The gut-wrenching video of Afghan nationals running alongside, and some climbing, an American C-17 aircraft as it attempts a take-off from Kabul would be the Afghanistan equivalent of the photo of a CIA Bell 205 taking on evacuees from the US Embassy rooftop in Saigon in 1975. Both are iconic images of desperate people trying to escape to safer destinations. Behind each image is a story of twists and turns and political games that nations, sometimes not on the best of terms, play.
I was the Assistant Chief of Air Staff looking after transport and helicopter operations of the Indian Air Force (IAF) between 2009 and 2011; my directorate was responsible for emergency evacuations and humanitarian assistance missions ordered by the government.
On 26 February 2010, terrorists attacked a guesthouse in Kabul where, among others, Indian Army medical and education corps personnel were staying. Eighteen people, including nine Indians, were killed and many injured. The IAF was ordered to bring back the dead and injured.
An Il-76 aircraft was positioned at Delhi for getting passports for the crew made on an emergency basis (that’s a story for another time), as also for taking on replacements for those deceased and injured in the missions in Kabul. The Ministry of External Affairs was working alongside to get overflight clearance from Pakistan; a circuitous route (over the Arabian Sea and then Iran) avoiding our western neighbour would be very time consuming.
The overflight clearance request requires names of the crew, passengers, passport details etc. – and it was communicated to Islamabad. Then came the agonising wait, which only stretched as more and more queries came on specific passengers. The Pakistanis didn’t budge an inch when it came to some of the passengers, mainly military replacement personnel.
Since saving lives was more important, those people were offloaded and the aircraft took off. Unfortunately, a similar scene played out with passengers being brought back – so much for having a “friendly” neighbour.
This time around, as the Taliban took over Kabul, our C-17s actually took the longer Arabian Sea and Iran route to bring back our diplomats and other personnel. Whether this was due to a refusal by the Pakistanis to give overflight clearance, or we avoided asking altogether because of past experiences, is not known.
But it brings to focus the intricacies involved when a military aircraft has to use the airspace of another nation. What if it has to transit the airspace of five nations to deliver relief material? The rule is the same – – clearance is taken from each country for a specific aircraft and for specific days.
If, for whatever reason – bad weather, aircraft unserviceability – even one country’s entry-exit time cannot be adhered to, fresh clearance has to be taken all over again.
When ethnic riots led to a humanitarian situation in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, an IL-76 was planned to overfly five nations to deliver relief material. It was a Thursday departure and our embassy in one of the countries (no names) was crying hoarse asking for details to be expedited. Why? Because in that country the clearance was personally given by the head of state, who could not be disturbed on the weekend and would be available only after 10 am on Sunday!
Military flights are game for political shenanigans too. Once, a Union Minister was scheduled to fly to China in an Air Force aircraft for a regional conference. Word came to me from our VIP Squadron person responsible for getting visas that the Chinese embassy was insisting on a stapled visa for the captain of the flight as he was from Jammu and Kashmir which, per them, was “disputed territory”. I spoke to the Joint Secretary in the Foreign Ministry on what the Chinese were up to and their embassy was told, in no uncertain terms, that the captain of the aircraft would not be changed and the visit would be cancelled if the visa was not given to this officer.
Beijing blinked as India’s absence from the conference would have been an embarrassment.
So, if there is a toss-up between using IAF aircraft and civilian registered aviation assets, it is always operationally easy to launch missions with the latter – file a flight plan and get airborne.
It is not for nothing that the Air India fleet was at the forefront of the Kuwait evacuation in 1990, and so was the case in the Yemen airlift in 2011. And what a fine job they did. But certain niche operations can only be done by the IAF, as was the case with the recent flights from Kabul and so many more earlier. One must remember that a nation’s air power comprises both military and civilian assets. But one thing is certain – India can be proud of its air power. It will deliver against all odds.
(The author is former Additional Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies.)
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