Highways – A force mul­ti­plier for the IAF


Early morn­ing on Thurs­day, May 21, this year, the In­dian Air Force (IAF) car­ried out a suc­cess­ful trial land­ing by a Gwalior-based Mi­rage 2000 com­bat air­craft on a high­way in the state of Ut­tar Pradesh. Part of the eight-lane high­way that con­nects Greater Noida to Agra, also known as the Ya­muna Ex­press­way, was cor­doned off for the fighter air­craft to land. While there has been a case in the past of an emer­gency land­ing on a high­way by a small sin­gle-en­gine air­craft from a civil fly­ing club in In­dia fol­low­ing loss of power on the en­gine, this was the first time that a fully ser­vice­able fighter air­craft of the IAF has car­ried out such an ex­er­cise and not with­out a spe­cific pur­pose. The aim of the ex­er­cise was to val­i­date the con­cept of us­ing a high­way as an emer­gency land­ing strip for mil­i­tary air­craft.

The use of highways as emer­gency land­ing strips for mil­i­tary air­craft as a con­cept is not new. In fact, this con­cept was de­vel­oped dur­ing the World War II in Ger­many where the highways called ‘au­to­bahns’ were used for land­ing fighter air­craft. This prac­tice did not re­main con­fined to Ger­many but spread across Europe into Swe­den, Fin­land and Switzer­land. On the other side of the Iron Cur­tain, this prac­tice was adopted by Rus­sia, Cze­choslo­vakia, Poland. Other coun­tries where parts of highways are de­signed and marked for use by mil­i­tary air­craft dur­ing an emer­gency are Is­rael, North Korea, South Korea, Tai­wan, Sin­ga­pore and Aus­tralia.

Even in the neigh­bour­hood in Pak­istan, there are two highways (or Mo­tor­ways as these are re­ferred to there), namely M-1 con­nect­ing Peshawar to Is­lam­abad, and M-2 run­ning be­tween Is­lam­abad and La­hore that have two 9,000-foot-long stretch on each of the highways des­ig­nated for re­cov­ery of mil­i­tary air­craft dur­ing war. Be­gin­ning 15 years ago, Pak­istan Air Force has car­ried out train­ing ex­er­cises in­volv­ing land­ing on the des­ig­nated strips on the highways by the F-7P and Mi­rage III fighter air­craft, C-130 Her­cules tac­ti­cal trans­port air­craft and Su­per Mushak trainer air­craft. The break­through by the IAF in its ef­fort to adopt the in­ter­na­tional prac­tice of de­vel­op­ing in­fra­struc­ture and the ca­pa­bil­ity to use highways for lim­ited oper­a­tions by mil­i­tary air­craft in an emer­gency, has ev­i­dently not been achieved too early. How­ever, it is bet­ter late than never!

An ef­fi­ciently man­aged model wherein des­ig­nated land­ing strips on highways in the prox­im­ity of op­er­a­tional air­bases are avail­able dur­ing war will have a force mul­ti­plier ef­fect.

A full-scale war would nor­mally be­gin with aerial ac­tion called Counter Air Oper­a­tions that are meant to de­grade the ca­pa­bil­ity of the en­emy to launch air oper­a­tions. Counter Air Oper­a­tions con­sist of sor­ties un­der­taken by deep strike com­bat air­craft whose pri­mary tar­gets are the run­ways at mil­i­tary air­fields in en­emy ter­ri­tory and of course air­craft on the ground as well as other as­so­ci­ated in­fra­struc­ture that sup­port air oper­a­tions. Since the run­ways at most if not all of the IAF air­fields are vul­ner­a­ble to sim­i­lar ac­tion by the en­emy air force, IAF air­craft that are air­borne for mis­sions may find that the run­way is sud­denly not avail­able for use as it would have been punc­tured by craters on ac­count of bomb­ing by en­emy air­craft. It is un­der these cir­cum­stances that al­ter­na­tive land­ing sites on highways in the vicin­ity of the op­er­at­ing bases could save the day for the IAF.

Mod­ern mil­i­tary trans­port air­craft such as the C-130 Her­cules or even the C-295 from Air­bus De­fence and Space that the IAF is to ac­quire shortly, are ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing from run­ways of re­stricted length and even from semi-pre­pared sur­faces that are not clas­si­fied as reg­u­lar run­ways. For such air­craft, land­ing and take-off from highways do not pose any prob­lems as far as the op­er­at­ing sur­face is con­cerned. How­ever, com­bat air­craft, es­pe­cially those that come in the high per­for­mance cat­e­gory, re­quire land­ing strips of stan­dard length to op­er­ate safely.

Also, for any mil­i­tary air­craft to op­er­ate from highways, there are cer­tain perquisites. It needs to be un­der­stood that dur­ing war, the re­quire­ment to re­cover an air­craft on an al­ter­na­tive run­way, par­tic­u­larly a fighter air­craft, would arise on short no­tice. This would be an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion as a com­bat air­craft re­turn­ing from a mis­sion would gen­er­ally be low on fuel and would not be able to re­main air­borne for long. It is nec­es­sary for the or­gan­i­sa­tion there­fore to have a well de­fined, equipped and re­spon­sive sys­tem in place to ac­ti­vate the des­ig­nated strip on the high­way to fa­cil­i­tate re­cov­ery of air­craft in dif­fi­culty or dis­tress. This would in­volve traf­fic con­trol mea­sures on the high­way where the air­craft is to land, avail­abil­ity of fire fight­ing and med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion fa­cil­i­ties as well as at least a make-shift Air Traf­fic Con­trol. Be­sides, the seg­ments of a high­way des­ig­nated for use as a run­way ought to have re­mov­able me­dian or divider and ought not to be lined with trees or other ob­struc­tions such as lamp posts. Dur­ing war there­fore air­bases would have to be specif­i­cally tasked to be pre­pared to ac­ti­vate the land­ing strip on the high­way at prac­ti­cally a mo­ment’s no­tice. A mil­i­tary air­craft can­not be ex­pected to land on a high­way with nor­mal traf­fic flow­ing. The con­se­quences of such a land­ing would quite ob­vi­ously be dis­as­trous.

An ef­fi­ciently man­aged model wherein des­ig­nated land­ing strips on highways in the prox­im­ity of op­er­a­tional air­bases are avail­able dur­ing war will have a force mul­ti­plier ef­fect.


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