A C-130J Super Hercules aircraft  lands on the 341-km long Purvanchal Expressway, in Sultanpur

New Delhi: On 3 December 1971, in what is termed as the beginning phase of the India-Pakistan war, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) executed Operation Chengiz Khan during which it targeted Indian Air Force (IAF) base at multiple places including Amritsar, Ambala, Agra, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Pathankot, Bhuj, Srinagar and Barmer.

During the peak of this war, the Bhuj airport in Gujarat was severely destroyed in the 35 times it was raided by the Pakistan Airforce (PAF) fighter jets during the attack that lasted almost two weeks. The same scenario, if replayed today, with PAF planners deciding on their initial targets so as to cripple the flying capacity of Indian Air Force (IAF) jets—by bombarding the known airfields, both civilian and 50 plus IAF stations—will also have to factor in a new development—the multiple landing and take-off strips that are being built on national highways across the country, from Assam to Rajasthan and from Lucknow to Tamil Nadu.

While identifying the targets like the known airfields and stations is a comparatively easy task for military strategists, it will be an extremely difficult job to identify these runaway strips and do a “Bhuj” on them. Earlier this week, the IAF, among other aircraft, landed the almost 35,000 kg C-130 Hercules aircraft with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in it on a 3.2 km airstrip that has been built on the recently inaugurated Purvanchal Expressway airstrip. Apart from Hercules aircraft, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar aircraft also landed on the airstrip, to showcase the utility of this idea that has been implemented in India for the last few years.

Just a months ago, on 9 September, Union ministers Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh inaugurated a 3-km-long emergency landing strip on National Highway 925 in Rajasthan for the IAF aircraft. A Hercules C-130J plane of the IAF, carrying the two ministers and Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat, conducted a mock emergency landing on the national highway. Apart from the C-130, Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jet AN-32 military transport aircraft and Mi-17v5 helicopter of the IAF, too, landed on the strip. In October 2017, fighter jets and transport planes of the IAF landed and took off from the Lucknow-Agra Expressway. During this display, 16 fighter jets and transport aircraft of the IAF landed and took off from the Lucknow-Agra Expressway near Bangarmau in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, about 60 km from Lucknow. Similarly, in May 2016, Mirage 2000 planes had done a similar exercise on the Lucknow-Agra Expressway. In the first of such exercises, an IAF Mirage 2000 fighter in May 2015 landed on the Yamuna Expressway near Mathura as part of trials to use national highways for emergency landing. As per government officials, such Emergency Landing Facilities (ELF) are being developed at at least 19 other places to give more options to the IAF strategists in times of war and in peace.

Such facilities are being developed across the country in Rajasthan, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Puducherry, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir and Assam. These ELF are expected to be completed before 2024 steps in. Among the locations that are going to see these facilities are on Phalodi–Jaisalmer road, Barmer–Jaisalmer road, Kharagpur– Balasore road, Kharagpur–Keonjhar road, Panagarh-KKD (Kalaikunda Air Force Station) road, Nellore–Ongole road, Ongole– Chilakaluripet road, Mandi Dabwali-Odhan road, Sangrur road in Punjab, on Bhuj-Naliya road, Surat-Baroda road, Banihal-Srinagar road, Jorhat-Baraghat road, Bagdogra-Hashimara road, Hashimara-Tezpur route and Hashimara-Guwahati road in Assam.

Using highway for landing and take-off purpose in India might have begun in recent times, but it is a practise that is being used by several other countries for many years now, including Pakistan, Germany, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, Finland, Switzerland, Poland, Singapore, Czechoslovakia and Vietnam. According to officials, in times of need, fighter jets can be dropped, taxed to these multiple take-off sites. Similarly, the pilots now will have multiple options to choose from while landing their assets, both in emergency and in normal times.