Maiden landing at Mechuka by the C-17

Issue: 11 / 2016By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By IAF

In a major boost to the country’s rapid airlift capability in Arunachal Pradesh, on November 3, 2016, the mighty C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlift aircraft made its first landing at the advanced landing ground (ALG) at Mechuka. At an elevation of 6,200 ft above mean sea level and with a runway length of only 4,200 feet, the huge transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) landed successfully, validating its short field landing performance at high altitude. “This is a quantum jump from the existing capability of the Antonov An-32 and the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. Such airlift capability facilitates speedy transfer of men and material in this rugged terrain, interspersed with valleys and high mountain ranges that inhibit road connectivity,” a statement by the IAF said.

Mechuka, a small town in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, 500 km from the capital city of Itanagar, is just 29 km from the Sino-Indian border. Minutes away by air from the Sino-Indian border, this tiny city was one of the several strategic locations during the war in 1962 between India and China. After the Sino-Indian conflict, in that year, the IAF had begun operating at this ALG with the DC-3 Dakota tactical transport aircraft and the Otter light transport aircraft, the latter used primarily for communication duties. However, in the mid-1980s, these aircraft were replaced by the newly inducted Antonov An-32 medium tactical transport aircraft. But in the absence of a proper runway and other support facilities, the intensity of operations at the Mechuka ALG had been low and the An-32 aircraft were used more to para drop supplies than for landing missions. It was only in the year 2013 that a decision was taken by the IAF to upgrade the ALG at Mechuka. The upgraded ALG was declared operational two-and-a-half years later. The commissioning of this facility brought the total number of upgraded and operational ALGs in the state of Arunachal Pradesh to six.

Arunachal Pradesh has an international boundary with China that is 1,080 km long. On account of the absence of proper road connectivity, the state continues to be heavily dependent on the IAF for the transportation of food and other essential items particularly to the inhabitants of areas not easily accessible by surface transport. It was during the 65th Plenary session of the North Eastern Council in Shillong held in the month of May this year that the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh had requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi for opening up of eight ALGs for civilian use and upgrading of 26 helipads spread across the state. Apart from military use, the upgraded ALGs and helipads are expected to provide a significant boost to the tourism industry in the state.

In the last few years, the IAF has been engaged in a concerted effort to develop infrastructure in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh along the Sino-Indian border and has been validating these facilities through trial landings by the latest aircraft inducted into service. In August 2013, the IAF landed a C-130J Super Hercules four-engine tactical transport aircraft, at the world’s highest and recently activated ALG at Daulat Beg Oldi located in the vicinity of Siachen. In Arunachal Pradesh, apart from Mechuka, the ALGs at Aalo, Ziro, Tuting, Pasighat and Tezu have also been recently upgraded and operationalised. In August this year, the upgraded ALG at Pasighat was inaugurated by Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs. The IAF validated the operational status of the ALG at Pasighat though a landing by a Sukhoi Su- 30MKI combat aircraft there for the first time ever. The ALG is also capable of operating the C-130J Super Hercules as well.

Carried out amidst the ongoing standoff against China, the landing on November 3 this year at Mechuka ALG by a C-17 Globemaster III on a runway that is only 4,200 feet long, not only validated its short field landing capability even at high altitude, but it also clearly reflects the growing commitment of the IAF to secure its international borders along China even in the far-flung North East region of the country. The ALGs in Arunachal Pradesh as also in Ladakh will help rapid transportation of men and material in the rugged mountainous terrain where road and rail connectivity is most inadequate. In this context, operationalisation of ALGs in the regions bordering hostile China to accommodate large transport aircraft such as the C-17 which can deliver a payload of 77 tonnes or 150 fully armed soldiers, is being seen as a major development at a time when China is rapidly developing infrastructure along the line of actual control (LAC) both for military and civilian use. A major spin-off of C-17 Globemaster being able to operate at ALGs in the North East region will the enhance in the capability of the IAF to respond in the event it is called upon to undertake disaster management. It has also been reported that to strengthen military capability, India is also deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance as also missiles in the North East region.

These steps taken by the IAF signify a paradigm shift in focus of the Indian military from being Pakistan-centric to China. This has also contributed to the enhancement of the nation’s military capabilities along the Sino-Indian border in the North East region. This undoubtedly is being seen as a strong message to China which hopefully she will take note of.