INAS 342 – The Flying Sentinels
The Indian Navy, over the decades, has progressively evolved as a force to reckon with and has its share of watershed moments. The induction of the air element was one such when the first air station, INS Garuda, was commissioned at Kochi on 11 May 1953. This impetus given to our reconnaissance capability was repeated at Garuda when a completely revolutionary concept, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, was launched into the skies!
To search, locate and track the adversary is the very foundation of maritime warfare. To accomplish this basic objective, both sensors and their vehicles have progressively evolved. Induction of the unmanned air element into maritime reconnaissance is another step towards futuristic warfare. Remote control operations obviate the necessity of a cockpit and other emergency gear. The consequent reduction in size adds to maneuverability and stealth. In the hostile environment of the battlefield, the UAV is the most obvious choice for a sensor-operating platform just as much as it is in peacetime intelligence gathering for its cost effectiveness. In keeping with current trends in warfare technology, the Indian Navy has acquired two variants of the UAV, the Searcher Mk II and the larger and more capable Heron from IAI Malat in Dec 2002. These craft fulfill a myriad of roles from search and probe to location and tracking of maritime targets, providing of OTHT data, assistance in SAR and battle damage assessment.
The initial training to operators and maintainers was imparted at IAI Malat, Israel where 16 Internal Pilots, 11 Observers, 8 External Pilots, 06 Technical Officers and 75 technical and non-technical sailors had undergone theory classes in 2002. The Intensive Flying and Trials Unit (IFTU) was then setup on 31 Aug 02 at INS Garuda and was tasked with aircraft acceptance, training of operator and technical crew, evaluation and trials of aircraft and sensors, formulation of doctrines, operating and maintenance procedures.
Flying training commenced in Jan 2003 with the OEM withdrawing gradually as the unit personnel began gaining expertise. Routine and training flying gave way to operational exploitation and the unit started regularly participating in exercises off both coasts from ships and from various military and non-military airfields.
Training of technical officers and sailors was also taken up by the OJT cell to hand over the freshly acquired expertise to successive generations of maintainers.
IFTU was formally commissioned as an operational squadron, INAS 342, on 06 Jan 2006 with the, then, Officer-in-Charge, Cdr Rajesh Kawatra, assuming Command. Today, INAS 342 has pioneered forth into a new era in aviation as a fully functional squadron valued and sought in any theatre of operations.