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India’s MHA to run own Air Force

From Ajay Mehta

NEW DELHI – The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has moved ahead with plans for an exclusive air wing that will boast an entire fleet of planes and chopper, except fighter jets of the kind used by the military.

The Rs 2,500-crore plan is said to be a brainchild of the Home Minister. It is seen as a key element of Chidambaram’s drive to boost the internal security apparatus, much like the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) that he is now fighting to keep on track in the face of opposition from several states.

Some of the groundwork for the air wing has been done. The companies have already sent in bids for being chosen as consultants who will advise the government on the “strategy” for the air wing, dubbed by officials as the ministry’s “own little air force”.

The wing will initially comprise eight planes and 16 choppers. These will include the C-130J and AN-32 transport planes, Embraer jets, advanced Mi-17 helicopters and smaller choppers, officials said.

They justified the need for such a wing, saying it was needed to reduce the time taken to respond to exigencies and save money spent on hiring planes. Managing half-a-million paramilitary forces that constantly need to be moved around the country, to fight insurgencies, conduct elections and tackle law-and-order problems, is a challenge and a separate air wing will be of big help, the officials said.

They pointed out that the CRPF and the BSF alone had over two lakh personnel and a lot of money was now spent on leasing planes for them. At present, the ministry has to depend on the Indian Air Force (IAF), for aircraft and pilots. Its own five Dhruv helicopters and two Avro aircraft managed by the BSF lie grounded for dearth of pilots and safety fears sparked by two chopper crashes. It also has an Embraer aircraft.

Once the ministry’s wing takes shape, the BSF’s air division will be wound up, sparing the personnel for guarding borders and fighting Maoists, the officials said. Union Home Secretary R.K. Singh is understood to have cited 26/11 during a recent presentation before the Planning Commission earlier this month to explain the need for such a wing.

“Our security forces did not have an aircraft at their disposal when the Mumbai attack started,” a source quoted Singh as saying. The NSG commandos could not reach Mumbai in time because they could get neither a chopper nor a plane to fly out of Delhi, the officials said. Later, laws were changed making it possible for security forces to use aircraft of any airline in a national emergency.

The cash hunt for the air wing has begun. During his presentation, Singh sought Rs 350 crore in 2012-13, the sources said. The money will have to be set aside in the budget.

The plan, floated last year, is now before the finance ministry’s department of expenditure for approval and home ministry sources expressed confidence that it would be cleared.

So, how long will the “mini air force” take to get air-borne? Once the consultants are picked, the process of buying aircraft will begin by floating tenders.

“The first aircraft delivery could take place only a year after tendering and the whole project would take about three years from the time it is cleared. Work on the wing may start only in 2013,” a source said.

Before that, some procedural wrinkles also need to be ironed out. Existing rules do not allow military aircraft to be designated “civilian”. Also, civilian aircraft cannot land in military facilities. The exercise, therefore, will require co-ordination among the ministries of defence, civil aviation and finance.

The initial amount of Rs 350 crore will be needed for the infrastructure land, buildings and hangars and will come from the plan allocation for the home ministry, the sources said.

The remaining Rs 2,150 crore, which will cover the cost of planes and staff, will be part of non-plan expenditure money allocated to run ongoing projects.

Till the new wing becomes a reality, the ministry will continue to “wet-lease” helicopters and planes because the Indian Air Force does not have either aircraft or pilots to spare.

Wet-leasing means hiring from private operators who provide the aircraft, the pilots, the fuel and handle maintenance.

Six Mi-17 helicopters have been leased by the ministry for transportation and rescue operations in Maoist-affected states.

The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) will soon get at least two such helicopters on lease. The force needs them for patrolling the border and for high-altitude search and rescue operations.

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