Eye on Chinese Army, nod to shelters for IAF fighter jets on border
The air force has got a go-ahead to construct 108 modern shelters to house fighter aircraft in forward areas on India’s northern borders at a time when China has ramped up activity in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which overlooks Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Ladakh.
The Union Cabinet had recently allocated about ~5,500 crore for the project to build the Next Generation Hardened Aircraft Shelters (NGHAS), said three senior officials aware of the development who asked not to be named because they are not authorised to speak to the media.
In the past few months, there were reports of increased activity by the People’s Liberation Army (air force), which has carried out several exercises, including moving troops at a rapid rate in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has now spread its fighters in disparate bases in the eastern sector. “While the fighters can be scrambled as when required from different bases, it will be difficult for the enemy to target every base,” a senior IAF officer said, explaining the decision.
Majority of the hardened shelters will be designed to house the Russian made Su-30MKi jets — the mainstay of IAF’s fighters. In 2016, a parliamentary committee on defence pointed to the fact that IAF did not have protective shelters to keep the Su-30Mki.
“Hardened shelters are not available for even the limited numbers of aircraft that is available with the Service,” the committee observed.
Apart from the hardened shelters, IAF has also inducted new technology to repair damaged runways in a few hours.
“The combination of the hardened shelters and capability to repair damaged runways quickly gives us an operational edge,” said a senior defence ministry official.
NGHAS are specialised structures comprising layers of reinforced concrete, sand and steel. They can protect aircraft from direct hits by a 2,000-pound bomb.
IAF bases in the western sector have “blast pens” — tunnel-shaped concrete structures covered with a layer of earth and protective walls near their openings, which are supposed to protect aircraft from the effects of blasts in case of an attack.
“However, with the change in warfare technology the blast-proof pens may not be enough to protect assets,” the officer quoted above said, explaining why IAF needs NGHAS.
To underline the importance of the hardened shelters, a second defence ministry official said IAF told the Union government that during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, nearly 60% of the air force’s loses were of fighters that were on the ground. After the 1965 war, India started building blast-proof pens. “The blast-proof pens ensured that fighters on the ground were safe during the Bangladesh liberation war. No aircraft on the ground was lost during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war,” he said, adding that IAF told the government that the need of the hour now was to upgrade to NGHAS.