Like an eagle, IAF now adept in swooping, soaring from war zones

Only a few air forces in the world have capability to operate inside active war zones

iaf globemaster (File) Representational image

Unlike the tenor of benevolence in their names—‘Kaveri’, ‘Ganga’, ‘Devi Shakti’, and ‘Rahaat’—they are anything but that. Codenames of the Indian Air Force (IAF) operations, these four exemplify a recently-acquired rare capability of the Indian military’s flying service.

For the past several years, the IAF has been honing its rare skill set of operating its flying machines from the ground zero of combat zones.

Normally, it involves the capability to make a fast descent to land in a short run, offload or load the payload—men or material—and then take off with a short run on a near vertical ascent.

“This is a combat zone capability that has been developed by the IAF over the last few years. Not many countries in the world have this capability,” a senior official in India’s military establishment told THE WEEK.

“It is primarily based on two factors. Availability of flying platforms equipped with advanced avionics. And secondly, training the personnel to undertake such operations. Before 2015, the IAF did not have aircraft that allowed such operations. The IAF is equipped with both these capabilities now.”

The two main airlifting platforms that made the difference in this case are the US-made C-130J ‘Super Hercules’ and the C-17 ‘Globemaster’.

While ‘Super Hercules’ first arrived in India in 2010, the first ‘Globemaster’ for the IAF landed on Indian soil in 2013.

Made by Lockheed Martin, the IAF has 12 ‘Super Hercules’ C-130Js that are tailor-made to fulfill requirements of operation undertaken by the special forces and emergency evacuation. Manufactured by Boeing, the IAF operates a total of 11 Very Heavy Lift Transport ‘Globemaster’ C-17s.

These two US-made platforms are equipped with advanced instruments and sophisticated avionics which permit them to operate in the most challenging conditions and difficult terrains.

The first major test of India’s combat zone airlift capabilities came in April 2015 in the form of Operation ‘Raahat’ as more than 4,600 Indians had to be evacuated by air and sea from Yemen after a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia attacked Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebel strongholds in Yemen.

Operation ‘Devi Shakti’ was undertaken in 2021 when the Indian government decided to bring back Indians stranded in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover of the capital Kabul in August. The number of people evacuated totaled about 800.

The next challenge was during Operation ‘Ganga’ when about 20,000 Indian nationals had to be evacuated to safety from war-ravaged Ukraine in February-March 2022 after Russian forces began a military assault. The IAF was helped in the operation by private airliners even as the airspace over Ukraine was closed down.

But the most challenging operation was Operation ‘Kaveri’ in April-May 2023 launched after Sudan plunged into civil war following the deadly fighting between the African country’s military and the paramilitary forces.

One of the most daring operations took place in pitch darkness on April 28 when 121 Indians flew out from Sudan in commando-style escape in a IAF C-130J. Amid gunfire and explosions, the ‘Super Hercules’ swooped down onto a small dusty airstrip at Wadi Sayyidna, about 40 km north of the country’s capital at Khartoum.

The airstrip had a degraded surface. No facilities like navigational approach aids or refueling amenities or even landing lights that are critical to guide an aircraft landing at night were available.

Making a dash to the whirring aircraft was a convoy of vehicles carrying 121 Indians, led by the Indian defence attaché from the Indian embassy in Sudan.

“In such operations, the aircraft has to land in unprepared and damaged runways. There are no navigational aids and guiding lights, and the waiting time is very short. On top of that, there is no awareness of the ground situation as there may be hostiles anywhere in the vicinity. It is touch and go really,” the official said. 


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