The air force on Tuesday landed a C-130J ‘Super Hercules’ aircraft - configured for special operations and airborne assault - at the world’s highest airstrip in north-eastern Ladakh, barely eight km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), signalling India’s aggressive stance towards China following a spurt in incursions in that sensitive sector.
The aircraft, belonging to the IAF’s ‘Veiled Vipers’ squadron, touched down at the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airstrip --- located at a dizzying height of 16,614 feet in the disputed Aksai Chin area --- after getting airborne at the crack of dawn from the Hindon airbase, outside New Delhi.
The landing -- described by the defence ministry as a “significant capability demonstration move by the IAF” -- took place in the same sector where Indian soldiers were eyeball-to-eyeball with the Chinese for three weeks, after PLA troops set up tents and took up positions 19 km inside what India considers to be its territory on April 15.
The C-130J’s debut landing in the DBO sector is expected to trigger unease in Beijing, which has been deeply suspicious of the re-activation of advance landing grounds (ALGs) by the IAF in the Ladakh sector in recent years.
The IAF has re-activated at least three ALGs during the last five years for quicker deployment of Indian troops and logistics support if hostilities were to break out.
“Today’s achievement will enable the forces to exploit the inherent advanced capabilities of the aircraft by increased capability to induct troops,” a defence ministry official asserted.
India had signed a $1.2 billion contract with the US in 2008 for buying six C-130 J planes. The IAF plans to place a follow-on order for six additional C-130Js.
The DBO airstrip was reactivated in May 2008, followed by the ALGs at Fukche (13,000 feet, 3 km from the LAC) in November 2008 and Nyoma (13,300 feet, 23 km from the LAC) in September 2009 --- the airstrips had been out of use for more than 43 years after the 1962 India-China war.
The Chinese have demanded the de-activation of airstrips at DBO and Fukche.
Russia-built AN-32 military planes have landed at these forwards airstrips, but they have limited load-carrying capabilities. The Chinese had called for a flag meeting when an AN-32 landed in DBO for the first time five years ago.
“The C-130J’s landing at DBO is a small tactical action with a huge strategic effect,” former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major told HT.
The aircraft, powered by four Rolls Royce engines, can be used for a variety of missions such as special operations, combat delivery, peacekeeping, low intensity conflict, search and rescue, disaster relief and humanitarian missions.
Built by US aerospace major Lockheed Martin, it can carry out precision low-level flying, airdrops and landing in blackout conditions. It is operated by 15 countries including the air forces of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, Denmark and Italy.