OPINION | Search & Rescue : Trials and Tribulations
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OPINION | Search & Rescue : Trials and Tribulations

By Group Capt Murli Menon (Retd.)
Indian Air Force

OPINION | Search & Rescue : Trials and Tribulations


The Indian Air Force (IAF) has lost aircraft and aircrew in large numbers earlier in the annals of Indian aviation history too, sometimes in the hills with very delayed recovery of crash debris and mortal remains- in one event , this materializing after several years. Nevertheless, the anguish and heart wrench of the past week, caused by the ongoing reportage of the missing IAF AN-32 ought to make all professional fliers and policy makers rethink our nation’s priorities in the vital ambit of Air, Land, and Sea Rescue (SAR).

Surely we do not need sagas such as that of the Malaysian MH-370, the Air France jet earlier in the Atlantic or this recent  unfortunate IAF mishap to make us sit up . It is well known that  our country does not have a dedicated SAR agency, much less dedicated Air Rescue Squadrons a la the U.S. Air Force. They have over fifty of them , one approximately for each of the 50 states. That now is something to speak for specialized air missions alright. One must admit that overall SAR efforts of single service agencies have been comparatively more successful than others involving wholly civilian or other  mixed air assets. And to think that we now have a dedicated National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), but clearly oriented towards natural and man -made disasters and without any SAR mandate as such. The funding required to provide the latest available technologies and equipment to the concerned  single service agencies need to be provisioned , to address a  key aspect  directly linked to  national and military morale. This applies not only in peace but in the war too.

Our Combat Search and Rescue capability need buttressing too so that we do not land up in situations of unrecoverable Prisoners of War as indeed did happen in our 65 and 71 wars. A holistic approach to SAR is called for, marshaling resources available with the three services, the Coast Guard, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), our technical intelligence agencies such as the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) and perhaps even private industry, to facilitate a timely and apt response to any kind of mishap involving our fighting assets , civil aircraft and other citizenry  who  become victims of natural and other calamities across the nation’s air, land and sea frontiers.

#SAROps SITREP, twitted by Indian Navy via @indiannavy on July 27, 2016

#SAROps SITREP, twitted by Indian Navy via @indiannavy on July 27, 2016

Air Element of Rescue  

The first responder in any contingency as articulated herein is normally the air element, from the IAF, Army Aviation or the Indian Navy. Perhaps on account of the flexibility that the medium affords, in terms of mobilizing quickly. Some IAF helicopter units had been tasked sectorally with SAR duties. They generally catered for fighter crashes, floods, earthquakes, fires , train/ bus  crashes and likewise events. The quantum of air effort required for SAR is dictated  by the immensity of the disaster such as numbers of personnel involved, expected area of search and of course the terrain wherein the event occurred. For a localized accident such as a fighter crash, the effort involved is normally focused in area and numbers of casualties. Also, the prevailing SAR apparatus at various IAF stations is geared up to cope with it, given the specificity in aerial/ ground witnesses,radar assistance / air traffic control assistance which is normally available and the consequent triangulation of the accident site. Should the area of incident / accident be vast or under water or even immersed in thick foliage as normally obtains in the eastern sector, the assets required would be of a different order. Now after a week’s search above water in the Bay of Bengal, we are reportedly having to switch our search domain to underwater. Too late in the day perhaps, one could argue. Some worthy erstwhile colleagues have been articulating in the social media about the likely causes of this particular AN 32 disaster. Given the reported prevailing monsoon weather conditions, they have opined that it could well have been the result of rapid in-flight icing over the wings or engines, leading to an uncontrolled left hand "graveyard spiral". This whilst the pilot apparently wished to skirt weather to the right. Such inputs and quick analysis by concerned operations staff or from data that would invariably be available with the Flight Safety organization concerned, which would help us focus on a realistic mode for the search. Doubts crop up when the weather is suspect or a factor preventing meaningful search operations, post the accident. But an intelligent appreciation of the most probable causative factor would help in arriving at the optimal search zones.

Search over Water bodies  

Thus any planned search pattern over water would normally start with initial scans over the skies immediately on the surface of that water body, be it the sea, a lake or a river from aerial platforms. When it becomes evident that there is nothing to look for above the sea or river or lake, that is when the real challenges emerge in terms of underwater  sensors such as sonars and bathyspheres. Depending on the expected area of search several numbers of these assets coupled with diver assets would be called for. A watery grave is not something any soldier or citizen deserves. The nation has the moral responsibility to bring those bodies home for a decent cremation or burial at the earliest. The goodwill generated thence would help hugely in bringing a sense of closure to the kin of the unfortunate victims. Soon India is expected to have on its inventory  large amphibious aircraft, to be acquired from Japan ,which could possibly be utilized to deploy specialists and divers rapidly to the expected disaster site, especially into large water bodies where to suitable float- fitted SAR helicopters are not available. Intelligent use of other unique assets such as Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), P-8I Neptunes and C-130Js need to be done.

Land Search & Satellite Tracking  

Search and rescue over remote, inaccessible areas in mountainous or forested areas would pose their own peculiar challenges. Not only would mountaineering teams be required, communication gear, associated GPS devices and dog squads would be needed. They would need to work in tandem with aerial platforms and paramedic teams. Noise augmentation devices and other  acoustic sensors would be required perhaps. One of our veteran Air Marshal tells his story of eons ago when after an ejection from a fighter in the Tezpur sector, he could not be picked up for several days, hidden as he was in the thick foliage. It is not far-fetched to think of miniature drones as a standard fit in our survival packs. The agility and ease of maneuvering of these gadgets have to be seen to be believed. Of course, they would need GPS cueing or some other pre- programmed navigational software. But now we are in the era of drones and satellite technology and nothing ought to stay unknown, or un-pinged for any length of time. It is an irony that the very same country that launches satellites for the Americans had to rely on American satellites to pick up possible signals from the AN-32’s rescue beacon. Why is this not a priority for our nation? Surely we could plan for our own geostationary sensors to pick up distress signals from any of our aircraft, ships or even mountaineers for that matter. One understands there are issues of masking of satellites etc but the emphasis on fail safe pinging on multiple sensors of the international distress frequencies such as 121..5khz  or 243.0 MHz. Further, it is believed that satellite monitoring on both these frequencies have been discontinued of late and the US Coast Guard only monitors digital 406 MHz as of 1 Feb 2009. Are international agencies and India on the same “frequency”? India has already sent up two indigenous GPS satellites. Shouldn’t we be prioritizing to have our own satellite tracking capability over the subcontinent and adjoining seaboards?

Uncertainties in SAR

Despite any amount of infrastructural design, we are still bound to have situations where in aircraft especially vanish into thin air , indicating the tremendously uncertain realms of aviation in general. Stories from the "Bermuda Triangle" era abound and examples such as that of  the Malaysian MH-370 stand out. India needs to have strategic tie-ups with neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives to monitor distress frequencies from ground stations.Likewise, suitable civil and military installations on the Eastern and Western seaboard need to have the capability to monitor and record these frequencies.

National Ethos

As a nation, we, unfortunately, do not value lives.Other countries go out on a limb to save even a single life. What to talk of civilian accidents and disasters, even our military does not have a priority for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). Proper attack helicopters, Fixed Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft, and trained special forces need to be at hand to undertake effective CSAR, The same assets could be deployed in peacetime for anti-terror, anti-smuggling or counter-insurgency situations.

On-board Equipment 

Countries which are surrounded by water have a serious sea survival and SAR system in place. The U.K. is a classic example. The regimen for sea survival and rescue in the RAF is legion. Such a training regimen ensures the optimal serviceability of all rescue equipment such as life jackets, dinghies, SARBE G2R beacons, associated batteries and the works. India Air Force earlier on had a problem because our aircraft fleet was disparate, divided between Russian and limited Western gear. Now we have almost even numbers of both types of technologies and it is that much easier to standardize rescue gear such as personal rescue beacons, their power packs, radio frequencies and the like.


Any lackadaisical or delayed reaction by the system to activate effective SAR measures is tantamount to an anti- national disservice. One stands to lose not only the well known  high morale of our fighting units but also hazard generating ill will amongst citizens at large through the hurt and anguish  caused to the near and dear ones from prolonged unresolved accidents and incidents. Contrariwise, a timely rescue effort generates out of proportion goodwill. Apex bodies such as the National Security Council or the Cabinet Committee on Security would have to coordinate the national effort for SAR depending on the nature of the disaster, whether military or civil assets and personnel are involved and the terrain/ sector of occurrence. Single service agencies normally cut in their actions much ahead of others. But then some capabilities, such as deep sea search for example in the current disaster, may be beyond the capabilities of indigenous elements and extraneous assistance may have to be sought. Suitable "Memorandum of Understanding" with other nations and international agencies would pay dividends when the disaster actually strikes. Besides our nation’s overall SAR architecture needs to be rehashed to make available the most timely and effective response to all sectors.

About the Author: 

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon, IAF
Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting it tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.    

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and since post retirement he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India.

Cite this Article:

Menon, Murli "OPINION | Search & Rescue : Trials and Tribulations" IndraStra Global Vol. 002. Issue No: 07 (2016), 0054, http://www.indrastra.com/2016/07/OPINION-Search-and-Rescue-Trials-and-Tribulations-002-07-2016-0054.html | ISSN 2381-3652

AIDN0020720160054 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652 / OPINION | Search & Rescue : Trials and Tribulations