The Indian Air Force will deploy its latest transport helicopters to bolster the capabilities of security forces battling Maoists, at a time when the rebels have mounted some of their most audacious attacks.
Air force chief air chief marshal NAK Browne on Wednesday said the IAF would raise a unit of its latest Russia-built Mi-17V5 choppers in Nagpur next month to support anti-naxal operations in Chattisgarh's Bastar division.
Four days after the Chattisgarh Congress brass was hit in a naxal attack in the Bastar division, the air chief stressed the need to scale up surveillance capabilities of the security forces with new platforms.
He said technology was the key to killing the naxal problem. The Mi-17V5 choppers have the capability to carry out night operations.
The IAF has currently assigned six Mi-17 choppers to support the state and central police forces engaged in anti-naxal operations.
The choppers are used for ferrying security personnel, carrying out reconnaissance and casualty evacuation. These operate from three locations - Ranchi in Jharkhand and Raipur and Jagdalpur in Chattisgarh.
Browne said the new squadron with 12 choppers, located closer to Jagdalpur, would cut down on response time if some incident took place there.
He clarified that the decision to raise the new unit in Nagpur predated the May 25 naxal strike that killed 27 people, including top Congress leaders.
The IAF is currently using armoured Mi-17 helicopters to transport security personnel in Maoist zones. The helicopters are armed with machine guns manned by the air force's Garud commandos.
The helicopters have frequently drawn hostile fire --- the latest incident took place this January 18 when an IAF chopper was fired upon and brought down by Maoist cadres near Chintagufa in Chattisgarh.
The IAF's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also flying surveillance patrols everyday to keep track of naxal movement.
The IAF had three years back said it wanted to pull its choppers out of naxal territories due to inadequate resources, arguing that the Border Security Force's air wing take on a bigger role in the fight.
However, the scenario has changed with India ordering 80 Mi-17V5 choppers from Russia for $1.4 billion (Rs 7,700 crore) --- more than 20 have already been inducted.
The follow-on clause has been invoked to buy 59 more choppers for $1 billion (Rs 5,500 crore).
Defence minister AK Antony had on Monday made it clear that there were no plans to deploy army in Maoist zones. The latest Maoist strike --- like the previous ones --- had reignited the debate over whether the army should be ordered to march into naxal-infested areas.
Successive army chiefs have advised against deploying soldiers in naxal-hit zones as the force considers it to be a law and order problem and such operations do not qualify as the army's primary role.
Also, soldiers would require protection to carry out their duties, which could hurt political sensitivities as has been the case in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir where troops are protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.