The test, which was carried out in coordination with the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police of Agra and Mathura, required the designated 'landing strip' to be cleared of all traffic and obstacles. Ahead of today's touch-and-go, the pilot came down to a height of 100 metres before landing off his next approach.
There are only a handful of expressways in the country which are smooth enough for a fighter jet to land and the presence of heavy traffic, pedestrians and stray animals on our roads would make a repeat of today's test a rare occurrence. But the Air Force knows, all too well, that in the event of a war, its airbases will be among the first targets of enemy air action through bombing runs or missile attacks which is why, the use of roads as secondary runways needs to be an option.
While landing an Air Force fighter may be uncommon in India, several air forces in the world frequently test the ability of their pilots to land to land on roads. In Sweden, for example, the overwhelming strength of the Soviet forces during the Cold War would have rendered their airfields inoperable within minutes of a conflict breaking out. This is why, for generations, the Swedes have landed fighters like the Viggen and the Gripen on their road network in densely forested areas which would camouflage the presence of jets. In fact, fighters like the Gripen are specifically designed to land on short roads, refuel, rearm and take-off within a span of 10 minutes. Among other countries, Taiwan, which would face a barrage of Chinese missile attacks in the event of war, regularly lands its own Mirage 2000 jets on highways if ever an emergency situation demands such action. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was known to have constructed massive underground facilities to store its fighter aircraft and protect them from enemy bomb attacks, but given the availability of a new generation of ground and bunker-penetrating ordnance, this option is seen to be both too costly and non-viable, which is why the ability of fighters to land on the civilian road network is considered an asset.
There are few Indian Air Force jets that can realistically land on our network of national highways. Relatively smaller jets like the Mirage 2000, MiG 27 and Jaguar (which are both designed to land on fields in an emergency) may be able to land but the mainstay of the IAF's fighter fleet, the Su-30, is the largest fighter of its class in the world, and would, perhaps, never be deployed for operations like these.
(Vishnu Som is a senior anchor and editor of documentaries and special programs at NDTV)
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