The Srinagar-Banihal highway may soon double up as an emergency landing strip for Indian Air Force aircraft. This is the first among 13 other such highway landing strips being considered by the Government. The Srinagar-Banihal highway, a part of the Jammu-Srinagar national highway, is also where the Pulwama terror attack took place. A 3.5-km strip of this highway is being considered as part of this project. This is expected to cost almost INR 119 crores. This stretch was identified as part of a study conducted by the Indian Air Force and the National Highways Authority of India.
This is the first IAF-NHAI project of its kind in Jammu & Kashmir. Another one is being planned along the Bijbehera-Chinar Bagh stretch. Bids have been invited for the Srinagar-Banihal emergency landing strip project, with the deadline being set as July 16.
The Government is planning to construct similar special strips across the country. While West Bengal, Odisha, and Gujarat are slated to get one strip, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu will get two. In 2019, a total of 29 such landing strips were being considered across the country. The projects in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh were deemed non-feasible by the transport ministry, while five projects in J&K, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Rajasthan were blocked due to delays in acquiring the necessary wildlife and land-related clearances.
According to a similar announcement made in 2018, Gujarat was to get its first emergency landing strip to be used for disaster relief and emergency rescue purposes. A portion of National Highway №151 near Khambhaliya in the Devbhumi Dwarka district was identified for this purpose. According to the then Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways, Mansukh Mandaviya, INR 83.66 crores were earmarked for the project.
The emergency landing strip in Gujarat was supposed to have parking slots for four aircraft, an air traffic control tower and two gates at each end. The runway was to be constructed on a 5–6 km-long stretch of highway tarmac with a length of up to 60 meters. All obstacles such as electricity and telephone poles, trees and dividers would have to be cleared for the construction of this project.
In 2015, India got its very first highway landing strip on a stretch of the Yamuna Expressway in Uttar Pradesh. This project, completed at a cost of INR 13,000 crores, was the first one of its kind that could be used in combat operations. In 2016, six fighter aircraft successfully landed in the Agra-Lucknow stretch of the Yamuna Expressway, making it the first successful field test of the concept.
Throughout the world, highways have been used as emergency landing strips because of their ease of operation. In a sense, the better the road connectivity, the more flexible a nation’s air force becomes. During the Second World War, Finland was one of the first countries in the world to realize the potential advantages of using secondary runways, which is the reason why they fought the Soviets in 1940 by re-deploying aircraft to frozen lakes. The Soviet air attacks on Finnish air bases proved futile, and the numerically inferior Finns won the war. As a result, the Finnish Air Force made it a point to model their entire air doctrine around the ability to operate from less-than-ideal surfaces (fields, dirt roads, rural roads, frozen lakes, etc.) Currently, all their fighter divisions are trained to operate from highway strips. In 2016, for example, they flew F/A-18C BAE Hawk, Pilatus PC-12 and C 295M aircraft from a highway in Lusi. They even fashioned arresting cables for the F/A-18C’s from those used in aircraft carriers.
The Swedish Bas 60 and Bas 90 airbase systems, on the other hand, prescribed the defensive dispersal of air assets over a large spread of land. In a conventional military base, all aircraft or air assets are housed close to each other for easy access, sometimes in hardened hangars. The Swedish used to house their fighter aircraft in temporary shelters constructed on road runways. Thus, in the event of an attack, the damage would be minimal as most of the assets were spread so far apart that it would prove too time-consuming for an enemy to take out each asset one by one. On the other hand, since the aircraft were spread far apart, they could defend a much larger area.
The Pakistan Air Force has already demonstrated its ability to operate fighter aircraft from highways twice. In 2000, a PAF F-7P fighter, a Super Mushak trainer and a C-130 landed and took off from the M2 motorway connecting Islamabad and Lahore. Then, in 2010, a PAF Mirage and an F-7P landed, refueled and took off from the same motorway in an exercise called the Highmark 2010.
India has the second-largest road network in the world. At a total length of more than 43 lakh kilometers, the Indian road network is one of the most well-connected road systems in the world. Time we put it to use.
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