The Centre plans to set up 29 airstrips on National Highways at strategic locations for emergency landings by fighter aircraft, according to the transport ministry. The proposed strips have been planned on highways and roads near the international border in the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Manipur and West Bengal. Three are planned on highways connecting Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — all Maoist-affected areas. Emergency strips are also planned in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
The ministry of road transport and highways, in 2016, announced the formation of an inter-ministerial joint committee with the ministry of defence and the Indian Air Force (IAF) to look into the feasibility of setting up these strips and to arrive at the technical details. IAF and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) were tasked with the site survey and inspection.
“The work of site survey and inspection as well as the planning and bidding of the Emergency Landing Facilities (ELFs) are at different stages. The completion period of work has been kept as eight months,” union minister of state for road transport and highways Mansukh Mandaviya informed Lok Sabha on January 7.
In November, Mandaviya announced that the Centre has identified 13 roads across states where emergency landings can take place. Eleven of the roads were under the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) while the other two were state highways.
According to the ministry of road transport and highways, only one such strip is operational — on the Lucknow- Agra Expressway in Uttar Pradesh.
“This is an excellent idea and many parts of the world do it but it is going to be a very complicated project. It would involve a lot of planning and consideration and most importantly funds,” said former Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major.
Out of the 29 proposed stretches by IAF, bidding has begun for strips on three highways — from Bijbehera to Chinar Bagh in Jammu & Kashmir, Kharagpur in West Bengal to Keonjhar in Odisha (with a proposed cost of Rs 97.51 crore) and Nellore to Ongole in Andhra Pradesh (?79.84 crore).
Four proposed projects in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have been deemed “non- feasible” by the transport ministry while five projects in J &K, West Bengal, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu are facing delays due to issues related to wildlife and land acquisition. Two of these projects in J&K and West Bengal have been kept on hold after “discussions with local IAF units”, according to the transport ministry.
The standard design for the emergency landing strips includes parking slots for four aircraft, an air traffic control (ATC) tower and two gates at both ends of the strip.
Several countries such as Germany, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, Finland, Switzerland, Poland, Singapore, Czechoslovakia, even Pakistan have dedicated stretches on their highways and expressways for aircraft to land and take off in emergencies or during war.
“This is an excellent project and many countries do it but it is going to be a very complicated project,” said Air Chief Marshal (retd) Fali Homi Major. “It will involve a lot of planning and consideration and, importantly, funds.”
In 2015, IAF tested out such landings for the first time on the Yamuna expressway. The stretch of Agra- Lucknow expressway was also used for the first time in 2016 for landing six fighter aircraft .
“Over the past few years, IAF has been increasing its efforts to utilise certain straight stretches of National Highways for emergency landings. Such highway stretches are planned to be used in emergencies, if an active airport is not available for some reason. These operations increase the flexibility in the use of Air Power. In addition, use of transport aircraft for quick insertion of forces for Human Assistance and Disaster Relief into civil area and Special Forces in case of contingencies has been validated,” IAF said in a statement in 2017.