Chandigarh: The recent accident involving two premier Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters in central India, in which one officer died and two others were injured after bailing out, has drawn attention to the force’s hush-hush and high-profile Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) in Gwalior.
The licence-built Russian ‘Flanker’ Sukhoi Su-30MKI (India) and French Mirage-2000H (Hindustan) that crashed over the weekend had taken off from the TACDE base at Gwalior to perform routine manoeuvres, leading to media speculation over the possibility of two platforms being involved in a mid-air collision. The Mirage-2000H pilot Wing Commander Hanumanth Rao Sarathi died in the accident, whilst the two others operating the twin-seat Su-30MKI were hospitalised with minor injuries.
The IAF has ordered an inquiry into the January 28 accident involving three TACDE pilots, whose involvement in such an incident, senior officers said was “unusual”, as they comprised the top 1% of the entire force’s combat jocks.
TACDE is the IAF’s foremost aerial combat school responsible for offering instruction to fighter and helicopter pilots and their flight controllers in advanced warfare. It also trains ground crews to operate surface-to-air-guided weapons, like the newly inducted Russian Almaz-Antel S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems, amongst others.
“TACDE trains combat pilots in innovative and superior warfare, and in turn, they return to their respective fighter units as surrogate instructors, augmenting their overall operational preparedness,” said military analyst Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy” Bhatia (retired).
A rich history
Over the 52 years that this establishment has been in existence, in one avatar or another, it has not only honed the skills of over two generations of the IAF’s combat pilots but also earned itself a high degree of international acclaim for its professionalism and competence, added India’s fiercest and most decorated fighter pilot, retired Air Marshal Bhatia.
TACDE was previously known as the Tactics and Combat Development and Training Squadron or simply Tactics and Air Combat Squadron (TACS) that came into existence at Adampur in Punjab, on February 1, 1971, some 10 months before India’s third war with Pakistan. Its remit was to study and evolve tactical procedures for assorted fighter aircraft in service with the IAF and to implement standard operating procedures (SoPs) for them in combat.
Headed by its founding commandant, Wing Commander A.K. Mukherji, who had attended the Royal Air Force’s flight combat leader (FCL) course at Anglesey in Wales, the TACS’ task was to train pilots in operational doctrines and tactics on two of its flights: the newly inducted Soviet-origin single-engine MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’ ground attack fighters and Sukhoi Su-7 ‘Fitter-A’ swept-wing fighter-bombers, which together numbered between 12-16 platforms.
Operating from Adampur, Ambala and Amritsar during the 1971 War that followed soon after, the TACS squadron was assigned the task of conducting night strikes on major Pakistani airfields like Sargodha, which it executed efficiently, earning multiple laurels that included one Vir Chakra and other gallantry awards.
Thereafter, in December 1972, the TACS was re-designated as TACDE and moved to Jamnagar, supplanting and amalgamating the IAF’s existing Pilot Attack Instructors or PAI school there. Its founding motto, taken from the Bhagwat Gita, was “Tejas Tejaswi Namaham (I am the Glory of the Glorious)” and its crest of crossed swords and a winged burning torch against a red background signified a bloodied battlefield. The crest’s seven stars represented TACDE’s capability to conduct operations in darkness.
In fact, a large proportion of the IAF’s pilots involved in bombing Pakistan Army dugouts along the Kargil heights during the 1999 war with Pakistan, in what many analysts and airmen said were “hugely challenging” circumstances and which decisively turned the tide of battle in India’s favour were former TACDE graduates.
“TACDE’s intensive training had paid back rich dividends,” said Air Marshal Bhatia. Other IAF sources concurred, adding that many of the pilots involved in the Balakot air strike on Pakistani militant training bases in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in February 2021 had attended the TACDE.
According to a former TACDE commanding officer, the facility shifted base to Gwalior in 2001, which also doubled as the Mirage-2000H base, besides housing at that time the country’s only Instrumented Electronic Warfare Range, essential for testing advanced airborne missiles.
He stated that TACDE initially trained on MiG-21s and Su-30MKIs, but presently operated only the latter, as the former fighter type was in the process of being retired. It had obviously “borrowed” the Mirage-2000H locally for its routine manoeuvres ahead of last weekend’s accident, other officers indicated.
According to the ministry of defence, instructors at TACDE were “the pick” of the IAF, chosen especially for their outstanding professional skills and their ability to impart combat training in the air and on the ground. These personnel, it declared, when TACDE was conferred the Presidential standard in 2009 were drawn from different types of fighter and helicopter squadrons and from amongst the best of the radar controllers. And it was “because of its alumni’s efforts that TACDE was a revered name in the IAF”, the ministry had added.
A cross-section of veteran fighter IAF pilots, meanwhile, said TACDE compared “more than favourably” with the US Navy’s renowned Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) programme, better known as Top Gun, which provided strike tactics and techniques to naval aviators. Like their IAF counterparts, the SFTI attendees too returned to their operating units as alternative or informal instructors, to provide advanced instruction and SoPs on approaches to effectively conduct aerial battles.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF), on the other hand, too has a comparable Combat Commanders School (CCS) at Sargodha in Punjab Province, 247 km south of Islamabad, which imparts advanced combat training to mid-career fighter squadron commanders, air defence controllers, and instructors.
Established in 1976- some 18 years after its precursor, the Flight Leaders School was set up in Karachi in 1958-the CCS was at first equipped with two fighter squadrons comprising French Mirage-III and US-origin F-6 fighters. In 1988 an F-16 squadron was added, and five years later, the F-6 unit was replaced by the Chinese F-7PGs and thereafter, in 2015, the CCS raised its fourth squadron of JF-17 multi-role combat platforms, also from China.
Back to the accident near Gwalior, Air Marshal Bhatia was of the view that despite being competent TACDE-trained fighter pilots, there was the “real possibility” that their two fighters, operating in close proximity got trapped in a “visual bubble” leading to the accident.
“There is always the possibility of things going badly wrong, despite the best of precautions,” the celebrated combat pilot declared, adding that the ongoing inquiry into the accident would conclusively determine the truth.