A quarter of a century back, its hills were surreptitiously captured by insurgents backed by the Pakistan military, and the Indian Army was caught unaware. Kargil’s strategic importance was as clear to the Indian Armed Forces then as it is now. Given that, the Indian Air Force’s C-130 J conducted a night landing at the high-altitude advanced landing ground at Kargil.
The IAF announced the feat at its X handle, saying: “In a first, an IAF C-130J aircraft carried out night landing at the Kargil airstrip. Employing terrain masking en route, the exercise also dovetailed a training mission of Garuds.” Terrain masking means the aircraft evaded the enemy’s radars by flying in the valley and skirting the mountains.
The video shared by the IAF shows that the C-130J used their weather radars, infrared recce pods, and Night Vision Goggles for the “unassisted” landing. The landing allows the IAF to deploy assets for offensive or humanitarian missions day and night at this airstrip.
Kargil is located close to the Line of Control with Pakistan. Through it passes the country’s National Highway 1, which is a strategic route to Siachen Glacier and connects Srinagar to Leh in Ladakh. The high altitude and mountainous terrain makes it tricky to fly.
“Kargil is a very restricted ALG (Advanced Landing Ground) at 10,000 feet. The problem is augmented by it having a unidirectional approach due to terrain consideration,” a source told the EurAsian Times explaining the difficulty in landing at Kargil.
In simpler words, the Kargil runway is a small airstrip, and take-offs and landings happen in the same direction. Should the winds be unfavorable, landing at and taking off from a unidirectional runaway would require considerable skills.
In a first, an IAF C-130 J aircraft recently carried out a night landing at the Kargil airstrip. Employing terrain masking enroute, the exercise also dovetailed a training mission of the Garuds.#SakshamSashaktAtmanirbhar pic.twitter.com/MNwLzaQDz7
— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) January 7, 2024
“Also, Kargil doesn’t have any night landing facility. A lot of study has gone into it,” the source added.
Kargil is a critical juncture between Kashmir Valley and between Leh in Ladakh. Should either of these runways be rendered unfunctional due to the adversary’s fire, the IAF will need other runways to function.
The American airlifters have been game-changers for the IAF. The airlifting capabilities of the C-17 ‘Globemaster’ are 80 tonnes, which is double that of the Russian Il-76, which is able to carry 40 tonnes. The strategic airlifter C-130J Super Hercules, in turn, can carry 20 tonnes in comparison to the Russian An-32 air lifting capability of 4-6 tonnes.
“With the induction of C-17s and C-130s, the IAF’s strategic airlift capability has seen a quantum jump. Along with this maneuverability and onboard avionics of the two aircraft are far superior to the previous transport aircraft because of being new. Another capability C-130J has is to land and take off from unprepared surfaces,” another source added.
The two US transporters have a technological edge over their Russian counterparts in terms of their propulsion systems. The C-17 has four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofan power packs, and the C-130J-30s has four Rolls-Royce AE 2100D3 turboprop engines, each rated at 4,591 shaft horsepower or 3,425 kW.
These engines pack more power for the aircraft to operate under extreme conditions. On the other hand, the Il-76s are powered with four Aviadvigatel PS-90-76 turbofan engines and the An-32 by two ZMKB Progress AI-20DM turboprop power packs, respectively.
The Russian An-32 and IL-76s have been the mainstay of the IAF’s airlift capability. It was an An-32 that reactivated the strategic airbase of Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) in the northern Himalayas after 43 years. However, with the limited load-carrying capacity of the Russian transport aircraft, the IAF decided to land a C-130J here.
The C-130J landed at DBO, the world’s highest airfield at 16,614 feet, close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China around ten years ago. Since then, it and another American transporter, the C-17 Globemaster, have become a conduit to project the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) might both on the country’s borders and thousands of miles away.
Strategic Airlift Capability Is Critical
The importance of strategic airlift cannot be stressed enough as the IAF’s prompt deployment of troops right after independence helped save Srinagar from the clutches of an advancing tribal army embedded with Pakistan Army regulars.
On October 27, 1947, three Dakotas carrying troops of the First Battalion of the Sikh Regiment touched down in Srinagar just in time to save the airfield from falling into the enemy’s hand.
The Dakotas thereafter carried out sustained sorties airlifting oxygen, and de-icing equipment important to operate at high altitudes and freezing weather.
This was followed by Operation Sledge by Pakistan in early 1948 when it attempted to seize the areas of Skardu, Kargil, and Zozila and ultimately wrest control of the Leh Valley. Air Commodore Mehar Singh led the first airlanded task force into Leh to foil this attempt. The Dakotas from the 12 Squadron opened an airbridge to Leh by ferrying in two hundred and fifty soldiers and saved Leh.
The C-17s and C-130s helped India stand up to a bigger adversary on its Eastern border in 2020. Twenty Indian soldiers died in a bloody clash with the Chinese forces in the Galwan Valley.
The PLA build-up on the Chinese side has been large. Galwan has been one of the trigger points of the 1962 war between India and China. In 2020, troops remained entrenched on their respective sides. The Chinese had pitched over 80 tents on their Chinese side.
The Indian Armed Forces did not lose any time and swung into action. Its entire transport fleet, including the C-130s and C-17s, were deployed. They airlifted 68000 troops, 330 infantry vehicles, and over 90 tanks and artillery guns, outfoxing China.
Plans are underway to expand the Nyoma Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in eastern Ladakh into a full-fledged operating base. Fighter aircraft and bigger transport aircraft like C-17 will be able to take off and land there. The Nyoma ALG is made of mud, allowing only specialized transport aircraft like the C-130J and helicopters to land.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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