The Indian Navy’s electronic warfare and intelligence gathering squadron, INAS (Indian Naval Air Squadron) 310, better known as Cobras have completed 50 years of service. Why this is a special milestone is the nature of the service rendered by the squadron, which happens to be the aerial eyes and ears of the Naval Air Arm.
The Cobras have over 80,000 hours of flight on the Alize and then the Dornier aircraft, since 1961. To put things into perspective, squadrons flying the more glamorous fighters of the Indian Navy, like the now-retired Sea Hawks, the Harriers and more recently, the MiG-29K/KUB would have accumulated flight time of around a quarter of that of the Cobras.
In the past half-century, the squadron has been tasked with Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), striking enemy targets in Goa and East Pakistan, flying the Breguet Alize aircraft, a carrier-borne fighter carrying a crew of three.
Later, the squadron disembarked from the carrier, decommissioning the Alize and inducting the Dornier, became shore-based. Interestingly, the Dornier-228 is now only produced by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which also exports parts and aircraft.
The Alizes embarked on the carrier Vikrant with the Sea Hawks in 1971, flying 291 sorties over 10 days, disposing off over a 100,000 tons of shipping, port and air traffic infrastructure and anti-aircraft defenses. Their flight, some of them at night, earned them six Vir Chakras and Nao Sena Medals each and were Mentioned in Dispatches thrice.
They’ve also taken care of business in northern Sri Lanka, flying operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) in Operation Pawan in 1987, flying from Madurai and sinking at least 20 terrorist boats. Cobra Alizes also forced the surrender of rebels escaping in a hijacked ship in Operation Cactus, after attempting a coup in the Maldives.
The Cobras transitioned from the carrier-borne fighter role to the electronic warfare and intelligence gathering role in 1991 and in its new avatar and has seen a very busy two decades, since. Inducting the Dornier-228 into the squadron, the squadron has been shore-based since then saw increased activity on the basis of recognition of its capabilities.
During the 1999 Kargil Conflict, the squadron was the key aerial and electronic intelligence gathering squadron, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Research and Analysis Wing’s (RAW) Aviation Research Center (ARC) notwithstanding.
The Cobras carried out maritime reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gathering missions in Operation Vijay, flying over the border in Rajasthan and Gujarat and off the coast of Karachi, Gwadar and Bombay High. The Indian Army asked it to locate battle surveillance radars and troop concentrations, a task the Cobras completed in three days. The army’s Military Intelligence admitted it would have taken them three months to do this, otherwise.
And then again during Operation Parakram, the Cobras performed similar missions. Interestingly, this was when the paint scheme of naval Dorniers was changed from blue and white to grey, to make them less obvious to spotters. It seems this happened after an Indian admiral flying over a barely visible airfield was explained its location by the presence of a naval Dornier parked next to it.
The Indian Navy release says, “One day as we were returning to the (IAF) airfield from a sortie, the airfield being camouflaged was quite invisible but the Naval Dornier with its sparkling White wings shone like a torchlight. Immediately thereafter the Dorniers were recalled to Goa and repainted to a dull grey in two days and repositioned in the forward airfields.”
The Cobras received a substantial capability boost with the fitting of the Israeli Elbit’s Elta radars on their Dornier aircraft, which has also lead to increased tasking. Their missions to Muscat in Oman, across the Arabian Sea, often saw run-ins naval aircraft of coalition forces in the War on Terror. Since then, with the increase in joint exercises with navies of countries like the US, the frequency of such incidents has petered out.
Only too aware of the importance of their missions and the inputs generated, there is a sense among the Cobras that the turnaround time for approval of ELINT missions by New Delhi is held up because of the lack of a tactical understanding of the imperatives of timing of missions. They would know, after 50 years.