Vande Bharat Mission: 7 reasons IAF stayed out of India's mega repatriation project

When India mounted evacuation exercises early this year as the deadly coronavirus started to bare its fangs, the IAF had rendered stellar support to national carrier Air India

Vande Bharat Mission: 7 reasons IAF stayed out of India's mega repatriation project
The IAF's C-17 Globemaster III played a key role in bringing back Indians stranded in Covid-19 hotspots before the launch of the Vande Bharat Mission. Image courtesy: Twitter/@Boeing_In

As the deadly novel coronavirus started to gain foothold around February-March, India mounted evacuation missions to foreign lands. These were driven mainly by the national carrier Air India, but the Indian Air Force (IAF) played an important role too.

On 27 February, the largest transport aircraft in the IAF fleet, the C-17 Globemaster III, brought back 76 Indians and 36 foreign nationals from seven countries (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives, China, South Africa, US and Madagascar) the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan in China. The aircraft had gone to Wuhan with 15 tonnes of medical cargo, which external affairs minister S Jaishankar had termed as a show of India's solidarity with the Chinese people in their "difficult time".

Then on 10 March, the C-17 brought back 58 Indians stranded in Iran, which was one of the countries worst affected by coronavirus at that time.

The IAF has been playing a significant role in India's Covid-19 battle, and not just evacuation of stranded people, it has also been taking supplies of medical and other essential items like foodgrains to the remotest corners of the country under the Lifeline Udan programme. Till 25 April, the Air Force operated 152 flights under this programme since 26 March.

The IAF had worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Air India earlier too for evacuating Indians in distress. For instance, from Kuwait in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion of that country, and in 2015, during the Yemeni crisis.  

Yet, as of now, the IAF has not been made a part of India's mega Vande Bharat repatriation mission. From May 7 to October 18, the mission has facilitated the international travel of over 22,00,000 people stranded in different parts of the world due to Covid-19. Over 17,00,000 people have been repatriated on flights by Air India, Air India Express and private Indian carriers.  

Despite the IAF's proven expertise in operating evacuation/repatriation missions, why has it not been made a part of this mega mission so far? 

AVM Manmohan Bahadur (Retd), who was the Assistant Chief of Air Staff at Air Headquarters looking after transport aircraft and helicopter operations, gives seven reasons for this in an article in The Print. Here they are:

1. It needs to be seen whether the country from which evacuation/ repatriation is to happen is friendly to India. AVM Bahadur (Retd) points out that the Yemen operation in 2015 needed diplomatic skills of the Indian foreign office and only Air India flew the Yemen-Djibouti leg. The IAF took over only after that. The then minister of state for external affairs General VK Singh was present to lend weight and credence to the diplomatic negotiations.  

India has mounted repatriations from UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UK, Singapore, US, Philippines, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Malaysia, Kuwait and Oman in the first leg of the Vande Bharat mission. France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Indonesia, Thailand, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Belarus, Canada, Australia, Japan, Armenia, Nepal and Nigeria were added in the second phase.

2. Even if the country from which the evacuation would be taking place is friendly to India, the country over which the IAF relief aircraft would fly may be apprehensive of giving clearances. AVM Bahadur (Retd) mentions the difficulty in getting overflight clearances from Pakistan for IAF aircraft launched to Afghanistan to bring back Indian casualties of numerous blasts that targeted the Indian embassy and consulates a decade back.  

An Air India flight carrying relief materials and evacuated foreign nationals en route to Frankfurt recently was showered with praise by a Pakistan Air Traffic Controller (ATC) when the aircraft entered the airspace of the 'hostile' neighbour. The ATC in Turkey also extended all support. This kind of support may not have been forthcoming from Pakistan or Turkey if it were an IAF aircraft.  

3. If the IAF aircraft has to fly over multiple countries, there would be a need for multiple clearances. These clearances are valid only for a particular time period and with some countries being notorious for giving green signals at only the very last moment, the delay by one may mean that the whole process needs to be started from scratch. The author gives the example of a central Asian country in which clearance had to be given personally by the president, and he could not be woken up before 10 am. Such situations result in unnecessary and additional hurdles for an urgent mission.    

4. One also needs to consider if diversionary airfields available in a friendly country nearby in the event of the IAF aircraft having to divert for any reason. The author talks about a Mi-26 helicopter of the IAF on a ferry flight to Russia having to divert to Karachi in Pakistan due to a technical glitch. AVM Bahadur (Retd) mentions that the Mi-26 crew had an "interesting" tale to tell on the time spent in Pakistan.

5. Civil aircraft are customised for carrying passengers with onboard facilities like proper seats, good lighting, overhead storage, galley for food and, most importantly, toilets, AVM Bahadur (Retd) writes. The IAF transport aircraft -- C-17 Globemaster III, C-130J Super Hercules, IL-76 and AN-32 -- don't have all these facilities. Their main function relates to war-fighting and the IL-76 has only one rudimentary toilet, which could cause a nightmarish situation for say 150 passengers on a 10-hour flight.

6. Civil aircraft have to only file a flight plan according to the civil aviation rules for undertaking evacuation/repatriation missions. The process is "streamlined, fast and relatively hassle-free".

7. These IAF assets are vital and have to be nurtured, especially during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, the author writes. For the next few years, funds would be at a premium because of austerity measures and flying hours and residual 'life' available must be used judiciously, he adds.  

Therefore, not involving the IAF in the Vande Bharat mission is a sound one, but AVM Bahadur (Retd) reiterates that the Air Force would be ready to contribute in the mission if it is called to do so.