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Heavy-lift capability

India is increasingly being confronted by a two-front war situation compounded by a Fifth Column of Pakistani trained jihadis operating behind Indian lines in the Jammu and Kashmir/Gurdaspur (Punjab) salient where lie India’s main lines of road and rail communications that maintain logistics to the forward areas. The capture of two Pakistani nationals with full terrorist regalia is just the tip of a larger, undetected, workforce that has been infiltrated into the country which is biding its time to strike at lines of communications either in preparation for a larger strike at a pre-selected frontage or just to keep Indian security forces unbalanced and on constant alert. The creation of a heavy-lift fixed-wing capability has now to be seen in this context.

The situation is radically different from the 1965 war when Pakistan launched Operations Grand Slam and Operation Gibraltar in quick succession on the untested premise that the Kashmiri people will rise up and welcome a so-called “Liberation Army”. Today, there are well-organised political forces that unfurl Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and ISIS flags after every Friday prayer thereby indicating the possibility of these elements inviting and facilitating a Pakistani invasion force.

This kind of scenario demands a clear enunciation of the manpower requirement to deal with the situation. As stated many times, counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency is a manpower-intensive operation. It can be seen in the very fact that the number of Indian security forces (combined army and police) far outnumbered the four terrorists before they were trapped in a cave. Given the type of terrain where infiltration is a constant possibility and threat, the ratio of requirement of security forces and terrorists can be as high as 40 (one platoon) to one terrorist. The failure of Indian security forces to deploy such a large manpower is one of the causes of the ease with which terrorists manage to cross difficult portions of the Line of Control and wreak havoc on the Indian side.

The need for strong heavy-lift capability into the conventional warfare/fourth generation warfare combo has been felt now.

Air bridges

In the event of a break in the lines of communication whether by natural causes or by terrorist action (the terrorist Naved, the second to be caught alive after Ajmal Kasab, and his module had planted improvised explosive devices along the rail track connecting Jammu and Punjab which was discovered by chance and defused) India would be forced to use air bridges to maintain troops in forward locations in the Kargil-Drass, Ladakh and Siachen salients. This has traditionally been done by using AN-32 and Il-76 aircraft for paradropping essential supplies or delivering them to forward airbases like Leh and Thoise in Jammu and Kashmir for onward delivery by mules.

As part of its modernization programme the Indian Air Force has acquired the C-130J Super Hercules for Special Forces operations and the C-17 Globemaster for heavy lift operations. Among all these the Globemaster is the only true heavy-lift aircraft. India initially bought ten Globemasters and placed orders for six more for delivery during the 13th Five Year Plan beginning 2017.

It is not as if India did not have an airlift capability before the advent of the Super Hercules and the Globemaster. The Indian Air Force was using the Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft which has a capacity of 50-ton payload. The Globemaster can lift 70 tons. India also has three of the world’s largest helicopters, the Mi-26- described as the most largest and powerful of helicopters ever to reach serial production. Only three remain serviceable from the ten bought some decades ago before the Soviet Union disintegrated. With  a lift capacity of 20 tons it could deliver 90 fully armed commandos (including dog squads) deep inside enemy territory in what is known as “vertical envelopment” operations.

Both the Super Hercules and the Globemaster aircraft have proved to be extremely useful in disaster management situations in a kind of Corporate Social Responsibility role that has endeared India to the beneficiaries. Indian and foreign nationals were evacuated from war-torn Yemen; disaster relief was delivered to the victims of the Phailin cyclone; and they facilitated quick relief to earthquake-hit Sikkim and later Nepal. However, the true test lies in the delivery of military wherewithal in men and material in the event of hostilities with China or Pakistan or both in collusion.

It is obvious that the modules that Pakistan has managed to infiltrate into Jammu and Kashmir and more that are waiting to enter will become hyperactive in the event of a declared war by either Pakistan or China. This will tie Indian ground forces down to their respective locales with little scope for transfer of forces from one sector to the other to relieve pressure as has hitherto been done.   

High altitude warfare

With particular reference to the raising of a new Mountain Strike Force (17 Corps) in what began as an exercise to create a significant force to deal with Chinese intrusions and claims in Arunachal Pradesh with a  projected strength of about 80,000 additional troops it soon became victim of cash crunch and its strength has been pruned to about half. It is difficult to comprehend how much of the total of ten Mountain Divisions can be moved around from one sector (Line of Actual Control vis-à-vis China) and the LoC opposite Pakistan) to another.  China has a strength of 2,285,000 personnel in the People’s Liberation Army plus an equal number as Reservists. India has strength of over 1.3 million active personnel, it is world’s 3rd largest military force but the capability to deploy manpower in the Himalayas is at a ratio of 3:1 given Chinese superiority in military infrastructure of roads, airfields, railways, oil and gas pipelines.

A cardinal requirement in airborne operations (paratroop deployment and delivery of military equipment and vehicles) in the Himalayas and beyond is that troops must be suitably acclimatized to high altitude and cold weather conditions. Fighting men cannot be lifted from the plains area and be expected to fight at altitudes of 15,000 ft and beyond. They will succumb to lung disease (oedema). Troops are acclimatized by gradual shift to higher altitudes over a period of several weeks. Thus to be able to stop or contain an intrusion at any point along the 4000-km length of the Line of Actual Control with China from Arunachal Pradesh in the East to Jammu and Kashmir in the west India will have to be able to quickly redeploy anything from a battalion strength of about 1000 personnel to a brigade of up to 4000 men. In a defensive operation the pre-eminent objective would be to stem the advance of Chinese troops and prevent the kind of deep penetration that they executed right up to the doorstep of Tezpur in Assam in 1962.

From then, or even simultaneously, Indian heavy lift operations must concentrate on disrupting the most coveted China-Pak geostrategic objective-the economic corridor across Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This will totally disrupt the Chinese gameplan of dominating the Indian Ocean littoral. It will ensure a constant threat to Chinese maritime commerce if it does not learn to behave civilly with India in the spirit of mutual cooperation and accommodation.   The future will depend on how well India will be able to exercise its nuclear deterrence capabilities. It should be prepared to dissuade Pakistan from resorting to a hair-trigger nuclear response of the kind that Pakistan national security adviser advisor Sartaj Aziz has threatened India with.