Military transport aircraft are vital workhorses for modern armies but everything about the acquisition of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster heavy transport aircraft by India through the US Foreign Military Supplies route was tinged with hurry. The Indian Air Force selected the aircraft in June 2009. In February 2011 the IAF and Boeing agreed to terms for the sale of ten aircraft with option to buy six more later. The Cabinet Committee on Security approved the purchase on 6 June 2011. The first India-owned C-17 landed at Hindon airbase in June 2013 and was immediately put to work. Such are the dynamics of a nation that has deprived itself of the infrastructure to confront its potential enemies. The option for six more was exercised. And six more have been ordered bringing the total to 22 aircraft. The sixth aircraft arrived at Palam airport on 27th July.
The Boeing Globemaster is a reputed aircraft but there are others that can do the same job of lifting heavy material and personnel at least three times faster. One such is the Antonov-124 (the 100M-150 variant) which can carry a load of‘1.5 lakh kg over a distance of 5,200 km. A battalion of the Indian Army consists of about 1000 men. The An-124 (from the same stable as the An-32 which India is using extensively for the resupply of the forward outposts of the Indian Army) will take about three trips to transport a whole battalion along with their firearms but less their vehicles thereby enabling the Indian Army to contain Chinese intrusions. The Globemaster will require eight trips or eight C-17 to make one trip. The cost effectiveness is awry.
Currently, the Indian military transport fleet includes the Ilyushin-76, the Hawker Siddeley HS 748 (used by the Border Security Force) and the AN-32 in conjunction with the MI-17 helicopters, the indigenous Dhruv and the old and weathered Alouette III Chetak and Cheetah that have set world records for high altitude flight. Together they constitute the “air bridges” that keep the larders of forward fighting echelons well-stocked and make medical relief available if needed.
More and more it is being brought home to India that maintaining a thin presence along the Line of Actual Control with China is counter-productive. Beijing has diplomatically ensured that there is no more any eyeball-to-eyeball situation which proved so costly for it in terms of morale and public perception in 1967 when Indian troops at Nathu La gave them a bloody nose for shoving an Indian soldier over claims to a rock outcrop. They do not want to be made to look like sheep in wolf’s clothing and it is since then it has been building its military infrastructure to be able to bring several divisions to bear on any point on the LAC that India tries to contest. At the same time it has been making intrusions that end up in the “banner protocol” in which both sides hold up placards that read “you are on our territory. Please go back”. The charade only serves to ensure that the territory on which Indian troops are standing remains in dispute and none of the umpteen meetings have sought to even create an existential “Line of Actual Control”. This nebulous situation is being sought to be taken advantage of by China by several hundred intrusions every year which at any point can burgeon into a full-scale war for which India is not prepared.
India is frantically trying to lay out its own military infrastructure of roads and bridges, air strips and bivouacs but cutting rocks on the side of the craggy Himalayas is not an easy job and the projects are several years behind schedule. China is taking full advantage of India’s predicament.
It is in this situation of a seeming predicament that India had to look around for a heavy lift aircraft without having to become enmeshed in competitive bidding, single vendor situation and middlemen that the UPA government took the apparently easier way out by resorting to the government-to-government arrangement of the US Foreign Military Sales window of opportunity.
It is this avenue that was made use of to be able to be better prepared against the Chinese even as the infrastructure was crawling along. What India needs as an immediate panacea is an airborne fighting force preferably of para commandos that can be deployed at short notice. This force needs to be compact, coherent and be able to be delivered on destination without time-consuming dispersal. The Globemaster lends itself, not totally, but to a large extent because of its internal structure that cannot take a larger chunk of a fighting force like a battalion on board. This inability has an inbuilt tendency to induce dispersal unless the operational force has a fleet of Globemasters at its command that is large enough to take a battalion sized group in one lift.
India needs that kind of airlift capability because it does not have infrastructure that will facilitate movement of the requisite number of troops from one point to the other on the ground, it has to be done by airlift. It can be of great advantage especially when it is cohesive and compact.
The task force intended to be airlifted into a battlefield will require air defence backup to prevent an anti-aircraft weapon from disrupting the airlift. More and more heavy lift aircraft, in fact all transport aircraft need a self-defence system that will help evade the surface-to-air missiles. Anti-aircraft guns are a different kettle of fish and need to be avoided because their shells are of direct hit capability and cannot be diverted with chaff and flares as can the missiles. Because all battlefields are replete with anti-aircraft guns, the operational plan must include how to neutralize them to prevent them from inflicting unacceptable damage to the airborne forces.
India had begun incorporating chaff and flare dispensers to all its aircraft and helicopters after the Kargil conflict where one fighter aircraft and one helicopter was shot down by the Pakistanis using US supplied Stinger missiles. It was stated then that the dispensers would be standard equipment from then on.
India is only just venturing into the design and development of transport aircraft. A 12-passenger plane the Saras (Light Transport Aircraft) is being readied and a 100-passenger commercial airliner in collaboration with Russia is on the drawing board. A heavy lift military aircraft is still a distant dream.