The Jaguar ground attack fighters come in from 7 ’clock, the Sukhoi 30 multi-role from 5 ’clock. Inside the cockpit of the huge Ilyushin 78, there is a steady thrum from the engines. Squadron Leader Tapesh Shankar and co-pilot Squadron Leader Milind Kumar depress buttons on the joysticks and speak into headphones.
Shankar and Kumar are from an exclusive squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF) commanded by Group Captain Shouvik Roy. Roy has today despatched a crew overseas, to Tashkent, to fly back an IL-78 — the fifth for his squadron.
Roy’s 78 Mid Air Refuelling Squadron (MARS) is redefining the way the IAF fighters will wage future battles. It is now buttressing its operational doctrine with strategic depth. For the moment, though, Roy is monitoring what his pilots here in this aircraft — Astra 1 — are doing.
“Harpoon 1 to line up at port,” Shankar commands into the headphones. “Harpoon 2 at starboard and Romeo 1 at the tail”. “Harpoon” is the call sign for the Jaguars, “Romeo” is the Sukhoi.
On the port side, the propeller at the head of the fuel pod under the huge wing of Shankar’s and Kumar’s Astra 1 starts spinning and sends a hose floating out. That happens from the Astra 1 starboard wing, too. At the tip of the hoses are funnels called drogues.
Behind, obscured from view, another hose has floated out and a fighter has docked in. Now, to port, “Harpoon 1” lines up. It is less than a third of the size of the IL78. The speeds synchronise at 500 kmph. The aircraft are “RV-ing” — jargon for rendezvous — in the IAF’s central command area. Astra 1 has taken off from Agra, the Jaguars from Gorakhpur and the Su 30 from Bareilly. They are joined by Mirage 2000s from Gwalior.
On the port side where Harpoon 1 is flying parallel to Astra 1, the pilot of the Jaguar is wearing a white helmet with a dark visor. Just ahead of his cockpit the fuel probe juts out in an inverted . The Jaguar reduces speed, gets behind the wing of Astra 1, levels with the hose and accelerates. The probe mates with the drogue, pushing the hose a little deeper into the pod. Harpoon 2 — the other Jaguar at starboard — does the same.
Astra 1 is the IL-78 midair refueller and we are inside it flying at 17,000 feet in airspace between Lucknow and Gorakhpur. From this height, the turbid water of the Ganga looks like it is plaited into brown strands.
The air force is flying a media team through an exercise to showcase its midair refuellers, now fully convinced of their utility after testing them in a gruelling 40,000 km run to Alaska and in a wargame with the Americans.
Astra 1 now nurses three fighters, each connected to it by the hose. Aviation turbine fuel is being pumped through the hose and the drogue of the IL78, through the probe of the Jaguars at 500 litres per minute. The SU 30 guzzles more fuel and quenches thirst at up to 620 litres a minute.
Astra 1’s cavernous belly holds two yellow tanks capable of storing 44,000 litres; together with the capacity in its wings, the FRA (Flight Refueller Aircraft) can hold up to 85,000 litres.
Within a few minutes the fighters signal that they don’t want any more fuel. Probes and drogues disengage but not till Squadron Leader Shankar, the pilot of Astra 1, gives the command. The Jaguars fly parallel again, the pilot with the white-and-black headgear nods in acknowledgement, the aircraft banks and flies off, a speck on the horizon seconds later, off to another mission without having needed to fly back to base.
Astra 1 has just ensured that an IAF fighter can perform multiple missions without needing to cut down on flying time, without having to take excess fuel and with the ability for excess payload — like more weaponry — for operations.
Astra 1 is the first aircraft in 78 MARS, acquired last year. Next month, Group Captain Shouvik Roy expects to increase the strength of the squadron to six aircraft with the addition of two more IL 78s. The refuellers now enable the aircraft to project power over vast distances.
“We have been exercising continuously,” says Squadron Leader Kumar. One exercise, for example, involves Sukhoi 30 Mki fighters taking off from their base in Pune, firing in a mock drill over ranges near Pokhran in the Rajasthan desert, “RV-ing” with a ‘thirst quencher’ over Alwar, flying to another mission over ranges near Tezpur in Assam, “RV-ing” with an Astra over Bagdogra in north Bengal and flying back to base in Pune after a bombing run in ranges in Madhya Pradesh.
What does this mean in a war scenario? It means, not only that IAF fighters can fly longer and on multiple missions — testing the endurance of pilots — but are being enabled to open two fronts against an adversary, attacking not only from one direction but also from the rear.
The refuellers are being inducted following a Rs 800-crore deal signed in 2001. With the addition of two more IL78s by the end of next month, the Uzbek firm, Tashkent Aircraft Corporation and the Israeli Aircraft Industries (which is supplying the fuel pods) will have completed the deliveries. The IAF’s force multiplying refuellers incorporates technologies from five countries.