Military helicopters, flying sorties to ferry troops and logistics for anti-Naxal operations in Maoist-affected states, are facing threat of being hit mid-air by gunfire and even from improvised rockets fired from the ground.
The helicopters, including those from the Indian Air Force, have now been forced to take additional safety measures and alter their flight plans after repeated attempts by Naxals to hit them, endangering the lives of airborne troops of forces like CRPF and BSF.
An increasing number of incidents where the Maoists used Light Machine Guns (LMGs) to target the IAF Mi-17 choppers and other chopper variants have alarmed security and snoop agencies, prompting them to issue precautionary advisories for the crew operating the helicopters.
Officials say the Border Security Force (which operates the air wing) and the IAF have been asked to undertake mandatory measures like altering their flight path during a two-way flight, avoiding flying close to a hilly terrain and preparing a contingency plan in case of any exigency.
“The Naxals have never attempted firing a rocket (at a chopper) but it is understood that they possess some crude and local variants of rocket launchers which can be used for any audacious strike on security forces,” an official deployed in the anti-Naxal operations grid in Chhattisgarh said.
In March, when the CRPF was preparing to launch operations in the Naxal hotbed of Abujhmaad in Chhattisgarh, at least seven bullets hit the rotors of the IAF chopper.
Another similar incident occurred in April when a military helicopter was hit by bullets fired by the Naxals in Jharkhand’s Latehar district when it was about to take-off after lifting injured jawans.
“While the IAF choppers are armoured below the cockpit area, the entire belly is exposed to the enemy gunfire which could take the helicopter down. A number of incidents where bullet-inflicted damages to these machines were reported over the last few months,” a senior paramilitary official said.
While flying, the LMGs mounted onboard these helicopters would not be able to counter any gunfire originating from the ground and hence it has been advised that the choppers should shun taking the same route while returning, lest someone is ready to take an aim on it, the official added.
The security forces have also increased sanitising drills around the helipads constructed deep inside jungles as the helicopters can be targeted while landing or take-off.
“Essentially, the helipads are constructed at a place where there are no hilly features around. In case it is not possible, these features are sanitised and dominated by security forces,” the official said.
Security officials say while the choppers are the most vital machine when it comes to airlifting injured men, sending reinforcements or food supplies to the conflict zone, the threat of being hit from the ground has become a headache as preventive measures consume a lot of time which is not always possible in areas which are dominated by Maoist.
While the BSF has grounded its entire fleet of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) ‘Dhruv’ following air crashes, the four IAF Mi-17 are the mainstay for the about 80 battalions (80,000 personnel) of various central forces deployed for anti-Maoist operations.