This would not be the first time in its history that Air Force Station Ambala, amongst the oldest bases in the IAF, would host a crack frontline fighter aircraft being newly inducted into the IAF.
By Group Captain Badhrish Narasimha Athreya (Retd)
Today, when the first lot of the much talked about and eagerly awaited Multi Role Combat Aircraft, the Rafale jets that the Indian Air Force has purchased from France were inducted and roared into the Indian airspace, it was in the historic airfield of a small town in Haryana not far from Delhi, Ambala, that they landed in. This would not be the first time in its history that Air Force Station Ambala, amongst the oldest bases in the IAF, would host a crack frontline fighter aircraft being newly inducted into the IAF. They housed 4 Sqns of the newly inducted Hawker Hunter fighter bomber from the United Kingdom in 1959. After the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict, when the IAF procured the state of the art Sepecat Jaguar bomber from the UK in 1979, it was again housed at Ambala, No. 14 Sqn AF “Bulls”, the first Jaguar Sqn and still proudly operating the upgraded DARIN II Jaguar aircraft. Ambala was also the first base to convert from the venerable MiG-21Bis to the MiG-21 Bison in 2002 with No. 3 Sqn “Cobras”. And now on 10 Sep 2020, AFS Ambala will proudly house the first IAF Rafale Sqn, No. 17 Sqn “Golden Arrows”
It was with very humble beginnings that the airbase at “Camp Umballa” was first formed in 1919 with the RAF, primarily for the British to contain the warring tribesmen and maintain peace in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province), with No. 99 Sqn RAF.It is interesting to note that while the new airfield was being constructed, a small bridge built by Sher Shah Suri as part of the Grand Trunk Road fell which within the Airfield premises was left untouched and continues to be maintained by the IAF till date. Ambala was briefly the RAF India Command HQs in 1920-21 before it was shifted to New Delhi. Ambala has always based fighter aircraft throughout its history, notable amongst the older aircraft, Wapitis, Hurricanes, Harvards, Vampires, Toofanis and Mysteres. A number of Sqns which were based at Ambala participated during World War II notably in the Burma Campaign. It was during WW2 that RAF Station Ambala formally came into being in February 1941. The end of the British rule in India saw AFS Ambala get its first Indian Station Commander, Group Captain Arjan Singh DFC, who later rose to become the Chief of the IAF and subsequently the First Marshal of the IAF.
Ambala has always been of strategic importance and played a pivotal role during air operations. In 1965, the Gnat aircraft based here mounted a ferocious defence of the airfield when attacked in the dead of the night on 20 Sep by B-57 bombers of the PAF. The spirited defence proved to be a bit too much for the B-57 raiders and they only managed to destroy the century old St Paul’s Church in panic, leaving the airbase unscathed. The Gnats operating out of Ambala played a decisive role in safeguarding the skies on the Western front. One of the “tiny” Gnats is proudly displayed at the Aviators memorial aptly named “A Frozen Tear” inside the airbase. During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, 462 operational sorties were launched from Ambala with fighters and bombers ceaselessly operating during the entire period. Flying Officer Nirmal Jeet Singh Sekhon of 18 Sqn AF based at Ambala was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (posthumously) for his exemplary bravery at Srinagar airfield. In more recent times, Jaguars and Mirage-2000 aircraft operated out of Ambala during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Ambala airbase was deeply involved in the highly successful Balakot Missions in Feb 2019.
What makes Ambala strategically important, especially with a two-front scenario of Pakistan on the West and China towards the East is its location. Located approximately 250 km from the border on either side gives it adequate “depth”, which means it is deep enough within your own territory such that strategic assets can safely be housed. Due to its depth, an ingress into our territory provides adequate layers of defence in terms of frontline bases and would also provide sufficient warning for the base to not only be able to launch its defensive measures adequately but also a counter attack on the invading force. The distance from the border is also close enough to put it well within the reach of all the fighters which operate out of Ambala. The Rafale for example, operating out of Ambala would be able to target almost all of Pakistan’s strategic assets in the Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan Sectors while it would be able to target Chinese assets in Aksai Chin, Southern and Western Tibet regions. Hence it makes immense operational sense for the IAF to base the Rafale at Ambala. Additionally, the base is bestowed with advanced technical labs and facilities which have been upgraded to world class standards for the Rafale. Ambala also has plenty of airspace in close vicinity for the Sqns based here to undertake operational training including live air to ground munitions.
Embedded deeply in the IAF’s history, Air Force Station Ambala will add yet another feather to its cap when the Rafale is formally inducted into the IAF on 10 Sep 2020.
(The author has served for 25 years in IAF as a fighter pilot and test pilot. He retired in 2019 as Chief Test Pilot of ASTE, IAF. He has flown 25 different types of aircraft, including all fighters of IAF. Project leader for the Indigenous AEW&C manufactured by DRDO commissioned in the IAF in 2017. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; linkedin.com/in/badhrishathreya. Views expressed are personal.)