Indian Air Force and its Transport Fleet
By Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd)
Published : October 2008
New Delhi. The Indian Air Force was officially established on 8 October 1932, that being the date of its formal constitution. The first aircraft flight however was not formed until 1 April 1933, at which time it possessed a strength of six officers trained at RAF Cranwell and 19 “Hawai Sepoys” (literally air soldiers), and an inventory of four Westland Wapiti II-A aircraft.
The year 1946 saw the establishment of the first RIAF transport unit, No. 12 squadron (initially a Spitfire squadron in 1945). It received Dakotas in Panagarh by late 1946. In January 1950, India became a Republic and the IAF dropped its prefix “Royal”.
At this time India possessed six fighter squadrons, one bomber and one C-47 Dakota transport squadron. In addition, IAF had one AOP flight, Communication squadron and training organization.
A second transport squadron, No. 11, had been formed on C-47 Dakotas in September 1951.
Eighty C-119G Fairchild Packet aircraft were inducted during the period 1954 to early 1963 under US emergency military assistance.
These propeller driven twin engine piston aircraft served the IAF with distinction till Jul 1985, for more than 30 years. It was a most beautifully crafted military transport aircraft of its time. The cockpit, the delivery system, loading facilities, all were immaculate and the machine was a pilot and crews delight.
As an un-pressurized aircraft, it was designed to fly below 18000 feet. However, the Indian Air Force added a jet pack -Gnat’s Orpheus J-34 engine – on the top of its fuselage to take it up to 24000 feet to drop supplies to troops facing Chinese incursions.
It would have been impossible to operate in the thin air otherwise. The Indian innovation was copied by the CIA for its Latin American operations, not necessarily for heights but for fast takeoff after dropping supplies.
This magnificent Packets operated regularly to Leh, Thoise, Kargil and Fukche. All the airfields were beyond 3200 meters (11000 feet) elevation. Not only that, the IAF created history by landing it at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), an airstrip located beyond 16000 feet elevation. The sixties revealed a serious security concern for India.
Frequent clashes with china and finally an unprovoked attack on India’s sovereignty in October 1962 necessitated quick and timely buildup of the air force. Till then, the political mindset was not even in favour of buying jeeps for the Indian Army.
Transport aircraft and logistics became a hallmark for the Indian Air Force due to the Indian debacle in the face of Chinese aggression.
Soviet built An-12 and IL-14 were inducted during the period March 1961 to July 1963. Two new operational squadrons were formed, namely No. 44 and No. 25, and based at Chandigarh.
The An-12 aircraft also had its limitations. It was partially pressurized (only the crew cabin and the Kabina with 14 passenger capacity). Nonetheless, in spite of its another, and serious, limitation in navigational aids, it played a remarkable role in Air Transport, Air maintenance and Maritime Reconnaissance roles.
(No. 44 Squadron)The most remarkable achievement of the An -12 fleet was its modification to a “Bombing Role” just before the 1971 Bangladesh War.
The Indian Army had expected a massive attack from Pakistan on the western borders, and indeed, at one time, the Pakistani Army concentrated some 30,000 troops around Kashmir to capture it. Sure enough, this happened, and IAF saved the day by deploying the modified An-12s to bomb Pakistani positions and troop concentrations.
Aircraft of the No. 44 Squadron flew night missions, unescorted, and did intense carpet bombing, rolling out nine tones of fire from each aircraft. They were always in waves of six aircraft, and fortunately, all returned home safely and smilingly.
The Squadron won one MVC (Maha Vir Chakra) and three VrCs (Vir Chakra).
It may be noted that night fighting capability was virtually zero with the air forces of both the countries, and the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) was unable to intercept even a single An-12.
The aircraft was deployed on both the Western and Eastern sectors, and played a crucial role in turning the fate of the War in India’s favour.
In fact, the Russians were amazed to know this role of their An-12 aircraft, and praised the IAF profusely for its innovative spirit. This magnificent and majestic flying machine went out of the Indian skies during July 1993.
IAF’s peacetime role has been “Air Maintenance” of Indian troops in the western sector and maintaining troops and civilians population in the Eastern sector in a big way.
This requirement by itself has necessitated deployment of four squadrons in the western sector and nearly four squadrons in the Eastern sector. The Dakota and the Packet fleets, which were the backbones of the transport fleet, had outlived their technical life.
Their maintenance support had become a nightmare. In the mid-seventies however, the IAF’s transport fleet had shown signs of a dwindling force.
We delayed in identification and induction of replacements by seven years (since the mid-seventies). By this time the An–12 fleet was also showing signs of fatigue and inadequate maintenance support.
It was only during the early 1980s that a final decisions was taken to completely replace the ageing Dakota and Packet fleets with An–32 aircraft.
The Soviets had offered modified An–26, with high-powered engines, for high attitude operations. It would be interesting to know that 118 An–32 aircraft were contracted on a 20 years military credit arrangement, with no interest liability. Today, perhaps one modern transport aircraft equals them in cost.
I still remember the words of then Joint Secretary (Air) in the Ministry of Defence, Mr Desai, who said in a meeting: “Sign as many aircraft you want, for after few years even a car may cost more than them.”
By this time the replacement for An–12s was considered, the Soviet IL–76 MD was found to be the most suitable aircraft.
It could carry 48 tonnes of payload, or one T-72 tank weighing 42 tonnes comfortably.
Its four engines gave the aircraft some multipurpose capability, including operating at unpaved surface. It was an aircraft that could operate without any ground support system, and most reliably. It was suitable for quick induction of troops in battle zones or disturbed area. A full complement of 225 troops could be landed and deployed in a matter of three minutes with no hassles.
The induction of An–32 during the early 1984 and IL-76 MD aircraft during 1985 added a new dimension to air power in the Indian subcontinent.
IAF deployed the IL-76s effectively, taking over the control of Air maintenance role and air transport operations within three to six months of their induction. These aircraft gave a tremendous boost to the IAF. And strategic reach.
In another first, the IAF landed an IL-76 MD at Leh on 14 October 1985, and then again at Thoise on 30 January 1987, on a short runway of about 5500 feet. The manufacturer’s specifications warranted a runway length of mnimum 7,500 feet.*
In fact, the Indian Air Force has a record of operating various machines well beyond their limitations, and in the most difficult and inhospitable terrains, whether it is combat or transport aircraft, or even helicopters.
Ferries to Siachen are an example. During Operation Brasstacks, an exercise to test war games, one IAF pilot conducted a record 28 missions in seven days by the Il-76s to land BMPs in the tough and high mountainous terrain.*
The first testing ground for India’s new resurgence in strategic reach was evident in the Sri Lanka operations. First, during June 1987 when six An-32 aircraft carried out food supply drops to display their solidarity for the suffering of Tamils in the Jaffna peninsula.
From 29 July 1987 onwards, once the Sri Lanka accord was signed by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, there was a massive induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from 30 July itself. The IAF transporters provided unhindered and massive support during the operations till 1990.
Alongside the IPKF operations, there was a sudden call from one of our smaller but important neighbour, Maldives. There was an SOS from President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who faced a Coup D’etat on 3 Nov 1988.
The Indian government consulted world powers and some Islamic friends, and then rushed troops to save the beleagured government.
This could be done due to the strategic reach that the IL-76 aircraft gave the Indian Air Force. Five Il-76 and 30 An-32 aircraft were pressed into service within houurs of his distress call to land Indian troops on this nation of 1000 islands and the government was saved.*
It may be noted though that the last time we last inducted transport aircraft was 25 years back. Both the An–32 and IL–76 MD aircraft have completed their calendar life as per the Soviet manufacturer’s specifications. Both are on their extended lives, and could go on for another 10 to 15 years.
It is time to put on our thinking caps to look for replacements.
Ideally, we should have developed our own transport aircraft, but the MTA venture with Russia for nearly 50 aircraft should do well. We have already placed order for six Hercules C 130J special operations aircraft from the US Lockheed Martin, but that is too small a number for the size of Indian Air Force. Perhaps, we will exercise the option for another six.
The Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal F H Major, has made a welcome announcement about the induction of Very Heavy Transport Aircraft of &0-plus tones capacity. Whatever aircraft we buy, the time is of essence now as the existing aircraft are ageing, and their replacements must come as soon as possible.
Thankfully, after years of paralysis at the Ministry of Defence after 1990, the system is well geared now, and the government is adequately taking care of the equipment requirements for the forces. The vagaries of politics, as to who should come to power, should have no impact on the normal replacement and augmentation process.
The lack of munitions during the Kargil War for instance, when mortar shells had to be acquired at a week’s notice to shell the positions occupied by intruding Pakistanis, should be a warning.
Like the Indian Army and Navy, the IAF has to keep up with the pace of the time and timely identification and induction of replacements has to be done. The Ministry of Defence has to support this effort always.