Even as the debate rages on the deployment of the armed forces in anti-Maoist operations, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been given permission to fire in self-defence if its helicopters engaged on logistical missions in support of the paramilitary forces are fired at by the ultras, an informed source said on Thursday.
"The permission has been granted but with strict conditionalities. We cannot use rockets or the integral guns of the helicopters and we can retaliate only if fired upon," the source said.
"To this end, we have side-mounted machineguns on our choppers that are operated by our Garuds (IAF commandoes)," the source said, pleading anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
"Thus far, there has been no occasion to use the guns," he said, adding: "This is purely a supportive operation and doesn't mean it is the precursor of a larger IAF role against the Naxals (Maoists)."
The IAF has stationed four medium-lift Mi-17 helicopters at Raipur for assisting the paramilitary and state police forces in their anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh and other affected states.
The helicopters are used for ferrying personnel and supplies and for evacuating casualties.
The IAF has also suggested that the 15-odd Mi-17s it has deployed on UN peacekeeping operations in the Congo be recalled in case it is asked to increase the number of helicopters on anti-Maoist operations.
"Once the numbers increase, then we will have to assess the situation. There are also safety aspects like the sanitisation of helipads," the source said.
He also denied reports that an 80-hour limitation per machine per month had been placed on the four IAF helicopters.
"There is a time limitation but this is in line with the criteria laid down for the IAF's entire fleet. We have to maintain an even keel to ensure that X number of machines are operational at any given time.
"There are times when the machines have flown for less than 80 hours a month. At times, they have flown more than 100 hours a month. And in case of an emergency, there is no question of a machine not being available, so let's not get into a blame game," the source said.
Asked whether the IAF favoured a separate air wing for the central paramilitary forces, the source described the issue as "complicated".
"It's not something simplistic. It's pretty complicated. It's not just a question of buying and operating helicopters. There is an entire system that has to be put in place.
"Some state governments have bought helicopters but find it difficult to operate them due to the lack of a support system," the source explained.
Defence Minister A K Antony has repeatedly stated that the armed forces would not be deployed on offensive operations against the Maoists, saying this was a job best left to the paramilitary and state police forces.
However, the armed forces could be deployed on non-combat duties as long as this didn't interfere with their other laid down tasks.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared the Maoists to be India's most serious internal security threat.
Home Minister P Chidambaram has advocated a twin-pronged strategy against the Maoists: development works after the affected areas are cleared by the security forces.