Airborne Operations

The Para Training School (PTS), run by the Indian Air Force at Agra, conducts the parachuting and combat military free-fall training of the Army, the President’s Body Guards, cadets from the Indian Military Academy and NCC, and to some extent the Navy

Issue: 4 / 2014By Lt General P.C. Katoch (Retd)Photo(s): By PIB

Airborne operations in the Indian Army essentially involve both the Army and the Air Force albeit using fixed-wing aircraft and medium-lift helicopters both held by the Air Force. However, Army is undertaking helicopter operations at small scale using its own integral helicopters. Army also undertakes some training jointly with the Navy. One of the major adverse fallouts of not having a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is the absence of jointness and synergy within the military, which in turn affects all joint operations including airborne operations. Resistance to change and perceived threats to individual turfs precludes vital reforms required to enhance operational efficiency. Other than Britain, India is perhaps the only country in the world where airborne training for the Army is handled by the Air Force but in case of the UK, the British Army has integral fixed-wing aircrafts which is not the case in India. In an informal discussion in the mid-1980s Air Force appeared amenable to handover the Para Training School (PTS) at Agra to the Army in exchange for two of the many Territorial Army (TA) battalions tasked with ground defence of airfields to the Air Force. However, this was not acceptable to the Army and the matter has remained in limbo.

Training for Airborne Operations

The Para Training School (PTS), run by the Indian Air Force at Agra, conducts the parachuting and combat military free-fall training of the Army, the President’s Body Guards, cadets from the Indian Military Academy and NCC, and to some extent the Navy. However, the Navy is gearing up to organise their own paratrooping and combat military free-fall training with integral fixed-wing and helicopter assets of Naval Aviation. As for combat military free-fall training, Army’s Special Forces battalions are also undertaking such training in situ by themselves using Army Aviation helicopters, including the Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH). PTS, AF, Agra is considered the second best avenue in the Air Force both financially and professionally after the flying stream. Hence, the Air Force fiercely resists any intrusion in their exclusive turf of airborne training. This is despite more than adequate expertise in the Army to jointly man this organization. There is also considerable scope to prune down the manpower of PTS, AF, Agra but the Air Force is not inclined to do so. For example, world over paratroopers pack their own parachutes but the Air Force does not permit the Indian Army to do so and instead maintain their own parachute packers. Numerous Army officers, JCOs and NCOs have the qualification to be posted as instructors at PTS, AF, Agra but their posting as instructors is resisted by the Air Force despite decisions taken to this effect after deliberate discussions at the Joint Operations Committee (JOCOM) of the three Services more than a decade back. Similarly, numerous Army personnel are trained in Air Dispatch and DZ Safety. However, their employment even during exercises with troops is resisted by the Air Force.

In addition to PTS, AF, Agra also houses the Army Airborne Training School; an institution totally manned by Army personnel. This institution trains all ranks of the Army in courses like Heavy Drop and Air Portability. There is little interaction between PTS, AF, Agra and Army’s Airborne Training School. In 2002, on behest of the Army, JOCOM ordered a joint study for merger of these two institutions, both located at Agra. Though the study strongly recommended merger of these two training institutions, the recommendations could not be implemented because of sustained objections by the Air Force.

Air Effort and Equipment

Para training is done from fixed wing aircraft are the An-32, IL-76 aircrafts and the C-130s. The recently acquired C-17 Globemaster aircraft are for strategic airlift and not for paradropping in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). The An-32 aircraft is used for paratrooping only in India, not even in Russia. Their acquisition from erstwhile USSR was more under political compulsions than operational viability. Ironically, post field trials in India, the then Commander of 50 (I) Parachute Brigade had not recommended the An-32 aircraft for procurement since 42 paratroopers from a single aircraft get dispersed over 1.2 kilometres with attendant problems of getting the force together by night immediately after the drop. Incidentally, a battalion group paradrop requires 32 x An-32 and 7 x IL-76 aircraft on full scale (never exercised to date) and 24 x An-32 and 5 x IL-76 aircraft on hard scale. Needless to mention that entire Air Force efforts will be required to mount such an operation, but this is feasible when national security so demands.

Airborne operations are conducted in accordance a joint standard operating procedure under which all ranks while in the air are under command the Air Force (pilot of concerned aircraft), reverting to Army control once troops touch ground. A lopsided arrangement has been continuing where the Army is responsible for procuring airborne equipment but the Air Force procures the heavy drop equipment, latter for dropping tanks, BMPs, artillery guns, vehicles etc. Lack of coordination invariably leads to shortages, which in turn affects training and operations. Before the IPKF went into Sri Lanka, severe deficiencies of parachutes for the troops were made up through emergent imports of parachutes from countries like Republic of Korea but neither the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) nor the Air Force had any infrastructure to test these parachutes. When the An-32 and IL-76 aircraft were procured, the Air Force went ahead and procured Heavy Drop Platforms (HDP) and Heavy Drop Equipment (HDE) along with these aircraft from the Soviets without reference to the Army. The result was that though HDP and HDE for low level drops were available, which reduces vulnerability in the air, these were not procured. There have also been periods of severe shortages of combat military free-fall equipment for sustained periods including of oxygen equipment. Shortages have also been accruing because of ad hoc demands sans holistic appraisal. Development of parachutes, combat military free-fall parachutes, HDP and HDE by the DRDO has continued at snail’s pace. The indigenous combat military free-fall equipment still has imported oxygen equipment despite years having gone by.

When the An-32 and IL-76 were being procured, which incidentally were funded by the Army, the plan was to have the capability to lift the Parachute Brigade in about two lifts. However, factors like serviceability, wastages and paucity of flying hours on account of diversion of fixed-wing effort on non-military tasks has brought us to a stage where not one single battalion group exercise even on hard scale has been conducted over the last two decades plus, leave aside adequate training in heavy drop of equipment. In the US, the combat military free-fall team, which is 135 strong, undertakes 10 combat jumps every month by night with full equipment including twin rucksacks. In India, a 10 jump refresher course on an average is held once in two years. While, the Air Force is in-charge of combat military free-fall training, their emphasis is more on sport free-fall – show jumping.

Para training is done from fixed-wing aircraft are the An-32, IL-76 aircrafts and the C-130s. The recently acquired C-17 Globemaster aircraft are for strategic airlift and not for paradropping in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA).

Lacunae

Pilot training of the Air Force for paratrooping is severely lacking, as is evident from demonstrated capabilities during major exercises. The first ever exercise to capture an airstrip on an island was conducted in 2001. Though the Army wanted to exercise a battalion group drop by night, the Air Force could drop only 60 all ranks by day taking 40 minutes for the drop with two An-32s making eight circuits each. This is just one example of the pitfalls of the Army not being responsible for its own paratrooping training, which is the norm abroad. While truncated battalion level drops are being practised in Corps level exercises in recent years, the Air Force pilots are observed undertaking reconnaissance on days preceding the drop over the intended drop zone in exercise enemy area in broad daylight – a luxury that will not be available in actual operations. More significantly, the Air Force deploys a heavy vehicle with crew for DZ safety surreptitiously in the exercise enemy area wherein the same task to guide the drop can be easily done by own Special Forces in the area or by an Army DZ Safety officer dropped or infiltrated, as feasible, for the purpose. Though operationally impractical, Air Force continues with such practice to retain its exclusive turf.

Then is the question of Air Dispatch. The An-32 is designed to carry 42 paratroopers. If the dispatchers are from the Air Force, it implies wastage of air capacity as two dispatchers of Air Force go back with the aircraft, dropping only 40 paratroopers. This despite adequate Army personnel are trained in Air Dispatch who can dispatch the paratroops from the aircraft and be the last to themselves jump out. In case of the IL-76, which has a four door exit, carriage capacity of four army paratroopers is wasted because Air Force is using four Air Force personnel for air dispatch duties. The cumulative wastage of airlift capacity amounts to 92 army paratroops in case of a battalion group drop on full scale and 68 army paratroops in case of a hard scale drop of a battalion group. The Air Force also rules out paradrops in mountains by night and there appears to be aversion to blind drops by night even in plains.

The Air Force deploys a heavy vehicle with crew for DZ safety surreptitiously in the exercise enemy area wherein the same task to guide the drop can be easily done by own Special Forces in the area or by an Army DZ Safety officer dropped or infiltrated, as feasible, for the purpose.

Requirement

The requirement for the Indian military is to review airborne operation holistically and work towards jointness in refining operational capabilities and capacity building rather consolidating single service turfs. The Army’s Airborne Training School and PTS, AF, Agra should be merged into a single Military Airborne Training School directly under Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) that would meet the airborne training, combat military free-fall training, heavy drop training and even airborne sports requirements of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Parachute Brigade is the prime Rapid Reaction Force of the Army and the country, whose employment must be optimised. The US invasion of Afghanistan was spearheaded by troops from US 82 and 101 Airborne Division preceded on ground by Special Forces. A future war with China and or Pakistan may require similar actions; establishment of air head(s), vertical envelopment to seize territory and to outmanoeuvre and outflank enemy locations. This needs streamlining existing procedures, reorganisation, training and joint services procedures. Streamlining of standard operation procedures must also look into reducing attrition through measures like formation flying, reducing length of the airstream and low level drops. Likely drop zones for operations need to be identified, simulated and periodic exercises held to hone our capabilities. In all this, the Parachute Brigade must also train for such tasks in conjunction the Special Frontier Force. There is no reason why we cannot undertake airborne drops by night in mountains where plateaus are available. As part of force projection, we must build capability for capturing an airstrip on an island by night through airborne assault. It is not without reason that the Chinese PLA is undertaking high altitude airborne exercises in Tibet including capture of mountain passes. Since 2010, PLA has been rehearsing capture of mountain passes at heights beyond 5,000 metres through armoured vehicles and airborne troops. A Chinese Ministry of Defense report claimed the exercises have been conducted at an elevation of more than 4,500 metres using air and ground troops on high altitude plateaus. We must ready ourselves for conflict with China since posturing of the PLA in our border regions is in line with China’s shifting strategy from continental to peripheral defence in sync with Chinese military doctrinal intent of resolving to fight and win local wars on its borders. In this context, the PLA is engaged in capacity building for faster deployment in high altitudes of the Tibetan plateau. There is no reason why we cannot do similarly. Significantly, China maintains an Airborne Corps albeit primarily to ensure integrity of the country and relies heavily on air landed operations post capture of an air head, even using civil commercial aircraft. We can take a cue from this since a mismatch exists between our paratrooping trained capability and our airlift capability in background of operational requirements and an enlarging China-Pakistan collusive threat. Much work needs to be done in this regard. HQ IDS and Army Training Command (ARTRAC) need to seriously examine above issues.