Behind an unprecedented military build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh to confront a belligerent China is a never-before heavy lift capability acquired by the IAF.
The induction of assets like the C-17 Globemaster, C-130 Super Hercules and CH-47 Chinook over the past few years has enormously enhanced the Air Force’s ability to ferry troops and equipment.
As both sides dig in for a long haul, with no immediate signs of de-escalation, IAF sorties to the Himalayan frontier continue unabated, bringing in all types of military equipment and supplies. This includes flights by the older IL-76 and AN-32 that have been part of the IAF fleet since the 1980s.
The most significant aspect of the air effort perhaps is airlifting of India’s newest and most powerful tanks, the T-90, which now spearhead the Army’s strike formations, from the plains to Ladakh. Chinese deployment across the LAC, including concentrations in depth, reportedly includes a mix of light and heavy tanks, including new variants.
Besides through air, heavy induction has also been taken through the Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh road axis.
According to an IAF officer, airlifting the T-90 was possible due to the payload capacity of the C-17, which is about 77 tonnes. A T-90 weighs about 46 tonnes, which is more than the capacity of the IL-76, which can airlift about 45 tonnes. The operating environment of high-altitude airfields like Leh further restricts the load that can be carried.
The IAF has a squadron of IL-76 based in Chandigarh. In addition, another six IL-78 midair refuelling tankers based in Agra, which are same as IL-76, can also be used in the conventional transport role. The IAF’s work horses are 104 AN-32 medium lift aircraft.
The Army had three regiments of the older T-72 tanks, which weigh around 40 tonnes, deployed in this sector. Many of these tanks, along with BMP-2 mechanised combat vehicles, have been airlifted to Ladakh by the IL-76 since the early 1990s. Given the weight and length of the tractor-trailer, it is not practical to negotiate the high mountain passes, hairpin bends and narrow stretches that lie on the road link from the mainland to Ladakh. Tank transporters can only be used on some road stretches within Ladakh.
Barring some troops movements over the past about two decades during hotspots such as the surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LOC) in 2018 and the airstrike on Balakot in 2019 and during major face-offs with Chinese in Depsang Plains, Demchok and Doklam, the last major mobilisation of Indian forces was in 2001 following a terrorist attack on Parliament. “Since then the IAF heavy airlift capability in terms of tonnage has about doubled. While the induction of much-needed new fighter aircraft had eluded the IAF for years, the past decade has seen a quantum leap in our ability to rapidly transport men and material, be it for operations or for aid to civil authorities during calamities,” an officer remarked.
In 2008, the IAF began inducting the C-130, of which 11 are now in service. With a payload of about 20 tonnes, these have given a fillip to air maintenance of forward areas from landing strips such as the strategic Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) near Siachen, which earlier relied on the AN-32. It is the upgradation of the road link to DBO, passing adjacent to the current face-off site of Galwan Valley, that is cited as one of the reasons for the Chinese incursions in that area.
Next in the IAF’s inventory were the C-17s of which 11 are in service since 2013.
The vertical air lift component has also been getting a boost with the induction of the indigenous Dhruv, Russian Mi-17V5 medium lift helicopters and the US CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters. The IAF has inducted about 90 Dhruvs and from 2008 onwards, procured about 150 Mi-17 in batches. Combined with the earlier versions, the Mi-17 fleet is reported to number 220.
Last year, the Chinook, of which 15 have been procured, entered the IAF service. These have enhanced the all-weather, round-the-clock logistic capability, especially in the mountains, where manoeuvrability in close confines is an issue and have redefined heli-lift operations like rapid inter-valley transport of troops, airlifting artillery guns and heavy under slung loads like vehicles and construction equipment.
In the winter of 2018, the IAF had demonstration its rapid airlift capability, ferrying a record 463 tonnes of load from Chandigarh to airfields and drop zones in the Ladakh region in a single wave. A fleet of 16 fixed wing aircraft, comprising C-17, Il-76 and AN-32 accomplished the task in less than six hours.