IAF HADR and Casevac Capability – First Responder – Immediate Relief and Saving Lives

HADR by Indian Air Force, India ARMY Rescue missions

The speed at which the Indian Air Force (IAF) moved equipments, personnel and National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) teams in anticipation of Cyclone ‘Vayu’ in June 2019 and earlier after earthquake in Sikkim or Nepal, or floods in Uttarakhand  had again and again highlighted its first responder capability. The world praised India for its “remarkable” response and described the country’s disaster management capabilities as sophisticated and advanced and greatly appreciated India playing a regional role. India has come a long way since the Bhopal gas leak disaster of 1984, 1999 Orissa Cyclone, 2001 Bhuj Earthquake, and December 2004 Tsunami, both in capability and response. India’s handling of the devastating Uttarakhand flood and Category 5 super cyclone Phailin in Orissa in 2013 also won international praise. Extremely severe cyclonic storm Fani in Bay of Bengal in April 2019 required move of around a million people to safer places. The death toll in such storms have greatly reduced because of proactive actions. Acquisition of Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and Lockheed Martin C-130-J to augment the existing fleet of Russian IL-76 and An-32 aircraft has given IAF global reach and heavy-lift capability. A large fleet of easily deployable helicopters makes India a great regional player for disaster management.

IAF Helicopters during the devastating Uttarakhand floods 2013. Picture Source: dailymail.co.uk

Recent HADR Operations by IAF

Cyclone Vayu of 13 June 2019 was expected to generate gale winds of 145 kmph gusting to 160 kmph over Gujarat coast.  IAF C-17s were used to airlift 154 NDRF personnel and their load from Patna to Jamnagar for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief  (HADR). One C-17 airlifted 152 NDRF personnel from Arakkonam and another lifted 160 personnel from Vijayawada. IAF helicopters were augmented and in place in various places in Gujarat. Cyclone Fani in April 2019 in the Bay of Bengal and earlier Cyclone Phailin in October 2013 in which 12 million people were affected. In both cases IAF’s transport aircraft and helicopter fleets flew round the clock on HADR missions. On 30 May 2018, a major fire in New Delhi’s Malviya Nagar was brought under control by IAF’s Mi-17 helicopters using Bambi Buckets to drop 8,000 liters of water picked up from the Yamuna river.  On 5 June 2018, the ‘Himalayan Dragons’ based at Air Force Station Sarsawa undertook challenging casualty evacuation of 3 Israeli nationals whose vehicle had fallen down in a gorge on the way to Rohtang Pass. On 13 June 2018 Chetak Helicopter of IAF evacuated 2 lying casualties to Jammu from a location of 8800 Ft altitude, injured in a bus accident in Bhadarwah in J&K. On 15 June 2018 three Mi 17 helicopters undertook operations in flood affected areas of Tripura. On 18 June 2018 a Mi-17 V5 Helicopter doused the flames on a merchant vessel MV SSL on the shores of Sunderbans using Bambi bucket operations carrying 15000 liters of water in 6 shuttles. 

IAF’s Mi-17 helicopters using Bambi Buckets, New Delhi’s Malviya Nagar Picture Source: The Indian Express

For three months, starting 18 June 2018, the IAF created an air-bridge between Pithoragarh and Gunji, to airlift 1080 registered passengers to Gunji to enable them to continue their journey for the coveted annual Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. On 14 September 2018, the IAF airlifted 55 tonnes of relief material to Bangladesh, which had witnessed a surge in Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar, using C-17 Globemaster strategic heavy lift cargo aircraft. Another C-17 aircraft followed with additional relief materials. When a 9.1 undersea earthquake on 26 December 2004 produced devastating Tsunami waves, as high as 65-100ft across the world, India became one of the 14 countries affected. The IAF swung into action. IL-76, AN-32s, AVRO, Do-228 and helicopters were all also pressed into service for the relief and rescue operations for Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The flash floods often dubbed as ‘Himalayan Tsunami’ which ravaged the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal in June 2013, saw some gallant and spirited rescue missions flown by IAF transport and helicopter fleet as part of ‘Op Rahat’. Every winter an air bridge is set by IAF between Jammu/Udhampur when heavy snow cuts off the Kashmir valley and Ladakh regions. IAF often helps Power Grid Corporation to re-erect towers and restore electricity in Kashmir during heavy snow when some HT towers fall. The city of Male on 04 Sep 14, suffered a major drinking water crisis with breakdown of its main RO plant. The city had to be sustained with over 100T of drinking water per day till the plant was operational again. The IAF deployed three C-17 and three IL-76 aircraft to airlift packaged water to Male. IAF and Air India also played the major role in evacuating 4640 Indians and 960 foreign nationals of 41 countries from war torn Yemen in March 2015 under grave risk conditions. Eleven evacuation trips were undertaken by IAF aircraft. There are unending stories of support to the countrymen in distress. 

C-17 Evacuating Indians from war torn Yemen. Picture Source: thenational.ae

Emergency Management

Disaster or Emergency management helps nations reduce vulnerabilities and cope with the aftermath, reducing mortality and economic loss from the disaster. Disaster could be caused by an act of terror, industrial accident, public disorder, natural calamity like earthquake, fire, cyclone etc. Ideally there is need to anticipate potential risks and plan to reduce probability of occurrence. Often it still will occur and that would require graded response. The disaster management is all about Readiness, Response, Reduction (Mitigation) and Recovery. The first stage is the incident location and gravity assessment so that action can be directed. An aerial survey is the fastest and best means to achieve this. Aircraft with specialised surveillance cameras, helicopters with observers, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) with special day and night payloads are ideally suited for this. They will be able to instantly communicate the same through data transmission and through radio instructions. Stage II is delivery of initial men and materials for immediate rescue. Heavy equipment from far-flung areas and foreign lands is moved by large transport aircraft to nearest functional airports. Further air movement could be through heavy/medium lift helicopters. Most critical equipment needed initially is to clear rubble to search for survivors and basic survival necessities like drinking water, food, first aid kits, tent age and blankets, emergency lights, and communication kits, including cell-phone chargers. After the immediate threat to human life has been handled starts the recovery stage. Aerial supplies through helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft drop to contain famine or epidemic is the next stage. Positioning doctors, medicines and food supplies are crucial. The air operations are speedier, allow flexibility, and are more scientifically executed. 

Local Nepalese being evacuated by An Indian Air Force (IAF) Mi-17 V5 helicopter. Picture Source:  dailymail.co.uk

Disaster Management in India

55 per cent of India’s landmass is prone to earthquakes; 68 per cent is vulnerable to drought; 12 per cent to floods; and 8 per cent to cyclones apart from the heat waves, and severe storms. The Disaster Management Act of 2005 provides the blue print for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and clearly species the roles of the Centre, the State, and the District authorities. On the basis of the act, the Disaster Management Policy of India was framed in 2009.The orientation was changed from relief-centric to a holistic approach involving diverse scientific, engineering, social, and financial processes, and encompasses prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, relief, and rehabilitation. Due resource constraints, the state and the district levels invariably have to use military and central help. For earthquakes, tsunami, floods and cyclones, Home ministry is the nodal agency. Other disaster like drought (Agriculture), biological (Health &Family Welfare), Nuclear (Atomic Energy), air accident (Civil Aviation), and rail (Railways) are handled by specialised ministries. NDMA at the centre is chaired by the Prime Minister. Similarly, State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) is headed by the Chief Minister. District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) is headed by the District Commissioner who utilises the home guards and emergency fire services to support relief. Concurrently, the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) at New Delhi focuses on human resource development, capacity building, training, research, documentation, and policy advocacy. There are 10 battalions of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) comprising 144 specialised teams who have been trained for various types of disasters. Four battalions are trained to handling radiological, nuclear, biological, and chemical disasters. Notwithstanding, the civil administration’s ability is inadequate. As a result, they relay on the armed forces for major emergency responses. During the Sikkim earthquake of September 2011, the state and the central authorities along with the NDRF had fallen short in terms of personnel and logistic backup, and the armed forces—primarily the army and the air force—were called out for response and relief operations.

IAF moves NDRF Personnel and Equipment. Picture Source: thehindu.com

Military the Ultimate Back Up

Primary task of Indian Armed Forces is to guard the national borders. Officially for disaster response, military has a secondary role except in the case of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear events. The national disaster management policy acknowledges the role of the armed forces in disaster management and states that the armed forces are called only when the coping capability of the civil administration is exhausted. It, however, admits that in practice (as has been in the past) the armed forces are deployed immediately and they have responded promptly. Administrative Reforms Commission had recommended that the military should gradually be relieved from disaster handling role. Discipline and efficiency is the first demand in disaster response and relief tasks, which are often dangerous missions and the military invariably is in a position to bring order in post-disaster operations. The required wherewithal including the command, control and communication, are available with the field formations. Preparing for military operations other than war (MOOTW), of which disaster is the main component is a part of military training. At the national level, the Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff is a part of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the NDMA. 

IAF dramatic visuals of flood relief ops in Gujarat 2015. Picture Source: oneindia.com

Quick Response Capability of IAF 

IAF fixed wing transport assets which include 11 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, 17 Ilyushin Il-76 (40 ton), 11 C-130 J-30 Super Hercules (1 more on order), 59 Hawker Siddley 748 communication aircraft (To be replaced by 56 EADS CASA C-295), 100 Antonov An-32 (6.5 ton), many of which have been upgraded, and 40 Dornier Do-228 (14 more under order) is a sizeable fleet to deploy for any emergency. The helicopter fleet includes three Mil Mi-26 heavy lift (Being replaced by 15 Boeing CH-47 Chinook), 240 Mi-17 class medium-utility, 60 HAL Dhruv (45 more on order), and 88 Chetak/cheetah light helicopters. The C-130J can carry loads up to 33 tons including 74 stretchers. Forward looking infrared systems, night vision capability, and all-weather operations are a big asset.  The aircraft’s optimised engine power, allows superior short-airfield performance. Boeing C-17 Globemaster III additional roles include medical evacuation and airdrop duties and aircraft has ability to operate from short and rough airstrips. C-17 lifts 77.5 ton. It is ideal for mass casualty evacuation, VIP evacuation, nuclear contingencies etc. among many other roles. Air-ambulance is another role that supports disaster rescue and relief. The evacuation of Indians from Kuwait in 1991 and the airlift to safety of Kashmiris after recent floods are examples of air transport operations. Chinook helicopters have been inducted into IAF in March 2019. First unit is formed in Chandigarh. Second unit will be in the east in Dinjan near east of Dibrugarh . Each Chinook can carry goods and cargo weighing up to 9.6 tonnes. The helicopters will greatly enhance IAF’s HADR capability, including medical evacuation, search and rescue missions, and aircraft recovery. Chinook is also suited for operations in the Himalayas and has the capability to ferry heavy cargo like road construction equipment over difficult terrain.

IAF’s Chinook helicopter undertaking operations in high-altitude Siachen glacier in Ladakh. Picture Source: thehitavada.com

IAF Coordination With Agencies 

The transport and helicopter fleets of the Indian Air Force (IAF) are the round-the-year work horses for the disaster relief. Reconnaissance aircraft are also often used. IAF has its own emergency response teams co-located with major transport bases at Hindon, Palam, Bangalore, Guwahati and Chandigarh. It also has Rapid Aero Medical Teams (RAMT) positioned at vantage locations. All IAF bases have coordination with local Indian Army units and the NDRF battalions, all of which are manned by uniformed para-military personnel. During 2001 Bhuj Earthquake the runway at Bhuj air base itself was cracked. It was crucial for all relief operations to first make the runway operational. IAF pilots landed on partial runway to move critical repair equipment. Airbase was made fully operational in 48 hours and the follow up aerial rescue and relief won national praise. Similarly during Tsunami in 2004, at the southern most airbase of the country at Car Nicobar Islands, IAF lost 116 personnel and families and bulk of the southernmost Indian airbase. The base was quickly recovered with the help of Indian Navy and made operational. IAF helicopters are undertaking rescue and relief operations all the year around. Some areas of J&K are cut-off every winter during heavy snow-fall. The valley itself gets cut-off a few times each year. IAF sets up air-bridge to move stranded men and materials. Similarly cyclones hitting India’s east-coast invariably require air rescue operations. The Kosi river breach in Bihar in 2008, which was declared a national calamity, IAF saved over a thousand by air evacuation. During 2009 Cyclone Aila, IAF flew island-hopping in flood affected West Bengal often risking helicopter safety on soggy ground. Helicopters also rescue skiers during landslides. NDRF battalions are moved to the disaster areas by the transport fleet of the IAF along with their equipment. The drills have been well taped up. Flood relief by army boats, Air Force helicopters, and aircraft is an annual feature and considered as the mandate to aid civil authorities during calamities. Armed Forces are proud of the fact that invariably they are the ‘first to enter and the last to leave’.

IAF helicopters rescue the Israeli mountaineer at 18,000 ft. Picture Source: deccanherald.com

Challenges Ahead 

A tendency to over-rely on the military has stunted the initiative, responsibility and accountability of the civil officials. In the Operation Sadbhavana in Jammu and Kashmir armed forces are filling the vacuum in delivery and governance. Flouting norms of construction, ignoring drainage and flouting industrial safety norms often with connivance of officials are cause of man-made disasters? Flood and cyclone prone areas are well known. The civil administration needs to prepare for it. A centre of excellence for disaster management is planned to be set up in the upcoming Indian National Defence University (INDU). Military leaders and troops need to be trained and updated on the various aspects of disasters. Large numbers of young ex-servicemen are also available for enrolment. A retired Indian Army colonel is the director for disaster management training at Nashik based ‘Yashada’ academy, which trains for ‘incident response’ during Kumbh Mela. Russia has a dedicated ‘Ministry for Emergency Situations’. India needs to similarly strengthen civil capabilities. India has been considering to acquire 15 Japanese amphibious aircraft ‘US-2’. The ShinMaywa Industries developed amphibious flying boat has a short take-off (280 m) and landing (330 m) performance over water. It can also operate on land from runways as small as 1.3 km long. Air continues to be the fastest means to assess and deliver relief in any man-made and natural disaster. 

This article was first published in Indian Military Review (IMR). It has since been updated.

Image Credit: IAF

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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