Monday, May 24, 2010

Transport Fleet and its Relevance to the IAF

Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd.)
11, Silver State, Pilibhit Byepass Road,
Bareilly-243005 (U.P.) INDIA
Mob: 9411900090, 09999722636

Transport Fleet and its Relevance to the IAF

The Indian Air Force was officially established on 08 October 1932, being the date of its formal constitution. The first aircraft flight however was not formed until 01 April 1933, at which time it possessed a strength of six officers trained at RAF cranwell and 19 “Hawai Sepoys” (literally air soldier), its aircraft inventory comprised four westland wapiti II A.

The year 1946 also saw the establishment of the first RIAF transport unit, No. 12 squadron (first as sprit fire squadron in 1945) and received Dakota’s in Panagarh in late 1946.In Jan 1950 India became a Republic and the IAF dropped its prefix “Royal”.

At this time India possessed six fighter squadron, one bomber and one C-47 Dakota transport squadron. In addition had one AOP flight, a communication squadron and training organization.

A second transport squadron No. 11 had been formed on C-47 Dakota’s in Sep 1951. Eighty C-119G packet aircraft were inducted during the period 1954 to early 1963 under US emergency military aid. Packet aircraft propeller driven piston engine aircraft which served the IAF till Jul 1985 for more than 30 yrs. A most beautifully crafted military transport aircraft of its time. The cockpit, the delivery system, loading facilities were immaculate and was air crews delight, specially for the pilots. An aircraft totally unpressurized not designed to fly beyond 18000 feet. It was recharged with additional jet engine (J-34) to operate up to 24000 feet. This magnificent machine operated regularly to Leh, Thoise, Kargil and Fukche. All airfields were beyond 3200 meters (11000 feet) elevation. Not only, that the aircraft created history by landing at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) an airstrip located beyond 16000 feet elevation.

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 builtup of the Air Force. Transport aircraft and logistics became a hall mark. 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 25 squadron at Chandigarh.

An-12 aircraft also had its limitations. The aircraft was partially pressurized (only the crew cabin & the Kabina with 14 passenger capacity). In spite of its limitation of Navigational aids, the aircraft played a remarkable role in Air Transport, Air maintenance and Maritime reconnaissance roles.

The most remarkable achievement of the An -12 fleet (No 44 Squadron) was modification in “Bombing Role” just prior to the 1971 conflict. It can be said unhesitatingly that the An – 12 aircraft in its intense usage in ‘Bombing Role’ in the “western” as well as in the “Eastern” sector turned the fate of the war in India’s favor. Even the Russians were amazed to know this role of the An-12 aircraft .Finally this magnificent and magestic machine went our of Indian skies during Jul 1993.

IAF’s peacetime role has been “Air Maintenance” of its troops in the western sector and maintaining troops and civilians population in the Eastern sector in a big way. This requirement by itself necessitated deployment of 4 squadrons in the western sector and nearly four squadrons in the Eastern sector. The Dakota and the packet fleet which were the back bones of the transport fleet had out lived their technical life and maintenance support was, becoming a nightmare. Since mid seventies, the fleet had shown signs of dwindling force and was lying in pains.

We delayed in identification and induction of replacements by seven years (since mid seventies). By this time An – 12 fleet was also showing signs of fatigue and in adequate maintenance support.

It was only during early eighties that a final decisions was taken to completely replace the ageing Dakota & Packet fleet with An – 32 aircraft. 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. Literally one aircraft cost was just Rs. 1 crore (USD 200,000 thousand at the present rate of exchange).

I still remember the words of then JS (Air) Mr Desai in a meeting, when he said “sign as many aircraft you want, after few years even a car may cost more than that”. Interestingly today just one aircraft of its class would cost double of the cost of 118 aircraft paid at that time.

By this time replacement of An – 12 was also thought out IL – 76 MD was found to be the most suitable aircraft. An aircraft with 48 tones pay load capacity. Four engines multipurpose aircraft capable of operating at unpaved surface. An aircraft which can operate without any ground support system most reliably. Most suitable for quick induction of troops in battle zones or disturbed area. A full complement of 225 troops can 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 the Indian subcontinent. Besides their taking over the control of Air maintenance role and Air transport operation within 3-6 months of their induction gave a tremendous boost to the Air Force and the Nation as a whole. IL-76 MD landed at Leh during Oct 85 even landed at Thoise when airfield was only 1700 meters long during Jan 1987.

The first testing ground for India’s new resurgence in strategic reach was evident in Srilanka operation. First during Jun 1987 when 6 An-32 aircraft carried out food supply drops to display their solidarity for the suffering of Tamils in Jaffan peninsula. On 29 Jul 1987, once Srilanka accord was signed by our PM (late Shri Rajeev Gandhi) from 30 Jul 87 onwards massive induction of IPKF commenced and lasted till March 1990. The IAF’s transport fleet provided unhindered massive support during the operation.

In spite of the fact that IPKF operation were going on another major call came from our neighbors, Maldives on 3 Nov 88. It was for the strategic reach of the IAF that 5 IL-76 aircraft and 30 An – 32’s were pressed into service within few hours of the SOS from President Gayoom and his Govt. And the Govt. was saved.

Since the time we last inducted the transport aircraft was 25 years back. Both An – 32 and IL – 76 MD aircraft have completed their calendar life as per Soviet specification. Both are on their extended life may be another 10-15 yrs or a maximum of 20 yrs. It is time to put on our thinking caps to look for replacements.

Most ideally we should have developed our own METAC (7-10 tons) capacity aircraft. A thinking seem to have gone about developing MTA (Multi role Transport Aircraft) in a joint venture with the Soviets we should certainly go ahead.

Presently induction of 6 C – 130 aircraft at a cost of Rs. 1000 crore appears to be a viable proposal. But other avenues first indigenization, secondly C-295 (Spanish) and M – 400 A (EADS) are other options, which should be explored.

In heavy lift capability IL-76 MD aircraft with 48 tones (could carry T – 72 tank weight 42 tones) has served well. May be IAF would need to look for an aircraft with 70 tons pay load capacity for our long reach and futuristic engagements.

We have to keep with the pace of the time and timely identification and induction of replacements.

Delayed induction of METAC costed us very heavily during the period 1984-1993. In a period of 9 yrs we lost 13 An-32 aircraft in Cat –I accidents. Be wiser and don’t let that experience be repeated.

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