The primary role of the Indian defence forces is to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty from external threats, but when called upon, they are equally proficient in performing HADR operations. It just requires joint planning to use mutually complementing attributes of each service to overcome a situation.
“The IAF aircraft has landed. Mission completed. On to the next” was tweeted by the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, when a C-17 Globemaster (heavy lift transport aircraft) of the Indian Air Force (IAF) brought back 58 Indians from Iran on 10 March 2020, who were stranded there due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This was the second such evacuation by the air force. On 27 February, 76 Indians and 36 foreign nationals were evacuated from Wuhan (China). The other people were from Bangladesh, China, Madagascar, Maldives, Myanmar, South Africa and the USA. The aircraft had also carried medical supplies as symbol of goodwill to China. The IAF, as part of the defence services support to civil authorities, is continuing unabated relief measures. ‘Operation Sanjeevani’ is already in full swing with deployment of a large number of wide bodied aircraft and helicopters all across the country to shift medical supplies and associated equipment. Under this operation, the IAF has already sent aircraft to Maldives and Nepal with medical help and is likely to be tasked for more such missions. Since 25 March 2020, the IAF has flown over hundreds of sorties ferrying over 336 tonnes of medicine, ration and other essential supplies to various parts of the country.
The role of the IAF has been distinctive in all kinds of operations because of its efficiency to respond fast along with its inherent characteristics of range, mobility and flexibility. Other than countless rescue missions within the country, many nations have benefitted from the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and Non Combatant Evacuation (NCE) mission capabilities of the IAF. The following examples will help in assessing the capability of the IAF to augment confidence building measures across the world, and more specifically in the neighbourhood.
During the devastating tsunami of 2004, India launched ‘Operation Sea Wave’ for relief, rescue and evacuation. Along with India, countries seriously impacted were Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia. The IAF swung in action within hours of the first reports of the crisis coming in. Assistance to Sri Lanka was provided by the launch of ‘Operation Rainbow’. Approximately 882 people were rescued and 329 tonnes of relief material was delivered. ‘Operation Castor’ was conducted for providing assistance to the Maldives and the IAF delivered 170 tonnes of relief materials and rescued 885 people. The Indian help even reached as far as Indonesia for limited duration of 90 days. ‘Operation Neer’ was conducted to help Maldives in September 2014 which suffered a major drinking water crisis with breakdown of its main RO plant. The Indian government responded quickly and IAF deployed three C-17 and three IL-76 flights to airlift 374 tonnes of drinking water to Male over the next two days. India also dispatched cyclone relief materials to Fiji in February 2016. New Delhi was also the ‘first responder’ in providing relief supplies and medical assistance to flood ravaged Sri Lanka in May 2017 and at same time rescued many Bangladeshis from Cyclone Mora.
The IAF has carried out many relief and rescue operations within the country. Disasters such as floods in Assam in 2000, the Bhuj earthquake on 26 January 2001, the unforgettable tsunami of December 2004, the devastating earthquake in Urusa sector of Kashmir in 2005, the Kosi disaster in 2008, the Andhra floods in 2009, the August 2010 cloudburst in Leh and the September 2011 Sikkim earthquake have seen the IAF’s capabilities in disaster response effectively. Similarly, the 2013 cloudburst in Uttarakhand and 2014 floods in J&K have witnessed the coordination between Indian Air Force and Indian Army which were the key players in all rescue missions. To appreciate this overall effort, the fact that in the 2013 Uttarakhand floods the IAF evacuated 23,892 people, delivered 798 tonnes of relief material and flew 3,536 missions in 65 days at the cost of losing one helicopter and entire crew onboard drives home the successful capabilities of HADR developed and employed by the force over the past two decades.
The successful evacuation of 111,711 Indian citizens from Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan in 1990 by operating 488 flights over a period of 59 days by Air India and IAF has been a world record. Similar missions were carried out from Lebanon in 2006 (Operation Sukoon) and in Libya in 2011. The IAF also participated in ‘Operation Rahat’ when civil war broke out in Yemen in 2015. The IAF deployed three C-17 aircraft to ferry back Indian nationals from Djibouti to Kochi and Mumbai. As many as 11 evacuation trips were undertaken that facilitated safe evacuation of 2,096 Indian nationals. All this was executed in an active war zone situation.
The primary role of the Indian defence forces is to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty from external threats, but when called upon, they are equally proficient in performing HADR operations. It just requires joint planning to use mutually complementing attributes of each service to overcome a situation. The accessibility of conducting a swift response through the air makes the IAF best suited to address certain critical situations. For example, in case of natural disaster in any Indian Ocean Region (IOR) nation, rescue teams of Indian Army or National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) can be dispatched quickly by IAF’s heavy-lift aircraft along with the required relief material. These aircraft can also evacuate people who are in urgent need of medical attention.
Similarly, evacuation operations also add significant capacity and capability to IAF’s HADR tool kit. It is important to have capability to protect the men and material (including overseas) by having proficient defence forces and good diplomatic relations. Given the current global spread of the Indian diaspora (the census of December 2018 puts the number at 30,995,729) and increasing number of unpredictable man-made or natural disasters, a situation requiring evacuation at short notice is more probably today than ever before. The IAF has proven its capabilities to address these crisis situation, which are away from combat roles, are equally of world class standing with great successes achieved, as highlighted above.
However, there are still gaps in the force’s capabilities and developing these further will enhance the IAF’s reach, footprint and success rates. There are some initiatives that the IAF can undertake to enhance these capabilities:
The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is not only the head of the Department of Military Affairs to ensure jointness in training, logistics and procurement of the three services — but also responsible to evaluate plans for ‘out of area contingencies’ in India’s neighbourhood, where national interests may get jeopardised. This indicates that more Out Of Area Contingency (OOAC) operations shall be taking place in near future and the IAF will play a crucial role. International exercises and defence cooperation are vital in achieving the desired level of efficiency during real time operations and in order to carry out all these international missions, it is essential that Indian defence forces are on the same frequency with other forces while maintaining goodwill with them.
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Wg Cdr Vikas Kalyani is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. His area of research is defence and strategic studies and international relations. He ...Read More +