IAF's Dramatic Aerial Rescue of 121 Indians From Wadi Sayyidna in Sudan Has Been Long in the Making

The dangers the mission entailed were underscored a few hours earlier on April 28 when Sudanese rebels fired at a Turkish Air Force C-130 as it neared the same airsstrip to evacuate Turkish citizens.

New Delhi: The remarkable and dramatic aerial rescue by the Indian Air Force (IAF) of 121 Indians stranded in war-torn Sudan, that was executed in pitch darkness on a remote airstrip late Thursday night and early Friday morning, qualifies unquestioningly as the stuff of military legend.

With calmness, dexterity and competence, IAF pilots landed their Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 ‘Super Hercules’ military transport aircraft at the ‘degraded’ Wadi Sayyidna airstrip that had neither any navigational approach aids nor critical landings lights, some 40km north of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, wracked by civil war.

Operationalising their on-board electro-optical infrared detection set to ensure that the pitted runway was free of obstruction and ‘inimical’ forces, the skilled and daring pilots used night vision goggles to land their transporter in total blackout conditions, an IAF statement declared.

The infrared detection set provides the four-engine turboprop transports the ability to conduct precision low-level flying missions airdrops and landings in darkness, while the night vision goggles further enhance the pilots’ situational awareness. The aircraft is also capable of landing and taking off from short and rudimentary runways, akin to the one at Wadi Sayyidna and has been configured by Lockheed Martin for the IAF for special forces operations..

Photo: IAF

Upon landing, after the cease fire by the two warring Sudanese sides expired on Thursday midnight, the aircraft engines were kept running, while eight IAF Special Forces Garud Commandos secured the passengers, which included a pregnant woman, and their luggage into the aircraft, the IAF’s statement said.

Thereafter, much like the landing, the take-off for Jeddah some 90 minutes flying-time away, too was successfully completed by the two C-130J-30 pilots using night vision goggles, which by no means is an easy task in tense and unfamiliar conditions and at high speeds, exacerbated further by palpable danger of being fired upon.

The entire nail-biting operation, the IAF added, lasted two-hours-and-a-half and would ‘go down in the annals of the forces history for its sheer audacity and flawless execution’.

The dangers the mission entailed were underscored a few hours earlier after Sudanese rebels, engaged in the civil war, fired at a Turkish Air Force C-130 transporter on the morning of April 28 as it neared the same Wadi Sayyidna airport to evacuate Turkish citizens. According the official Sudan News Agency the aircraft was damaged in the firing and one crew member was also injured.

The IAF, however, declined, on security grounds, to reveal where the concerned C-130J-30 was based, but the 12 strong fleet of transporters that were inducted into service 2011 onwards, are split between the 77 ‘Veiled Vipers’ Squadron based at Hindon, on New Delhi’s outskirts and the 87 ‘Wings of Valour’ Squadron at Panagarh in the east, from where they support the Indian Army’s deployment along the disputed line of actual control (LAC) with China.

The C-130J contracts were signed in 2009 during the Manmohan Singh government’s time — in the wake of the closer defence ties India developed with the US following the landmark 2005 nuclear deal. The overall cost of the acquisition was around around $ 1.5- 2 billion.

Both tactical air-lift squadrons have catchy mottos, wholly apposite to the perilous task one of their aircraft performed in Sudan. The former’s maxim is ‘Kill with Stealth’, while the latter’s is ‘Raiding Raptors’ – birds of prey, like eagles or hawks. The IAF spokesman also declined to name the pilots involved in the bold evacuation operation, citing security considerations.

The IAF and the Indian Navy, assisted by Indian Army personnel, comprise ‘Operation Kaveri’, launched recently by the government to evacuate some 3,500 Indian nationals stranded in Sudan after fighting erupted between the Sudanese Army and the country’s Paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The two opposing forces are engaged in a power struggle over who controls the resource-rich nation, located strategically at the crossroads of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

Alongside, the Indian Navy has so far rescued over 1,000 Indian nationals from Port Sudan over the past week aboard three of their Russian-origin Talwar-class frigates and transported them to Jeddah, 160 nm (296 km) and 10 hours sailing time away, from where they are being airlifted home.

Photo: IAF

INS Teg, INS Sumedha and INS Tarkash were part of the IN’s ‘mission-based deployments’ that were originally conceived of in 2017 and subsequently operationalised. “The seeds of this highly successful evacuation mission were laid six years ago, following the permanent positioning of warships and surveillance aircraft by the Indian Navy along critical sea-lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to execute an assorted spectrum of missions,” said naval analyst, Captain D.K. Sharma (retired). The swift and successful turnaround of ships carrying evacuees from Sudan is a direct consequence of this policy, he added.

At the time, former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba had approved a ‘focused and gradual transition cycle’ of deploying varied Indian Navy warships from periods of maintenance to full scale operations. And though the entire strategy was prompted by the threat posed in the Indian Ocean Region and surrounding waters by China’s expansionist People’s Liberation Army Navy, it also included employment of Indian Navy platforms on humanitarian assistance missions, as well as providing disaster relief to Indian Ocean Region littoral states.

Each of these deployed platforms routinely carried on board 40-tonne container ‘bricks’ containing essential supplies like food, clothing and fuel for contingencies like the one being undertaken in Sudan. Indian Navy personnel, officers said, were provided instruction in undertaking evacuations and were ‘prompt and professional’ in their approach, traits that were appreciated by other navies and served to enhance the forces and India’s profile.

But with some 2,000 or more Indians still awaiting rescue and fighting having broken out afresh in Sudan, India’s military will, no doubt resort to some form of jugaad or innovation, for which it is renowned, to successfully and competently conclude the rescue operation.