A leading Indian Air Force (IAF) transport squadron, which earned its spurs in different wars and military operations during the last six decades, will mark its diamond jubilee at the Chandigarh Air Force station on Saturday, with the milestone celebration turning the spotlight on the squadron’s outstanding achievements, officials familiar with the matter said on Friday.

The No. 44 Squadron, also known as the Mighty Jets, provided crucial logistics support to the army in the Ladakh sector during the 1962 India-China war, carried out extensive tactical and limited strategic airlift in the western sector during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, executed special bombing missions during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, and also played a pivotal role in supporting the army during the ongoing border row with China in eastern Ladakh, the officials said, asking not to be named.

The squadron was raised in April 1961, but the diamond jubilee celebrations were postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It currently operates IL-76 and C-17 military transport aircraft.

“The rich and glorious history of the squadron is a kaleidoscope of military history and military diplomacy of modern-day India and filled with tales of fortitude, courage, daring, devotion and professionalism which encapsulates all that the IAF stands for,” said one of the officials cited above.

The squadron, raised with Soviet-origin An-12 aircraft, faced a baptism by fire in the 1962 war but lived up to expectations.

It performed critical tasks including landing sorties at Leh and Chushul, airdrop of supplies to various forward posts, and evacuation of casualties. “The squadron also carried out airlift of AMX tanks into the northern sector which redefined the offensive abilities of the Indian Army,” said a second official.

The squadron’s unique contribution to the 1971 operations was the effective use of An-12s that were modified for bombing missions. For its innovation, valour and distinguished service in the face of the enemy, the squadron was awarded the prestigious Battle Honour for Air Offensive in the West Pakistan theatre of operations, he said. The squadron is the only non-fighter/bomber squadron to receive the Battle Honours for its role in the 1971 war.

The squadron, which has been at the forefront of the IAF’s airlift capabilities, inducted IL-76 aircraft in June 1985. “The squadron carried out practice landings at Thoise in October 1985, and in early 1986, inducted tanks and artillery guns into Ladakh region, thus substantially enhancing the army’s firepower in the sector,” said another official.

The first strategic airlift task after the induction of IL-76 was assigned to the squadron during Operation Brasstacks in 1987. It was tasked to position fighter squadrons at their operational locations in the western sector. The entire operation was completed in 36 hours, and within 48 hours, the IAF was ready to meet any threat, the officials said. “A completely new dimension had been added to the potency of the IAF -- the capability for rapid mobilisation and deployment of combat ready squadrons through round-the-clock operations,” said a fourth official.

As part of Operation Brasstacks, the army moved tens of thousands of troops to the western border, along with armoured columns, artillery and rocket systems, in an overwhelming show of military force. The big takeaway from Operation Brasstacks was the capability of Indian forces to launch a swift offensive campaign. It asserted India’s superiority over Pakistan in conventional warfare.

The squadron played a key role during the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations in Sri Lanka. “From the early hours of July 30, 1987, the squadron transported men and material, including T-72 tanks and artillery guns, to Sri Lanka. The IPKF operations culminated in March 1990, and the squadron flew extensively, and greatly contributed to the airlift effort,” he said.

In November 1988, the squadron airlifted the entire Indian Army contingent that took part in Operation Cactus launched to help thwart attempts to overthrow the democratically elected government in Maldives. These operations were carried out by the squadron at short notice, and by night, to an unfamiliar airfield in a foreign country, the officials said.

The squadron also played a vital role in providing air mobility to IAF and army elements during the 1999 Kargil operations. The next important mission came in December 2001 when the squadron was tasked for the movement of combat units as part of Operation Parakram, launched after the terror attack on Parliament.

The squadron has airlifted more than 2,000 troops and crucial military equipment to the Ladakh sector amid the ongoing row along the Line of Actual Control.

The squadron has been a pillar of strength for IAF and the country, said Air Marshal SRK Nair (Retd), who commanded the ‘Mighty Jets’ from 2002 to 2005, and retired as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the IAF’s Training Command in 2018.

“It has been the air bridge to the Ladakh region, and has unfailingly carried out all its commitments in support of the army’s forward deployments. It is of great relevance to the country too as it has been the first responder when it comes to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. The squadron was also involved in Covid-19 relief operations,” Nair added.