In an explosive revelation, former Air Marshal Pranab Kumar Barbora has said that he flew to Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip in Ladakh on 2008 after 43 years without informing the govt first, because all other previous requests for the same were denied. His comments have come at a time when India-China relations are tensed over control of territory in eastern Ladakh.
The Daulat Beg Oldi base has played a vital role for Indian forces during the current stand-off. It was originally built during the Indo-China war in 1962. But after the war, the airbase was not in use since 1965. The airstrip is strategically very important, as it is located next to the Line of Actual Control in Aksai Chin and the Karakoram Pass. Located at an altitude of 16,614 ft, Daulat Beg Oldi has the world’s highest Advance Landing Ground (ALG).
landing an aircraft after 43 years
In 2008, PK Barbora landed on the airstrip in an AN-32, reactivating the base after 43 years. Talking to Economic Times, he narrated the circumstances behind the action. He revealed that no one in the government knew about the mission before it was conducted, not even the then defence minister AK Antony. Barbora said that when he joined as the commander-in-chief of Western Air Command, he analysed the 60-odd Air Force stations under his jurisdiction, and that is when he noticed Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO). The Indian Air Force had planned for other advance landing grounds in Ladakh too, but DBO stood out for various reasons, like, it is the world’s highest ALG, and is located just a few kilometres away from Karakoram Pass.
Talking about why the ALG was abandoned in 1965, the former Air Marshal said that although the army engineers had done a fantastic job in building the ground, a decision was taken to not fly any two-engine aircraft to that height due to safety reasons. At that time, only one aircraft was capable to fly in such heights, and its life cycle had ended in 1965.
“There were no more operations after 1965. So, practically, we operated the airstrip for just three years and then we had to close it down because we did not have a suitable aircraft,” Barbora said.
Strategic importance, hostile terrain
The base is important for India, but the terrain is too hostile for sending personnel to man it. There is low oxygen content, and it takes several days of walking to reach there. Therefore, at least five attempts were made by the IAF to reactivate it, but all of them were refused by the government.
“When I wanted to reopen the airstrip, I spotted five files. But after examining those, I realised that if I created another file and put up my request in writing, I won’t get a go-ahead. All the earlier files had ended with a ‘No’ for various reasons”, Barbora said.
“So, I decided to reactivate Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip without any written permission. I decided, let’s not create any file, let there be nothing in writing. After all, if you ask for permission, all the old files will be called, and the result will be another No”, he added. Determined to reactivate the airstrip, Barbora then reportedly talked to his counterparts in the Army and select Air Force officials for a quick study on the condition of the airstrip, and other preparations needed. All these was done verbally, without leaving any record. Soon he received a verbal report, indicating that there was no major crack on the ground.
Special training and silence
After an initial report over the ground conditions, the team that was to land at the DBO undertook a special training for the mission, quietly. Finally, after all the preparations were done, PK Barbora talked to than Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major and army chief General Deepak Kapoor in Delhi’s Air Force golf course and obtained their verbal permission. He also informed the vice chief of air staff Pradeep Naik, but the defence minister was not informed.
On May 31, 2008, five people flew in the AN-32 from Chandigarh, two Air Force pilots, one navigator, a gunner and Barbora himself. They kept the operation a secret, and successfully landed at Daulat Beg Oldi in a fixed-wing aircraft after 43 years, officially reactivating it. While returning, one senior army officer stationed at the base accompanied them, and they returned to Chandigarh after taking off from the bumpy runway at the DBO.
After reaching Chandigarh, they informed Delhi that they have reactivated Daulat Beg Oldi, and that is when the defence minister finally became aware of it. After the Air Force had already reactivated the airstrip, there was nothing the government could do to prevent it, and so, eventually, the airstrip was developed to allow the landing of larger aircraft. In 2013, a C-130J Super Hercules was landed by the Indian Air Force at the airstrip, and since then IAF planes are regularly flying to the base to transport men and material.
It is not 1962 anymore
“We broke the ice and proved a point that we were capable. We surprised the Chinese. Later, in 2013, a four-engine aircraft C-130 Hercules landed there. Look, it’s 2020 now, not 1962″, Barbora said.
Talking to ANI, PK Barbora has today said that the government was informed through proper channels only after he had landed and came back from DBO. He said that when govt was informed, he was asked why did it. “It is the Air Force’s responsibility to maintain troops’ logistics support and it falls within our jurisdiction, within Indian territory, so we did it,” he had replied the government. He said the then Defence Minister AK Antony had also asked him what he would tell the Chinese if they raise questions about it during his visit to China where he was taking the earthquake relief supplies. Barbora said the Chinese never raised the issue with the Defence Minister during that visit.