Bidanda Chengappa: A case for using air power against Maoists

Bidanda Chengappa
India’s paramilitary forces, which until now had only nine helicopters for anti-Maoist operations, have been sanctioned six more Mi-17 helicopters by the Centre. The expanded fleet strength of helicopters will provide the paramilitary forces much needed agility in their ongoing battle against left-wing extremism, significantly reducing their vulnerability to ambushes while negotiating through jungles on foot or by motorised vehicles.

The nine helicopters presently deployed with the paramilitary forces are from the Indian Air force and the Border Security Force.

These include four Mi-17 choppers of the IAF stationed in Chhattisgarh, two each at Raipur and Jagdalpur, while out of the five ‘Dhruv’ Advanced Light Helicopters of the BSF, three are deployed at Raipur and two at Ranchi in Jharkhand.
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The cabinet committee on Security headed by the prime minister mandates that the IAF and BSF helicopters will be used only for air-mobile transportation and casualty evacuation and not for offensive action. The government in October-November 2009 permitted the IAF to defend itself from Maoist small arms fire and specified conditions for use of weapons in self-defence.

Consequently the IAF fitted sideward-mounted machine guns on its helicopters flying in Maoist-affected areas. The IAF ‘Garud’ commandos flying on-board these helicopters are trained to operate this weaponry. The IAF has drafted ‘Rules of Engagement’ to regulate such action, in order to avoid any ambiguity and damage to helicopters or injury to aircrew.

While helicopters fly the paramilitary or security forces to their target areas to ‘induct’ troops into operations and fly them back after their mission, these whirly birds are exposed for a few minutes to hostile fire while ‘landing’ or ‘taking off. To effectively thwart such hostile attempts to open fire the time-tested solution is to ‘secure’ and ‘sanitise’ the landing zone against such threats.

For instance, Maoists targeted Andhra Pradesh Police Greyhound commandos in 2008 while travelling on a motor-launch in a reservoir near the Andhra-Orissa border with rocket propelled grenades. Such threats need to be neutralised through effective intelligence inputs and avoid cases of rocket propelled grenades or shoulder fired missiles by Maoist groups that can successfully shoot down helicopters.

Officialdom’s rationale that the use of military force, in this case airpower, against one’s own citizens goes against principles of democracy is totally misplaced. Otherwise, how does one explain the use of the army in June 1984 against the late

Bhindranwale-led group of Sikh extremists holed up in the Golden Temple at Amritsar? If the government can choose to use the army to open fire against the Sikh extremists what prevents them from doing so by the Air Force against Maoists? The Union government used airpower in an offensive role as weapon platforms in the northeastern state of Mizoram when the separatist Mizo National Front almost overran the state. This refers to the IAF’s controversial use of fighter aircraft in Mizoram to bomb/strafe insurgent areas in March 1966.

Evidently the government’s decision to use air power to fight left-wing extremism implies a sense of helplessness against an elusive and hard-hitting foe. Now that New Delhi has opted to use helicopters it may as well use these rotary wing aircraft or helicopters, as weapons platforms against the Maoists. The advantages of airpower are primarily swift response, lower casualties, larger area of coverage, ease of access to hostile terrain, total destruction, day and night operations and lastly a psychological advantage against the foe.

The use of airpower against Maoists should prove to be a game changer in terms of a swift response by security forces. To that extent, the helicopter would now primarily be used as a transport platform for anti-Maoist operations and secondarily as a weapon platform only in the event the helicopter crew is compelled to open fire against the Maoists in self-defence.

Considering that the Maoists operate with stealth and surprise against security forces the only way to neutralise them is through ruthless use of airpower.

— The writer is a Visiting Fellow with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi