“Giving aircraft homegrown names is a welcome move as it gives them a distinct Indian identity,” said Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia, adding that it is also a nostalgic flashback to the old days

by Rahul Bedi

Chandigarh: In christening its newly inducted Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) Prachand (fearless), the Indian Air Force (IAF) seems to have once again revived its lapsed tradition of bestowing its platforms with colourfully vibrant local monikers.

“Giving aircraft homegrown names is a welcome move as it gives them a distinct Indian identity,” said Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia. It’s also a nostalgic flashback to the old days when most IAF fighters, transporters and helicopters were given native names, of which we were proud, added the highly decorated fighter pilot.

For nearly five decades, till the mid-1990s, the IAF bestowed most of its platforms with catchy and robust local appellations that were shortlisted in an elaborate process of elimination, by a senior officers committee at Air Headquarters in New Delhi, and finally approved by the Air Chief before being publicly formalised.

This committee delved into India’s rich animal world tapestry, multihued and varied mythology and colourful history, before deciding on appealing names which, in some instances also depicted the designated platform’s capabilities.

Senior retired IAF officers regretted that this ‘highly agreeable’ and appealing practice of aircraft naming had been discontinued, over two decades ago, on the specious reasoning of it being ‘extraneous and superfluous’, with a handful of subsequent exceptions. They nostalgically conceded that there was no scope in today’s IAF for any ‘romance or imagination’, as it had become an excessively demanding and detached force, robbing it of ‘enchanting quirks’ like tagging aircraft, amongst other diverse idiosyncratic endeavours.

Consequently, the 36 Dassault Rafale fighters that were recently commissioned into service have not been nicknamed, much like the earlier Russian-origin Sukhoi Su-30MKI multi-role fighters that joined IAF service 1997 onwards and comprise the backbone of the IAF’s combat fleet.

Recently imported transporters like Lockheed Martin’s C-130J-30s and Boeings C-17 ‘Globemasters’ as well as AH-64E Apache attack and CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, too are not known by a local appellation and continue with their western handles. This had led some veterans to surmise that the IAF aimed to give local names only to indigenous platforms like the LCH, and not those which were imported.

But this was not always so.

The French MD 450 Ouragan fighter-bomber also manufactured by Dassault and which, like the Rafales, were also commissioned at Ambala Air Force Station in 1953, was amongst the first to be nicknamed as Toofani in the then-fledgling IAF founded 21 years earlier, in 1932 as the Royal IAF. Toofani was a direct translation from the aircraft’s French name, meaning Hurricane. Some officers recall that the principal reason behind thus naming it was because most technicians – and even some pilots – had difficulty pronouncing ‘Ouragan’ properly.

A Long History

Thereafter, the practice of nicknaming platforms gained currency and was enthusiastically pursued by the IAF.

Hence, the French Alouette-III light utility helicopters that were inducted into service in the early 1960s were christened ‘Chetak’ whilst the Aerospatiale SA-315B rotorcraft that followed over a decade later, became ‘Cheetah’. A more advanced version of the former helicopter, developed much later by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, was dubbed ‘Cheetal’, while the indigenously designed Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) that made its maiden test flight in 1992 was called Dhruv, or constant, in Sanskrit. Alongside, its weaponised version, the ALH Weapon Systems Integrated (WSI) Mk IV, whose development was sanctioned in the late 1990s, befittingly became Rudra or the Destroyer in the early 2000s.

India’s first indigenously designed fighter-bomber in 1961, the Hindustan Fighter-24, was later scrapped due to its grossly underpowered engine. But it was nicknamed Marut or Spirit of the Tempest, while the licence-built derivative of the British Folland Gnat light attack fighter and trainer, that joined IAF service in 1977, was called Ajeet. And, over two decades later, the locally designed Light Combat Aircraft was baptised by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Tejas, meaning ‘brilliantly lustrous’.

Soviet fighters began joining the IAF in 1964, with MiG-21M variants being commissioned into service as Trishul (Trident), while the more advanced MiG-21 BIS was christened Vikram (Valorous). The subsequent licence-built MiG-23BN strike fighter and its MiG-23MF air defence variant, that joined service during the IAF’s ‘golden era’ of inductions in the early 1980s, were named Vijay (Victory) and Rakshak (Protector) respectively. Alongside, the IAF’s secretive and highly classified MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ reconnaissance platform was christened Garuda, after the mythological bird-like creature whose purported activities were as mysterious and enigmatic as those of the remarkable aircraft that was beyond radar detection.

Later IAF additions, like the ground-attack Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguars were baptised Shamsher (Sword of Justice), the MiG-29 as Baaz (Eagle) and the French medium multi-role Mirage-2000Hs, also made by Dassault, were called Vajra meaning ‘the thunderbolt of the Gods’. The latter is a name the French fighter has lived up to in many of its missions during the 1999 Kargil conflict, and more recently in the strike on an alleged insurgent base at Balakot in Pakistan’s Pakhtunkhwa Province.

The IAF’s Russian Ilyushin IL-76 transport aircraft was befittingly called Gajraj, whilst the smaller Antonov An-32s were dubbed the Sutlej. Rotorcraft like the medium-lift Russian Mil Mi-8 was named Rana, and its subsequent upgraded version the Mil Mi-17 Pratap, subtly combining the names of the 16th-century Rajput warrior chieftain Maharana Pratap, on two IAF platforms. The Mil Mi-25/35 attack helicopter was cheekily nicknamed Akbar, after the Mughal potentate who defeated the Mewar Maharana at the famous Battle of Haldighati in 1568.

Over years, however, many such names bestowed on IAF platforms ended up supplanting the original-like Cheetah and Chetak-whilst others like Baaz, Vajra, Vikram, Shamsher and Akbar faded largely into oblivion, with many air force buffs remembering them with effort. “Some aircraft names stuck immediately and others just didn’t,” said Air Marshal Bhatia. It all depended on their glamour, appeal and chutzpah, he added.

And while the IAF did nativise its platform names, its flamboyant English sobriquets for its many squadrons existed harmoniously alongside.

Its oldest No 1 Squadron, which operates Mirage-2000Hs, for instance, is called The Tigers, whilst the No 14 Squadron that fields Jaguars is The Bulls. Other fighter and helicopter squadron names include Desert Tigers, Dragons, Flying Bullets, Black Panthers, Flying Dragons and the Siachen Pioneers, amongst others, suggesting a flashback to its founding RIAF years and the generation of Indian officers who underwent Royal Air Force instruction in England before Independence. These officers assumed charge of the re-named IAF after 1947, remaining in service for several years thereafter and were largely responsible for shaping the force’s traditions and customs, including squadron mottos.

However, despite these typically British or Western squadron handles, their pithy mottos – embossed on each of their crests – are all in either Hindi and Sanskrit. The motto for No 1 Squadron, for example, is ‘Ekta Mein Shakti’ (Strength in Unity), whilst that of the No 8 Squadron comprising Su-30MKIs is the equally pithy and vigorous ‘Surakshya Va Akraman’ (Offence is Defence). Others randomly include ‘Lakshya Vedh’ (Destroy the target with Precision), ‘Amogh Lakshya’ (True to Aim) and ‘Yudhav Krutnischay’ or (Into War With Determination), in addition to a host of other equally fierce and soul-stirring axioms.

Perhaps, in the anti-colonial milieu that has emerged since 2014 under the Hindu nationalist BJP-led government, the IAF too, like the Indian Army will face pressure to ‘de-colonise’ its inherited traditions, which could well include localising its squadron names.

It remains to be seen whether it folds; or like the LCH is Prachand (fearless).