Dual-use airfields and expressway strips: A great asset for air power and nation building

Airport development being a capital intensive and ‘long lead time’ project of national interest, it is desirable that requirements of both Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Civil Aviation converge so as to optimally utilise the newly constructed airports

Air Marshal Anil Chopra February 06, 2023 18:21:49 IST
Dual-use airfields and expressway strips: A great asset for air power and nation building

Su-30 MKI landing on the Barmer National Highway Image courtesy IAF

Amid border clashes in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, India found that the Shigatse dual-use military and civilian airport in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has seen upgraded and now hosts fighter jets, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Shigatse is the second largest city in TAR. The airport is approximately 155 km north of the India-China border, and at an elevation of 3,782 metres (12,408 ft) is one of the highest in the world.

Practically all the 11 airfields facing India in TAR and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are dual use. The Lhasa Gongkar Airport in Tibet was one of two first pilot airports to implement the ‘integration’. A joint statement from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and General Administration of Civil Aviation (CAAC) had announced that the integration will include joint maintenance of airport support facilities, joint flight safety support and joint airport management. China uses the dual-use airports in the Himalayas to transport PLA soldiers and strategic materials, and also for use by its 15th Airborne Corps.

The Delhi-Vadodara-Mumbai Expressway will have at least 55 locations where a fighter aircraft can land and take off in an emergency. The straight stretches would be three kilometres long and 20 metres wide. Portable lighting systems would be available. Earlier, the Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters and transport aircraft landed and took off Purvanchal Expressway, Agra-Lucknow expressway, and Jamuna expressway, among others.

Growth of civil aviation in India

India’s civil aviation industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation and the fastest-growing in the world. India has third largest passenger air traffic in the world, and civil aviation will contribute $30 billion yearly to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2024. DGCA’s latest data reveals that there are 5,969 aircraft movements daily, and 123.2 million passengers travelled by air in India in 2022. India’s total air passenger traffic is would more than double by 2030. India currently operates a fleet of 700 passenger aircraft, and will require 2,210 new aircraft in next two decades. India would have around 190-200 operational airports by 2040. The top 31 cities may have two airports while the cities of Delhi and Mumbai three each. Seventy new airports will be Greenfield, and the rest will be second airports or expansion of existing airfields. Future civil aviation would include unmanned urban air mobility.

Dual-Use Airfields

Runway and airfield infrastructure are an expensive asset. To promote economic growth and tourism through greater air access, and have additional airfields for military use, the spare aircraft handling capacity of some airfields is put to dual use. Practically all countries of the world including India have dual-use airfields. These could mean a military airbase having a civil enclave, or a civil airport having an air force station. Such network of airports not only enables the growth of domestic economy and tourism but also facilitates military and paramilitary operations during various contingencies that include war, natural disaster/calamities and other internal disturbances.

There are distinct requirements of military and civil operations, and these need to be catered for. The military aircraft could require specific to type aircraft arrester barriers at far end of the runway. Aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) equipment and crew need to be worked out jointly. Often the two sides could have their own crew and ARFF equipment centrally under the parent air traffic control (ATC). The two sides could have requirement of different approach and navigational aids. The ATC controllers are cross-trained to handle both requirements. The security sensitivities have the two sides are catered for by having taxiway barriers separating the military and civil portions.

In India the dual-use system is now time tested. More and more airfields are being converted for dual use. Most the Indian Air Force (IAF) advanced landing grounds in the east and also some in the Ladakh region are being made dual use. IAF aircraft have also carried out trial operations at many civil airports in the North East for short durations even though they have not been formally converted into dual use. Such aerodromes will be available during Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) missions during natural calamities, IAF aircraft emergency diversion requirements, and during war. The IAF could also use of these airports for dispersing assets during war. IAF and civil side also operate many helicopters. In the future both sides will operate increasing number of unmanned systems.

The RCS-UDAN scheme has accelerated the process of dual-use airfields. The airports at India’s Island territories are mostly dual use. The IAF works closely with the Airport Authority of India (AAI) and other airfield operators through structured regular meetings. The IAF and civil radars are already being networked for better all-India coverage. There is close coordination for use of, fast getting more congested, airspace.

Evolution of Highway Strips

The highway strips or road-runway sections were initially built for military aircraft to land or even to serve as military airbases during WW II. In any war the main military airbases will be primary targets of the enemy and are highly vulnerable and could be destroyed or severely damaged. The first highway strips were constructed near the end of WW II by Nazi Germany. The Reich autobahn system allowed aircraft to use the motorways. In the Cold War highway strips were built on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Other than the two Germanys, North Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Poland, Pakistan, China, Czechoslovakia and Australia also have highway strips. These strips were usually of 2 to 3.5 km long straight sections of the highway, and had removable central partings to allow airplanes to use full width of the road. Some places parking aprons and short taxiways were also built. The specialised equipment of a typical airfield were often stored somewhere nearby. The highway strips would be operationalised typically 24 to 48 hours in advance. The road would need to be swept to remove all debris before any aircraft movement could take place.

In 1939-1940 the Finnish Air Force (FAF) re-deployed its aircraft to makeshift airfields including on frozen lakes to preserve them against Soviet air attack. Ever since, FAF maintains a network of secondary airfields including civilian airports and road-bases to improve survivability and effectiveness in the event of war, and all their aircraft are designed to operate from road-bases even today, and exercise every year. Even Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen have been landing on roads for some years. Germany continues to have a number of highway strips.

North Korea has established a large number of highway strips for use in case of war. Poland had many lit ‘road airfield sections’ during the Cold War. Singapore Air Force periodically conducts ‘alternate runway exercises’. In 1986 they landed F-5 and A-4 aircraft on a highway. In 2016 Singapore temporarily installed landing equipment which included mobile arresting gear and F-15 and F-16s landed or road strips. Sri Lanka used highways for operations against LTTE. Switzerland uses many of the highways for training and some of these are connected to nearby airbases with taxiways. Some countries have modified aircraft as well as road-strips to use arrestor wires that can hook onto fighters bringing them to a halt in just 300 meters as on aircraft carriers.

Highway strips in China and Pakistan

In 1989 China conducted its first highway-strip drills, and ever since has been conducting in different areas of the country. In 2014 Chinese forces landed warplanes on a highway strip in Henan province in a major exercise. Pakistan has two Motorways M-1 (Peshawar-Islamabad) and M-2 (Islamabad-Lahore). Each has two emergency runway sections. These have removable concrete medians requiring forklifts. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) used the M2 first time in 2000 when it landed one F-7P fighter, a Super Mushak trainer and a C-130. During exercise ‘Highmark’ in 2010 PAF landed, refuelled and took off two jet fighters, a Mirage III and an F-7P.

Expressway landings in India

All the new expressways being built in the country have 3-kilometre or longer straight stretches for IAF aircraft to be able to operate. The stretches have approach paths clear from obstacles as per specifications. The stretches have runway markings exactly as are at IAF airfields. The side berms have been kept clear of obstructions. The highway lighting also caters for aircraft operations. At the ends of these highway runway stretches is a larger area for the aircraft to be able to turn around. Securing these strips and the IAF assets have to be managed by the IAF in close coordination with civil police or even para-military agencies. IAF has been carrying out landings and take off operations from most of these stretches.

Such highway strips are created for use in emergencies and war-like situation which may render air force bases inaccessible due bombing or other calamities like earthquake as happened in Bhuj in January 2001. The Indian government has realised the operational importance of these strips and are now accelerating the process to build many more such strips. Various government departments could now explore the possibility of greater civil use during calamities. Lessons drawn during practise landing drills are helping improve procedures. Aircrew will now have greater options in case of emergencies in war or peace.

Evolving Indian expressways

Prime Minister Modi inaugurated Purvanchal Expressway in Uttar Pradesh after landing on its airstrip in an IAF C-130 aircraft in November 2021. As of July 2022, 24 expressways with a combined length of nearly 3,220 km are operational in India. Construction of expressways is a priority area for the Government of India. Nearly 18 new expressways are under construction, and many more under planning. About a dozen highways that are wide enough and have road surface fit for fighter jet operations. The expressways connecting Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, North eastern states, Rajasthan and Gujarat have immediate operational significance due proximity to borders. Expressways in southern states are important as India shifts to greater Indian Ocean focus.

Civil use of highway strips

In rural Australia several sections of highway are maintained as potential runways not for military but for use by the royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. The airstrip can be used 24/7 in all conditions and means residents who had previously travelled up to two and a half hours to get to a hospital can reach help faster. India’s Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari says that the highway strips could be a boon to the civilian air travel. “We can close road traffic when a plane lands and open once the plane has taken off like we do at railway crossings. Airport investment costs would come down” he said. Such strips could be very handy during natural calamities and disaster management. Human and material aid could be moved quickly. Even an airliner can be landed on these strips in special conditions.

Agile combat employment

The US Air Force has operationalised Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept to address changing threat in contested environment. Some Western air forces are also working on it. The adversaries are likely to deny use of forward airfields through massive attacks. There is thus a need to shift operations from centralized physical infrastructures to a network of smaller, dispersed locations or cluster bases. This could be achieved by converting some highway strips into temporary operating airbases. It will require a mobile technical and logistic support team from parent airbase. Some camouflaged aircraft parking spaces would have to be build. The air power will be spread at such satellite points and thus complicate adversary planning and provide more options for our air force and joint force commanders. It will also allow small aircraft detachments to leap frog during operations. Offensive and defensive capabilities and expertise available at each forward operating location may vary, as will available logistical support. Adapting to this concept would allow maintaining and securing a combat-effective force through speedy conduct of operations from distributed locations with increased survivability. It will also mean shift from traditional, large force packages to a smaller footprint.

Way ahead

Airport development being a capital intensive and ‘long lead time’ project of national interest, it is desirable that requirements of both Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) converge so as to optimally utilise the newly constructed airports. In select airport projects, the special requirements of IAF need to be included during the initial conceptualisation/development stage itself. A Joint (Civil Military) 2040 Vision may be evolved by the two ministries. IAF must soon start performing more extended operations from some highways to test logistics and maintenance capabilities. India must also start evolving the ACE-like concept as being evolved by most Western air forces.

The writer is Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views expressed are personal.

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