What was set up during World War II and designed to serve as an airbase for the B-24 Liberator American heavyweight bombers, the Kalaikunda airbase in West Bengal will play a key role in thwarting possible attacks by China in the Eastern Theatre airspace of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Located few kilometres from Kolkata, the airbase served as a major airfield in the supply route for the nationalist Army of China in its fight against the Japanese forces.

Aircraft of both the US Air Force and Royal Air Force flew regularly to China via Chabua, Jorhat and Vijaynagar across the Hump route over Arunachal Pradesh and East Tibet.

In the wake of the Indo-China conflict, the Eastern Theatre is increasing its operational preparedness.

“Kalaikunda will play a key role in air operations during a conflict in the Eastern Theatre. It has excellent infrastructure to house several operational units, especially fighter aircraft. It is located far from the border and hence enjoys ‘defence-in depth’. It is currently used for training with friendly air forces from across the world, besides fighter flying training for newly inducted combat pilots, as well as armament training for fighter fleets”, the former IAF chief Arup Raha told The Statesman.

“The IAF has a large number of air bases in the Eastern Theatre including Kalaikunda, Panagarh, Bagdogra and Hashimara in West Bengal. Civil aviation airports like Kolkata, Patna, Guwahati etc. would be available for air operations by IAF should the need arise, providing dispersal and flexibility in deployment of air assets” said the former IAF chief.

IAF sources highlighted that Kalaikunda’s finest moment came in 1971 Indo-Pak war where it survived two air raids by the Pakistan Air Force. An IAF Hunter aircraft shot down an F-86 Sabre of PAF.

The Kalaikunda base was then home to Gnats, Vampires and Canberra aircraft and later housed the MiG-27 squadrons. Commenting on whether the IAF should now base fighter squadrons in Kalaikunda, Air Chief Marshal Raha (Retd.) said, “It is not necessary to permanently deploy several fighter squadrons in a base during peacetime. In a conflict situation, combat force levels are enhanced based on the need since rapid deployment of combat assets from one theatre to another is an intrinsic characteristic of air power. Obviously, Kalaikunda is expected to be augmented with additional fighters and combat assets during a war-fighting contingency.”