing C-17 Globemaster III: Boeing’s website describes the C-17 Globemaster III as a ‘high-wing, four-engine, T-tailed military transport aircraft. The multi-service C-17 can carry large equipment, supplies and troops directly to small airfields in harsh terrain anywhere in the world. The massive, sturdy, long-haul aircraft tackles distance, destination and heavy, oversized payloads in unpredictable conditions. It has delivered cargo in every worldwide operation since the Nineties’.

Boeing India’s website further states that ‘Boeing announced that India’s ministry of defence (MoD) has signed an agreement with the US government to acquire 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III airlifters. The Foreign Military Sale (FMS) establishes India as the C-17’s largest international customer’.

The website describes the aircraft as ‘The C-17’s ability to fly long distances and land in remote airfields in rough, land-locked regions make it a premier transporter for military, humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. It can:

Take off from a 7,600-ft. airfield, carry a payload of 160,000 pounds, fly 2,400 nautical miles, refuel while in flight and land in 3,000 ft. or less on a small unpaved or paved airfield in day or night. Carry a cargo of wheeled US Army vehicles in two side-by-side rows, including the US Army’s main battle tank, the M-1. Three Bradley infantry-fighting vehicles comprise one load. Drop a single 60,000-lb. payload, with sequential load drops of 110,000 lb. Back up a two-percent slope. Seat 54 on the sidewall and 48 in the centerline’.

The C-17 Globemaster IIIs in the IAF are meant to slowly replace the IL-76 Candid strategic airlifter.

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