Emergency landing strips on national highways are relevant from the point of view of air safety for operational missions undertaken by combat aircraft of the IAF especially during war
|The Author is Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF|
On Thursday, September 9 this year, a C-130J Super Hercules, a four engine tactical transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF), carried out a trial landing on the Satta-Gandhav stretch of the National Highway-925 in the Barmer sector in Rajasthan. The emergency landing strip which is on the National Highway-925, is a three kilometre of road length on the newly developed section of the two-lane paved shoulder of the Satta-Gandhav stretch of NH-925.This portion of the highway has been designated as an “Emergency Landing Facility” for aircraft of the IAF. This emergency landing strip is just 40 km from the border with Pakistan.
This landing exercise conducted by the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft of the IAF on September 9, 2021, became all the more significant as the aircraft was carrying a number of VIPs on board that included the Minister of Defence, Rajnath Singh, the Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Government of India, Nitin Gadkari, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria. The presence of the large number of high profile VIPs on board the C-130 Super Hercules aircraft is clear evidence of the high level of confidence the IAF had on the capability of the aircraft to carry out a safe landing on the highway.
After landing, the VIPs also witnessed a number of other aircraft of the IAF carrying out trial emergency landings on this section of the highway. The aircraft of the IAF included a Su-30 MKI combat jet, An-32 medium lift military transport aircraft and a Mi-17 V5 helicopter. The aim of the exercise was to demonstrate complete operational readiness of this segment of the highway to act as an auxiliary landing facility for military aircraft of all types, both fixed and rotary wing.
A portion of an existing highway or one that is planned to be built for the purpose of being used as an emergency landing strip for military aircraft, is essentially meant to serve as an auxiliary landing facility for military aircraft launched on operational missions. Should the runway at the regular military air base be damaged, degraded or destroyed by aerial bombardment by aircraft of the enemy air force during war, the portion of the highway designed and built for military aircraft to land, will come in very handy. As combat aircraft are required to carry maximum weapon load while on operational missions, the quantity of fuel carried per force is somewhat limited and just enough for the mission. As such if the runway at the air base from where the combat aircraft had taken off for the mission is damaged by enemy action, the combat jet will not be able to land back at the air base from where it had taken off for the operational mission and hence would be required to divert to and land at another airfield. As the aircraft may not have enough of fuel in reserve to enable it to reach a diversionary airfield, the pilot may have to eject resulting in loss of the aircraft. It is in this sort of a situation that a portion of a highway in the vicinity of the air base from where the aircraft had taken off for the mission, that is made available for the combat aircraft to land, becomes extremely relevant and critical.
In no way is the Pakistan Air Force lagging behind the Indian Air Force in respect of the capability to use national highways for the emergency recovery of military aircraft during war
Earmarking of emergency landing strips on national highways will thus be extremely relevant and useful from the point of view of air safety for operational missions undertaken by combat aircraft of the IAF during war. This facility will also prove to be extremely useful for relief operations carried out by aircraft of the IAF during natural calamities.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPT WORLDWIDE
Albeit a recent development in India, use of highways to recover combat aircraft is not a new concept. Nazi Germany adopted this concept towards the end of the Second World War. Thereafter, till the end of the cold war in 1991, emergency landing strips were built by nations on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Air strikes by the Israeli Air Force that disabled several military air bases of the enemy triggered the development by them of emergency landing strips on highways. In the Asian region, countries other than India that have made and utilised emergency landing strips on their highways are Australia, China, Japan, Singapore, North Korea, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Countries in the European region that can be credited with this achievement are Germany, Sweden, Finland, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Poland, Cyprus, Estonia and Czechoslovakia. It is abundantly clear that this concept is adopted by nations across the globe.
THE INDIAN EXPERIENCE
Reports in the media on the landing by an IAF C-130 Super Hercules on September 9 this year indicate that this was the first time ever in India that such a landing was carried out on a national highway by an aircraft of the IAF. Prior to this such landings have been carried out on state highways. The first time that an aircraft of the IAF carried out such an exercise was on a state highway or an expressway in the year 2015 in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In this case it was a Mirage 2000 of the IAF that had carried out a successful landing on the Yamuna Expressway as part of a trial run to test highways as emergency landing strips. This was followed in November 2016 by three Mirage 2000 and three Su-30 MKI aircraft that carried out ‘touch-and-go’ exercises i.e. landing followed by roller takeoff that is without stopping on the highway. The occasion on which this exercise was carried out was the inauguration by the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav of the Lucknow-Agra expressway. Later, in October 2017, a C-130J Super Hercules carried out a safe landing on the Lucknow-Agra expressway for the first time ever. As per sources in the government, a total of 27 other highways, apart from the one in Barmer, are being currently studied jointly by the IAF and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to assess whether it would be feasible to develop emergency landing strips on them.
THE SITUATION IN PAKISTAN
While the IAF may be elated at the progress made in India in building emergency landing strips on the national highways, it would be pertinent to take a look at how the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is faring in this respect. The PAF is known to carry out landing and takeoff operations on highways regularly by the combat jets on its inventory as part of its operational preparedness plan. These exercises by the aircraft of the PAF are carried out with close coordination and support of various civil and military departments and organisations of the government of Pakistan such as the National Highway Authority of Pakistan and the nation’s Motorway Police whose assistance plays an important role in the conduct of these exercises.
Pakistan has major highways connecting the capital city of Islamabad with Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi. There is also a highway connecting Peshawar to Rawalpindi where the headquarters of the Pakistan military is located. Each of these highways has a number of emergency landing strips. The first time the PAF landed an F-7P fighter jet on the emergency landing strip was in the year 2000 on the Lahore-Islamabad highway. Landing the F-7P fighter jet was followed by landings by a Super Mushak trainer aircraft and a C-130 Hercules tactical transport aircraft. The exercise was repeated in April 2010 with landings by a Mirage III and F-7P fighter jets that were participating in Exercise Highmark 2010. In March 2019, the PAF once again demonstrated its capability to land its aircraft on a highway. In no way is the PAF lagging behind the IAF in respect of the capability to use national highways for the emergency recovery of military aircraft during war.