A Sukhoi Su-30MKI lands during inauguration of an emergency landing strip on NH-925 in Barmer

India was a pioneer of emergency landing strips during WW2 but didn’t revive it for a long time. Now it can give IAF more flexibility

by Lt Gen H S Panag (Retd)

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, accompanied by Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, carried out a mock emergency landing in a C130J transport aircraft on National Highway 925A to inaugurate an Emergency Landing Strip in Jalore district of Rajasthan.

The event was well publicised and conducted with much fanfare. The Union ministers witnessed multiple operations by a variety of aircraft on the Emergency Landing Strip (ELF). Speaking on the occasion, Nitin Gadkari gave details of 19 more ELFs being constructed on national highways near border areas extending from Ladakh in the north to Gujarat in the south and Assam in the east. He also said that, in future, ELFs will be constructed in 15 days instead of the 1.5 years (actually 19 months) the Rajasthan one has taken.

Three issues merit attention. First, the exploitation of ELFs on highways gives greater flexibility to operations of the Indian Air Force in peace and war situations. Second, inadvertently, there have been security lapses. Third, the event brings to the fore the importance of civil-military fusion with respect to infrastructure and military industrial base.

ELFs Enhance IAF Flexibility

The concept of ELF, also known as highway strip/road runway/road base, for use by military aircraft evolved during the Second World War. In fact, British India was a pioneer in the field when the Red Road in then Calcutta, between Chowringhee and Maidan, was used by the Royal Indian Air Force with pilots using restaurants as restrooms. In Germany, the well-developed Reichsautobahn highway system was used by the Luftwaffe as its airfields were repeatedly put out of use by Allied bombing. Today, many countries, including Pakistan, with effect from 2000, exploit the ELFs.

India was a late starter in reviving the system despite having been one of its pioneers. In the desert sector in mid-1990s, as part of border roads development, helipads were constructed on roads 20-30 km from the International Boundary for induction of jeep-mounted Special Forces and reconnaissance elements.

In 2016, an inter-ministerial joint committee of Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Ministry of Defence /Indian Air Force (IAF) was formed to look into the feasibility of setting up ELFs and figure out the technical details. The IAF carried out trials on Yamuna and Lucknow-Agra expressways from 2015 to 2018 to refine the concept of exploiting ELFs on highways close to the borders.

The ELFs can be used in a variety of ways to give flexibility to IAF operations. These can be used in an emergency, particularly when our own airfields are put out of order by enemy missile/aircraft attacks. As part of surprise and deception, ELFs can be used for dispersal of aircraft and for mounting operation. In areas where no regular airports/airfield exist, they can be very useful for disaster management. ELFs can also enhance the range of helicopter-borne operations in enemy territory.

The faculties that are created at ELFs are related to their operational exploitation. These can vary from a simple airstrip to a mini airfield complete with a control tower, dispersal area, blast pens and operations/restrooms.

A Security Lapse

The location of fixed defence infrastructure, particularly large structures like airfields, are difficult to hide. Almost all fixed defence infrastructures can be pinpointed on Google Maps and zoomed into. This makes them easy targets for cruise missile and air attacks. Elaborate air defence resources have to be put in place to secure the airfields.

ELFs, despite being fixed assets, merge with the highway infrastructure and are difficult to locate. At the inauguration of the Jalore ELF, enthusiasm and showcasing of achievements probably led to the location of all 19 proposed ELFs being placed in public domain.

Civil–Military Fusion

Fusion of civilian and military infrastructure and technology is a universal national security practice and, in most modern states, is part of national security strategy. In developing countries, due to lack of civil infrastructure and industrial base, and the military’s obsession with security, this fusion remains below par leading to poor utilisation of national resources. India has been no exception. While there have been remarkable success stories in space and atomic fields, parallel furrows have been ploughed in countless other fields.

China has had Military Civil Integration later refined as Military Civil Fusion strategy right from the days of Chairman Mao Zedong. Entire infrastructure development in Tibet has been part of this fusion. It is time for India to formalise civil-military fusion as part of its national security strategy.

The government has done well to address the non-participation of the private sector in defence production through Defence Procurement Procedure 2020. To overcome the lack of R&D and technical base with the private sector, the clause of ‘Strategic Partnership’ has been included. The private sector can bridge the technology gap by collaborating with the best original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of the world. The policy of ‘buy global and manufacture in India’ would also enable foreign OEMs to set up manufacturing or maintenance entities through their subsidiaries in India. Relaxation in FDI norms and our “Atmanirbhar Bharat” policy will further encourage the private sector. Corporatisation of the Indian Ordnance Factories and permitting Public Private Participation is another step in the right direction. There is also a strong case for funding R&D in the private sector.

The scope of civil-military fusion with respect to infrastructure is only limited by will and imagination. There are endless opportunities in the fields of space, communications, information technology, aviation sector, shipbuilding, roads/railways construction, transportation, power plants, storage/warehousing, tourism and border area development, to name a few. The era of standalone military projects is passé. With a shrinking defence budget, civil-military fusion is not an option but a compulsion.

The inauguration of the ELT is not so much of a cause for celebration, but a wake-up call for making civil-military fusion with respect to infrastructure and military industrial base an intrinsic part of our national security strategy.