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Night copters for Maoist fight

New Delhi, Oct. 5: The chief of the Indian Air Force today said counter-Maoist operations were set to go 24x7 with the deployment of night-flying helicopters shortly, but the government “must put boots on the ground and the infrastructure has to be beefed up”.

“I do not see this (counter-Maoist operations) ending in a big hurry,” said Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, who is also the chairman, chiefs of staff committee, the senior-most military commander in the country.

He announced that the air force would operate in rebel zones at night “from a date I do not want to disclose just now”.

“Op Triveni” — the air force component of the counter-Maoist operations — covers a swathe from Bengal through Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. The command and control centre is at Raipur, where the air force’s tasking officer coordinates with a CRPF inspector-general. The home ministry wants Op Triveni’s ambit widened.

The induction of night-flying machines indicates a scaling up of operations and deployment to military level. Most wars and battles are fought in the dark and the counter-insurgency operations against the Maoists are no exception.

Newly imported Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia would be deployed for Op Triveni but there will be no change in the rules of engagement.

“We will not fire from the air unless we are fired upon,” Browne said. Air force helicopters have taken small-arms fire from the Maoists on the ground four times. The last time, a helicopter was riddled with nine bullets as it evacuated 14 central police troopers after an encounter in Chhattisgarh.

The Russian-origin Mi-17 V5 are multi-utility helicopters that are armoured and have integral weapons that allow them to be used as gunships. A variant of the helicopter was used intensively by the Sri Lankan air force in its battles against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The new helicopters will reinforce or replace six older ones that are currently dedicated to supporting central and state police forces. The older helicopters flew only during daylight. This has led to some bad blood between the central police forces and the air force and, in turn, between the ministry of home affairs (MHA) and the defence ministry.

Browne said that despite poor infrastructure support, IAF helicopters have flown more than 5,000 sorties in the three years of Op Triveni, lifting more than 30,000 troops. Apart from the six helicopters, a crew of 120 airmen and officers and a nodal tasking officer have been based in Raipur.

With the new helicopters, Browne said: “We are going into full-time night-and-day operations that will change things a lot.”

The IAF chief said he had written to the defence minister after complaints from the central police forces that helicopters were either in short supply or the crew were unwilling to fly into danger zones.

“Our points have been appreciated,” he said. The air chief said that he had urged both the Union home ministry and the state governments that “helicopters cannot be everywhere and you need to put boots on the ground” — meaning: pack the zones with more troops.

Browne said the state governments have to work on ground infrastructure —such as hangars for the IAF helicopters —“that would be semi-permanent” and not temporary sheds.

“We have explained to the MHA that you have to start moving on the ground. You cannot put a helo (helicopter) everywhere.... Infrastructure — that is where we have a problem. We were assured of certain infrastructure but we have not got it. It is the MHA’s responsibility now to get cracking with the state governments,” he said.

The IAF contracted 80 Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia in December 2008 for deliveries between 2010 and 2014. The force has got enough to raise four squadrons — two in the north and two in the east. An additional 59 helicopters are being contracted.