Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Nurturing air power to meet rising demand

Recently, Pakistan Air Traffic Controller sent a laudatory message to Air India for operating special flights to Frankfurt with relief material. This is indicative of the important role of Indian air power, which has been particularly visible in the last two months.
By IASToppers
April 21, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Rescue efforts by India’s air power
  • Aircrafts used by Indian Air Force
  • Challenges
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion

Nurturing air power to meet rising demand

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  • Several Indian Air Force’s transport aircraft and helicopters are carrying out internal COVID-19-related tasks like transporting medicines and medical samples for evaluation from inaccessible areas.
  • Air India has also greater role to perform in current situation. Soon after the novel coronavirus began spreading, Air India evacuated Indian nationals from Wuhan, China. It has since continued its service by evacuating Indians from other countries as well as foreign nationals from India on the request of their embassies.
  • Recently, India’s Consulate staff from Herat in Afghanistan were evacuated by a C-130 Super Hercules aircraft in secrecy. C-17 Globemasters and IL (Ilyushin)-76 aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) have been on the job too.

Rescue efforts by India’s air power

  • In 1957, and then in 1978, IAF was sent to Sri Lanka for flood relief efforts, as it was to Bangladesh in 1991 after the cyclone.
  • Following the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, transport aircraft and helicopters flew round the clock in India’s island territories.
  • Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Indian nationals were flown out via Amman. Air India, along with IAF, flew home 1,11,000 Indians from Amman to Mumbai in just two months.
  • The IAF transport fleet was in the forefront to retrieve casualties from Kabul following the 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy.
  • The Uttarakhand flash floods in 2013 saw what was perhaps the biggest helicopter evacuation in history, with 23,892 pilgrims evacuated in only a week.

Aircrafts used by Indian Air Force


  • The IL-76 fleet of 10-odd aircraft has been around for almost four decades now. The same is true for the short haul Antonov An-32s.
  • While these will soldier on for a few more years, it is the fleet of the C-17s that will shoulder the responsibility of national tasks. 
  • In some humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) tasks, the C-130J Super Hercules have also been pressed into service.
  • The temptation of using these aircraft with their superb short-field operations capability, but whose primary role is covert special operations, needs to be really thought through.


  • The helicopter fleet is well placed with Mi-17 series helicopters, ALH Dhruv, and 15 new Chinook heavy-lift machines.
  • The Chetak/Cheetah fleet will be around for a few more years and will be indispensable for narrow valleys and high-altitude operations.


  • The biggest challenge is that all of India’s medium- and heavy-lift assets are foreign sourced, except the Dhruv and Chetak/Cheetah helicopters.
  • Increased utilisation of airlift assets would mean higher maintenance requirements, and since most are foreign sourced, they will have to be sent abroad for major servicing. This will result in reduced aircraft availability for long durations.
  • The IL-76 and An-32, which have been the IAF’s workhorses, will be phased out soon. Finances will have to be found for their replacements. 
  • Latest parliamentary committee report has adversely commented on the funding for capital acquisitions in FY-2019-20 being just 65% of projections.

Way Forward

  • As India takes on a greater regional leadership role and as climate change results in an increase in the frequency and number of natural calamities, the demands on Indian air power for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) will mount.
  • The requirements for internal law and order and air maintenance airlift for the Army for forward areas, both of which are substantial, will also continue.
  • There is no other alternative considering the intense ongoing geopolitical power play in the region. We also need to spare a thought for Air India: where would Indian air power be without it in times of calamities?


The civil airline fleet has grown manifold, and when required, more, literally all, aircraft can be requisitioned.

The foresight exhibited by the civilian and military leadership in the past to equip the IAF with these assets, as a result of which India can confidently claim to be a regional HADR provider, is now bearing fruit.

However, as the current COVID-19 crisis will demand massive financial resources to be transferred to the social sector for the next few years, the Ministry of Defence will need all its persuasive powers to generate the required monies from the resources with the Finance Ministry, if Indian air power’s HADR capability is to be in the forefront of its military diplomacy.

Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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