Strategic Reach of The IAF

Sub Title : IAF has formidable airlift capabilities which give it considerable strategic reach

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 4 Sep/Oct 2019

Author : AVM Sanjeev Kapoor

Page No. : 26

Category : Military Affairs

: September 26, 2019

The Indian Air Force has been augmenting its airlift capability to keep pace with geo strategic requirements as well as national interests. The IAF today has formidable airlift capabilities which give it considerable strategic reach and have enhanced the air mobility of our forces exponentially

Rapid air mobility is a key component of modern warfare. This assumes greater significance in short and intense wars. This is very true in India’s context, especially when related to air mobility to airfields in the Ladakh regionAir Marshal N J S Dhillon

Strategic reach has become an important military facet in recent years, as nation states increasingly use it to demonstrate both hard power and soft power. Its military applications are implicit in the fact that it can rapidly concentrate raw, hard power at a point even in a distant battlefield/theatre. This can either reinforce a weakened military position or catch an enemy unawares with its element of surprise, so essential in today’s warfare.

A look at history reveals that the fledgling Indian Air force got its first taste of airlift action shortly after independence, when we had to stop Pakistani raiders whose objective was to capture Srinagar. With a meagre Indian Army deployment, the task was difficult indeed. The IAF demonstrated its grit and ingenuity by airlifting troops and supplies to the beleaguered garrison in Srinagar with Dakotas of No. 12 Sqn RIAF, negotiating the high Himalayan Ranges way beyond the prescribed ceiling of the aircraft. Similarly, setting up of an Air Bridge to Leh in 1948 was another watershed moment in the defence of the Ladakh Sector from Pakistani Invaders when they had captured Skardu Fort and cut off the road link from Srinagar to Leh. Air Cmde Mehar Singh led a flight of six Dakotas, negotiating the Zojila and Fatula passes, and landed at an improvised sandy airstrip at Leh at a height of 11,540 feet. Eventually, the squadron flew 700 sorties and airlifted more than 1000 tons of stores during the Air Bridging Operations.

The Tactical Era (1950-1984)

A major transition in the transport fleet was heralded by the acquisition of C-119G Fairchild Packet aircraft in the 1950s. These propeller driven twin engine aircraft served the IAF with distinction for more than three decades till 1985. As an unpressurised aircraft, C-119G Packet was designed to operate below 18000 feet. However, the IAF added a Jet Pack (Gnat Orpheus Engine) on top of the fuselage to take it up to 24000 feet in order to drop supplies for our troops deployed at the Chinese borders. These magnificent machines extended the reach of the IAF to hitherto far flung high altitude remote airstrips at Thoise, Kargil and Fukche. In fact, IAF created history when a C-119G Fairchild Packet landed at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airstrip located at an elevation of 16000 feet on 23 July 1962.

During the 1960s, IAF was primarily a Tactical Air Force. The advent of An-12s in 1961 added a new dimension to the already wide array of airlift tasks. For the first time An-12, a transport aircraft, was used for bombing Pakistani troop concentrations in the J&K sector during the Indo-Pak war in 1971. This proved to be a game changer and tilted the balance heavily towards India. The IAF also demonstrated its airborne assault capability on 11 December 1971 with the para drop of a battalion of 50 Independent Para Brigade at Tangail in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This drop was instrumental in psychologically pressurizing Pakistani army to abject surrender thereby bringing an abrupt end to the conflict.

The induction of 118 versatile An-32 Tactical Transport aircraft in 1984 gave a tremendous boost to the overall tactical airlift capability of the IAF. Additionally, the steep take-off and landing (STOL) capability of these aircraft permitted their usage across the length and breadth of the country, often from austere and remotely located ALGs. Owing to the large strength of this fleet, these aircraft were extensively used for strategic missions, prime among them being their utilisation for rapid and en masse induction of Indian troops during IPKF Operations in Sri Lanka in 1987 as part of “Op Pawan”.

The Strategic Era (Advent of IL-76)

In mid 1980s, IL-76 Gajraj gave a major impetus to the ‘Strategic’ force projection capability of the Indian Air Force. The replacement of the ageing An-12s by the newly inducted IL-76s brought about a complete change in the philosophy of Air Maintenance in J&K sector. A completely new dimension had been added to the potency of IAF in terms of ‘Rapid Inter-Theatre Mobilisation Capability’ for deployment of combat squadrons through round the clock operations. Airlift of T-72 tanks, troops of para and infantry brigades to Jaffna and Trincomalee during IPKF Operations in Jul 1987 was a huge achievement for this brand new fleet.

IAF responded swiftly to the SOS call from one of our trusted allies, President Abdul Gayoom of Maldives, and IL-76 aircraft were used to fly Indian Army Special Forces to the beleaguered Island Nation in Op Cactus. The criticality of the task and the geographical location of the Island Nation was such that it could only have been achieved by a Strategic Airlift effort and the IAF came out with flying colours during the mission.

For over three decades this versatile platform has also been at the forefront of HADR missions across the globe.

Whether it was the Earthquake Relief Mission to Iran in 2003 or that to Pakistan in 2005 following the earthquake in Northern India and North-Eastern Pakistan, these operations opened a new chapter in our relationships with these countries. When relief supplies had to be delivered to Islamabad within the shortest possible time, IL-76 Fleet of the IAF played its part, delivering relief supplies to Islamabad at midnight on 12 Oct 2005. The IL-76 Fleet was also the first responder while undertaking Earthquake Relief missions to Armenia in Dec 88, Indonesia in May 06 and China in May 08.

In Sep 2005, the IL-76 ac flew halfway around the world to deliver relief materials to the USA in the aftermath of “Hurricane Katrina” which had devastated the southern part of USA. It is rare that a country like USA seeks help from others, and yet India came forward to assist with IAF’s airlift resources providing not just humanitarian assistance but also strengthening its bilateral ties with USA

Transitional Leap (FRA Induction)

Another transitional leap was achieved with the induction of the Flight Refueller Aircraft (FRA) IL-78 in 2003 a true Force Multiplier. Within a year of its operationalization, the FRA flew all the way to Alaska, staging our Fighter Aircraft while participating in a major Air Force Exercise “Cope Thunder”. In fact, it was again a first for any IAF aircraft to have flown over the North Pole enroute to Alaska. The year 2008 was a landmark year for the IAF with participation in a multi-nation major Air Force Exercise “Red Flag” in USA. The other notable participations in major Exercises were Ex Indradhanush in UK in 2006 and 2015, Ex Garuda in France in 2005, 2010 and 2019 and Ex Red Flag again in 2016.

Notwithstanding the Indian ingenuity, which can extend the life span of aircraft by many years, or decades indeed, the IAF obviously needed newer strategic airlift platforms to continue well in to the 21st century. Its growing stature as a strong regional power also demanded that India enhance its airlift capability. The IAF therefore, not only added a new type to its military transport fleet but also diversified its inventory, by going for a western origin aircraft in inducting the Super Hercules, C-130J.

Six aircraft were inducted in 2008 and an equal number in 2013. This would not only fill the airlift capability gap between the An-32 and the IL-76, but it would also add significant versatility to that capability.

“To date, the global fleet of C-130Js has surpassed more than 1.7 million flight hours supporting almost any mission requirement,” says Lockheed Martin, the OEM. It lists duties performed by the type as including “transport, firefighting, search and rescue, special operations, weather reconnaissance and aerial refuelling”.

Compared to the earlier C-130 transport models, the J-model is both faster and flies farther while also requiring much shorter runway travel. Its improved technology means better flow with existing digital communications and satellite equipment being deployed by modern air powers such as the IAF.

The aircraft have already demonstrated their capability in undertaking relief missions during the Uttarakhand floods in 2013, (they landed at Dharasu), Chennai floods and the Nepal earthquake rescue operations. The aircraft has also landed in Daulat Beg Oldie (Advanced Landing Ground) in Ladakh. Its special mission capability is rated extraordinary!

Strategic Airlift Capability Augmentation

(C-17 Globemaster III Induction)

In 2013, the induction of C-17 Globemaster III aircraft ushered in a new era of “Strategic Airlift” for the IAF. This machine is among the best the world has to offer. With a heavy payload carrying capacity along with long endurance, C-17 aircraft has redefined the horizons for the IAF. Induction of this aircraft has resulted in a phenomenal addition to the strategic reach of the IAF, enabling it to dominate in its area of interest – as far as Persian Gulf in the west to Malacca Straits in the east.

This capability was effectively demonstrated during Op Raahat in 2015, where-in this magnificent machine evacuated not just Indian nationals but also the foreign nationals from Djibouti during Yemen Crisis. Also, on 02 Apr 18, IAF evacuated mortal remains of 38 Indian Nationals from Iraq to India at a short notice using a C-17 in a mission, which attracted lot of media attention.

Induction of the C-17 Globemaster has given a tremendous boost to IAF’s airlift capability. The C-17 can lift more than 70 tons of equipment in a single sortie as compared to the 43 ton capacity of the IL-76.  As per the OEM, Boeing, the C-17 can “take off from 7,600 feet (2,300 metres) airfield, carry a payload of 160,000 pounds (72.5 tonnes), fly 2400 nautical miles (4444 kilometres), refuel in flight and land on 3,000 feet unpaved surfaces.” This ability of the aircraft will be very useful for operations from Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) in operational areas.

The Globemaster can carry three armoured infantry vehicles. In fact, recently, the C-17 fleet was used to fly Indian army T-72 tanks, each weighing 42 tons, into new deployment areas in Ladakh.  Earlier, the IL-76 had to dismantle the tank to carry it in the cargo hold. It can also carry APCs of the Army as also artillery guns, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Detachments or Missile Systems. It is reported to have  successfully carried one CH-47 Chinook or two Apache AH-64Ds helicopters for the U.S. forces, both of which are now on  the Indian armed forces inventory.

Apart from facilitating participation in Military Exercises and exploitation for HADR missions, C-17 has played a very important role in the successful execution of various bilateral Military Personnel Exchange visits with our friendly neighbours, there by contributing immensely towards Military Diplomacy. The airlift of Mi-25 attack helicopters gifted to Afghanistan and Battle Tanks as War Memorabilia to Bangladesh are prime examples of such Soft Power engagements.

Airlift of Battle Tanks and Combat Support Vehicles to high altitude airfields like Leh has immensely strengthened the confidence of our sister services in the airlift capability of the IAF. During the pan-IAF Ex Gagan Shakti in 2018, execution of mass CASEVAC missions, Armament Replenishment Missions, Special Troop Insertion and conduct of OAMP missions has effectively demonstrated round-the-clock-operational capability of the IAF in no uncertain terms.

During Ex Pitch Black, Australia; the C-17 aircraft flew nonstop for 11 hours from Chennai to Perth, Australia. This became the longest Ex-India Mission flown by a transport aircraft in the history of the IAF. In Dec 2018 another milestone was achieved, this time in terms of Heavy Airlift Capability wherein in a single day, record air maintenance load was delivered in the Northern Sector. This exercise was befittingly named Ex Bahubali. The landing by C-17 at Mechuka ALG in Arunachal Pradesh which is just 29 Kms from Sino-Indian Border has been a major achievement in Military Posturing and Political Signalling.


The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) along with Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal have an important role to play in geo-politics of Asia and the world in the twenty first century. Given India’s maritime interests and security ambitions, augmentation of IAF’s strategic airlift capability to ensure global reach was an imperative. Procurement of state-of- the-art Very Heavy Transport Aircraft (VHETAC) C-17 Globemaster III from USA has transformed the Strategic Capability of the IAF Transport Fleet, providing it with “Expeditionary Force Projection Capability”.

The strategic reach of a nation needs to be measured not just in terms of endurance or long range but also in terms of prompt and effective airlift capability. Both the standards have been clearly surpassed by the IAF as it is clear from the preceding paragraph. Confidence arises from the Knowledge of Capability. The same Confidence translates into Will. The strategic reach and capability of the IAF has been successful in generating that confidence which has manifested into the will of not only military commanders but also as political will.