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Simply put: Why raining fire on Maoist rebels could singe the state too

In gunship mode, the medium machine gun fitted in the helicopter’s nose pod fires. A helicopter in gunship mode is at a much lower spectrum of airpower usage than airstrikes by fighter or bomber aircraft.

Written by Sushant Singh |
Updated: October 27, 2015 1:29:34 am

Commandos have practised strafing in Chhattisgarh — though IAF has said it won’t undertake offensive strikes on Maoists. SUSHANT SINGH explains the issues

Is firing of small arms from helicopters the same as carrying out airstrikes?

No. Commandos firing small arms from helicopters is not even the same as using an attack helicopter in gunship mode. In gunship mode, the medium machine gun fitted in the helicopter’s nose pod fires. A helicopter in gunship mode is at a much lower spectrum of airpower usage than airstrikes by fighter or bomber aircraft.

On October 21, The Indian Express quoted Chhattisgarh’s Additional DG (Anti-Naxal Ops) R K Vij: “The law has never stopped us from retaliation. We have conducted exercises...” On October 21, The Indian Express quoted Chhattisgarh’s Additional DG (Anti-Naxal Ops) R K Vij: “The law has never stopped us from retaliation. We have conducted exercises…”

What is India’s policy on using airpower against domestic insurgencies?

Jawaharlal Nehru turned down the Army’s request for use of airpower against Naga insurgents in the mid-1950s, provoking some officers to complain that they were being forced to fight with a hand tied behind their backs. But the Army accepted the limits imposed on the use of heavy force — artillery or airpower — and this has been the standing principle ever since. At its heart also is the understanding that domestic insurgencies need political solutions, that have only limited use for military power.

So, has India never used airpower against domestic insurgents?

Yes, it has — in Mizoram. On February 28, 1966, Mizo National Front rebels captured the government treasury at Aizawl and besieged the 1st Assam Rifles headquarters in the town, along with the posts at Champai, Darngaon, Vaphai, Lungleh and Demagiri, which housed both the troops and their families. Indira Gandhi ordered out Hunter and Toofani aircraft which used guns and air-to-ground rockets to break the rebel siege. On March 4, 1966, Hunter and Toofani formations attacked predesignated targets in Aizawl.

Has it ever contemplated the use of helicopter gunships against insurgents?

Following the success of armed helicopters in the Kargil War, it was decided, in 2000, to use helicopter gunships against terrorists in the Kashmir Valley. Two Mi-35s were prepared for the role — but after a couple of failed attempts at coordinating with the Army officer who could not be accommodated in the cockpit, a decision was taken to use the bigger Mi-17s instead. An Mi-17 crew did, on one occasion, fire at militants on the ground, but the results could not be ascertained.

In Kargil, the Pakistanis were on snow-bound terrain with no vegetation, far from inhabited areas. During Valley missions, on the other hand, helicopters had to operate close to populated areas with vegetation that was dense at places — providing terrorists cover, and making it very difficult to distinguish friend from foe from the air. The experiment was quickly abandoned.

What is the argument for not using helicopter gunships in Chhattisgarh?

If the conflict has not been found severe enough for the Army to be called out, it follows that there is little rationale for using the IAF either. Induction of the IAF could appear as an admission of the Maoists’ strength, reinforce the air of invincibility about them, and have a negative psychological impact on the population. If the Maoists succeed in downing a helicopter, the pressure to retaliate could lead to the deployment of fighter aircraft — an escalation that must be avoided.

Again, given the thickly forested terrain of Chhattisgarh, and the manner in which Maoists often operate — mixing with the rural population — it will be difficult to distinguish innocents from insurgents. The US air force has made mistakes in Afghanistan, and the level of technology at which Indian forces operate is far lower. Any killing of innocents will be counterproductive in counterinsurgency ops, which are about controlling the terrain and winning over the population.

Also, breaching the principle of no use of heavy force in counterinsurgency will establish a new threshold for using airpower internally. Security forces could start expecting its use more frequently in disturbed areas.

And what is the argument for using helicopter gunships in Chhattisgarh?

A helicopter is most vulnerable while coming in to land and, if shot at, the immediate reaction of the pilot is to raise the “collective” and fly out of the danger bubble. It follows, therefore, that there is a case for sanitising the landing area by offensive fire from the air prior to the helicopter sitting down. The IAF could also have another helicopter hovering in perch, looking out for hostile activity from the ground, and answering it with machinegun fire. During the Algerian insurgency, the French mastered the art of clearing the landing ground of insurgents by offensive action, and timing the arrival of helicopters just after such actions. The troop-carrying helicopters would also be similarly covered from the air. Attack helicopters could also be used to neutralise Maoist camps from the air, and troops could then be used for mopping-up operations.

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