IAF gets nod to fire at Naxals in self-defence

The IAF has got the government`s permission to fire back at Naxals in extremist-hit areas in self-defence, highly-placed Air Force sources said today.

Updated: Aug 12, 2010, 19:31 PM IST

New Delhi: The IAF has got the government`s
permission to fire back at Naxals in extremist-hit areas in
self-defence, highly-placed Air Force sources said today.

The government`s nod to the IAF`s request made in
September last year comes at a time when a debate is raging on
whether India should use its armed forces against left-wing
extremists, whom Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described
as the gravest internal security threat.

The IAF currently deploys two of its Mi-17s and two Dhruv
helicopters in anti-Naxal operations. It had lost one of its
personnel when a helicopter ferrying election officials and
material during the Chattisgarh assembly polls was fired at by
suspected Naxals a couple of years ago.

The government had given permission to the IAF to defend
itself from the extremists` fire and had laid out conditions
on the use of small arms in self-defence sometime in
October-November last year.

Consequently, the IAF has fitted sideward-mounted
machine guns on its helicopters flying in Naxal-affected areas
basically for logistics, personnel transport and casualty
evacuation of paramilitary forces engaged in fighting the
Maoists, the sources said.

These guns would be operated by IAF commandos belonging
to Garud units, who would be on board the helicopters every
time they go out on sorties, the sources said.

Defence Minister A K Antony had told Parliament in
November last year that though no offensive military action
had been envisaged while using the IAF helicopters in
anti-Naxal operations, there was no specific approval required
for action in self-defence.

However, the IAF has proposed a draft `Rules of
Engagement` to regulate such action, in order to avoid any
ambiguity and damage to the helicopters or injury to their
occupants, he had said replying to members` questions.

Among the conditions laid out were that no indiscriminate
firing should be carried out and that the Garuds should be
sure of the source of the attack on the helicopters before
retaliatory fire was unleashed.

These guidelines were issued to ensure there were no
civilian causalities in case the IAF used its guns in
self-defence, the Defence Ministry had explained then.

"The IAF helicopter crew will not use the conventional
heavy fire power weapons such as rockets and other guns on
board, but only the sideward-mounted machine guns. They will
use the weapons only if fired upon," the sources said.

"Fortunately, in these months that we have been allowed
to defend our assets, there has been no occasion when we had
to use the sideward-mounted guns," they said.

The IAF, the sources said, had obtained the government`s
approval recently to withdraw 17 of its Mi-17 helicopters that
are currently in operation with various UN missions.

Once the number of its helicopters increased, it could
think of sparing more choppers for the paramilitary forces
that were combating the Maoists after assessing the situation,
the sources said.

They said for the use of its helicopters in Maoist-hit
areas, the IAF had asked the state police and the paramilitary
to take a number of precautions such as sanitising the helipad

"If the Naxals have rockets, as it is being suggested,
the security forces would sanitise the area up to the range of
these rockets, be it 600 metres or more, from the helipads,"
the sources said.

Admitting that the IAF had imposed an 80-hour per month
per helicopter limit for flying, they said it had, in fact,
done more hour-sorties in the last four months than the
prescribed limit.

The helicopters had done an average of 169 hours in
April, 91 hours in May, 118 hours in June and 89 hours in July
this year, they said, denying media reports that the IAF had
refused to fly in the Naxal-affected regions during certain
operations recently.

They said the time limit was set as per IAF`s norms for
all its helicopters, keeping in mind the maintenance and
repairs required for these machines after they had flown for a
specified number of hours.

It was also to have a certain number of platforms
available for operations at any given time.

"In case of a crisis, like the Leh cloudburst, there is
no question of IAF helicopters being denied, so let`s not get
into a blame game," the sources said.

On the question of paramilitary forces wanting a separate
air wing for themselves, the sources said the issue of
operating an aircraft or a helicopter fleet was "complicated
and not simplistic" as it sounded.

They said an air fleet required a large supply chain for
spares, support systems and other logistics, which was not an
easy task.

"Some state governments bought helicopters but found it
difficult to operate them due to the lack of support systems,"
they said.