New Indian Express: Wings of Sight

The New Indian Express defence correspondent Gautam Datt got a chance to visit the Agra air force station recently where he had a first-hand look at the Indian Air Force's preparations for the Phalcon AWACS fleet. Here's his interesting feature on that visit:

Agra is, of course, known for the Taj Mahal, that “poem in stone”, as it’s been called, but it’s also one of the Indian Air Force’s most important installations. In fact, the Agra base is one of the IAF’s oldest, biggest and busiest. One of the first airfields built in independent India, Agra continues to occupy a prime spot in the IAF’s scheme of things. That explains why it has always been a target for enemies during hostilities.

Around a month ago, the base received an unusual order. Get all available aircraft airborne for a night operation, it said. It sounds short and sweet, but ask an aviator: the task was simply Herculean. Through the night, base personnel toiled to line up 29 An-32s, the workhorses of the IAF, for take-off in quick succession. Managing such a large-scale operation in a short span of time tested everyone’s nerves — pilots, navigators, engineers to controllers.

This kind of thing happens only in extreme emergencies, and Agra, the nerve centre of the IAF’s transport operations, is all geared up to face one. As the IAF tries to catch up with other air forces and fill the technological gaps, the Agra base too is re-inventing itself. There’s less glamour, though, because its business is not the adrenalin pumping fighter jets but the transport fleet. Working on rickety transport aircraft like the An-32 or the gigantic IL-76 might seem like a grind, but there’s no dearth of challenges given the amount of daily flying a transport crew has to undertake, says a young pilot.

They are among the first on the scene in a natural calamity. “We were flying from an air base in the south for a mission in the east,” says a navigator, “when we suddenly got a message diverting us to Car Nicobar. This was just hours after the tsunami struck Andaman and Nicobar in December 2004. We calculated the available fuel and changed course. Ours was the first aircraft to land at the devastated air field,” he recalls.

There’s been no respite from such humanitarian missions. From the recent floods in Bihar to the “snow tsunami” in Jammu and Kashmir and disasters in other far-flung areas, IAF planes have landed on airstrips that barely existed. They went as far as China and Myanmar to deliver assistance. Keeping in mind its twin roles — helping out the civil administration during calamities and being battle ready — the force is on the verge of a technological makeover. One of the key aspects is the induction of what are called force multipliers.

Five years ago, the Agra base welcomed a new entrant, 78 squadron or Mars. These are the mid-air refuellers. With a fleet of six IL-78 tankers, each capable of carrying 110 tonnes of fuel, the reach of IAF fighters has gone much beyond the frontier. “The increased range of fighters has given a new dimension to operational planning. We have far more options now,” says a 78 squadron pilot. The IAF demonstrated its capabilities when it took its Jaguars to Alaska for an exercise, followed up by IAF Su-30s travelling to the US for the Red Flag exercise. That is why the IAF wants to add six more tankers to its fleet.

Now there’s an even newer entrant that’s got everyone excited, No 50 squadron — a special unit that will operate the Phalcon Airborne Warning, Control and Command System, bought from Israel. The first Phalcon, fitted on an upgraded IL-76, is expected early next year.

The IAF feels AWACs will give it an edge in the region. Israel has delayed the delivery of the system, which was scheduled to arrive by now. “We are ready for the new platform, the delay is due to integration of the complex system,” says Air Commodore Shouvik Roy, air officer commanding at Agra. Roy, who was the first commanding officer of 78 squadron, will also head the AWACs operations.

The first Phalcon is yet to arrive, but the IAF has already begun interacting with some of the foreign air forces that are heavily dependent on the system. Joint exercises with the US, France and the Royal Air Force, exposed the IAF to AWACs capability. But they never got the chance to know the operations.

“The system will enhance IAF’s vision,” said Roy. The other air forces in the region are wary of the latest Indian acquisition and have started taking counter measures. The Phalcon is considered one of the most powerful airborne, control and command systems available in the world. It is mounted on a Russian-designed IL-76 aircraft. The IAF has been flying the IL-76 for several years and is thoroughly familiar with its workings. In fact, Agra will be the nodal point for the maintenance of IL-76s, says Roy. That will reduce the need to rush to the original equipment manufacturer every time there’s a snag.

The system is undergoing trials in Israel and the first aircraft will be delivered by the end of January, says Roy. “I was in Israel recently and saw the system. It was working fine but some work remains to be finished.” The various systems are now being integrated. Along with the Phalcons and refuellers, the IAF is also buying six C-130 Super Hercules transport aircraft from the US, to be used by the special forces. They will be based at the Hindon airbase near New Delhi. As the paratroop training school is in Agra, it will operate the C-130s meant for the paradropping operations. The C-130s will be the first US aircraft in the IAF’s inventory, which already includes a wide variety of flying platforms. “This displays our ability to use diverse systems,” says Roy.

“We lagged behind the world in the mid-air refuelling capability, but in five years we have caught up. The same will be true for AWACs as some of the air forces have already been utilising the system,” said an officer.

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