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OPERATION CACTUS 1988 MALDIVES COUP

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Nov 1988 The Maldives Coup]During Operation Cactus, the Indian Navy was called in to rescue the Maldivian hostages taken by Sri Lankan mercenaries off the coast of Sri Lanka. After the Maldivian coup headed by a once prominent Maldivian businessperson named Abdullah Luthufi, who was operating a farm on Sri Lanka. INS Godavari (F20) and INS Betwa captured the freighter, rescued the hostages and arrested the mercenaries near the Sri Lankan coast.

A normal day dawned at Agra on 03 November 88. It was getting cold, and at about 0715 hrs I got a message from the Operations Room ordering our Squadron to place three aircraft on ‘Stand By Three Hours’ notice. Jadhav, Ramu, Ahuja, Vishu, Dilbagh, Patankar, Bhatnagar, all key personnel of 44 Squadron, activated their time tested systems, and by 1000 hrs the Squadron was ready with three aeroplanes. In the mean time we all moved into the Briefing Room and put on the TV to figure out where the crisis was that had activated us. Doordarshan was full of news about a coup in Maldives, and kept repeating that India was going to extend all support to Maldives and their President Mr Gayoom. Our navigators immediately pulled out their charts and maps, studied them, and then entered the coordinates of the Way Points from Agra to Hulule, via Trivandrum. Smart thinking by the Nav Leader. Hulule is the island that has the primary runway of Maldives, not too long at about 7600 ft in Nov 88. It is nearly 10,000 ft today. A conference was held, the Flt Cdrs, with Nav, Signals, Engineer and Gunner Leaders conducted their respective briefings. This was followed by a briefing from the Squadron Technical Officer. Finally I held a discussion with all aircrew, and made very general plans on what appeared would be a flight to the Maldives. Thus by 1100 hrs, the Squadron was good and ready. We awaited further instructions. As is normal under the circumstances of Stand By, the Squadron cafeteria was working over time, anticipation of an operational task activates the gastric juices. Not to be ignored.

The big question was, what will the Il-76s carry? Which forces? From where? How many? When do we get going? Unknown to us in 44 Squadron, the 50 Independent Parachute Brigade, also at Agra, had been activated and their Commander Late Brig Farook Balsara was busy getting his battalions together. It is pertinent that most of the Brigade was out on training, not too far away from Agra, and now their Commander was retrieving them. He decided to give the initial task to 6 Para, commanded by then Col, now Brig Retd Subhash Joshi. Joe, as Joshi was called, what else, had planned to go on a spot of leave the next day to Gantok, where his wife lived. It is ironic that in the event, Joe actually went exactly 180 degrees opposite. Later Joe was to tell many of his friends that they should be wary of taking a lift with Bewoor in an Il-76, “the possibility of heading the other way was favourable.” There was feverish activity at the Brigade. Briefings, allocation of Task groups and Sub Groups, collecting ammunition, liaison with higher formations including Army HQ, and then the move towards the air base. Plans changed based on inputs being received from Maldives via New Delhi. The reader can well imagine how sensitive and uncertain the situation must have been on the island of Male, the capital of Maldives. President Gayoom was reportedly in an ‘unsafe’ house, and the terrorists were having a free run.

Inputs given to the Squadron and the Brigade spoke of up to 500 terrorists armed with Rocket Propelled Grenades, AK-47s, and they controlled the TV station, Telephone Centre, and many important installations on Male. A red coloured ship anchored nearby was their base, and they were moving about in speed-boats normally used to ferry the rich tourists to their hideaways. Mercifully, they had not attacked the island of Hulule with the runway. There was another runway at an island named Gaan, but that was 400 kms to the South and of no use to us. In Delhi there was a high level meeting taking place in South Block. Information was coming in from various countries and our foreign office was in touch with Moscow, Washington, London, Colombo and many other agencies. While speed was of essence, it was prudent to be fully prepared for all contingencies and unforeseen events. It was also reported that some foreign mercenaries may be a part of the terrorist group. That made things a lot more acute, and to add to the uncertainty, reports said that there may be, just maybe, shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles with the terrorists. Thankfully, we in 44 Squadron were not told about the missiles at that stage.

So here we are at the Agra air base at approx 1230 hrs waiting for orders, when the leading elements of the Para Brigade started pouring onto the tarmac of our squadron. Then we were sure that our dear companions from Agra Cantonment, and partners in many an elbow bending sessions were to be our cargo. This made the whole exercise a lot easier since we knew most of the officers and were well acquainted with a very large number of JCOs and NCOs of the Brigade. By 1430 hrs, as I was came to know later, three companies were on 44 Squadron tarmac, and more were on their way. In fact, by 1500 hrs the complete Brigade had mobilised itself, creditable by any standards, and in keeping with their role as Rapid Reaction Forces. Indeed by 1530 hrs, the first three aircraft with crew of 44 Squadron and the vanguard of the Parachute Brigade were ready for action, awaiting firm instructions, coiled as it were to strike like a viper, at the enemy. It was then that officers from Army and Air HQs arrived at Agra with our orders. They were then Brig VP Malik and then Gp Capt Ashok Goel.

Should We Drop or Land? The team from New Delhi had a lot of definite information for both 44 Squadron and the Brigade. They had a tourist book with them that had a photograph of the runway and the island of Male where the terrorists were reportedly in control. Standard map would have been of little use. Very significant inputs were given and based on briefings from the officers from Army & Air HQs, we started a discussion on what we should do. Do we attempt a para-drop or do we go in for a direct landing at Hulule. Was there a large enough open space to receive paratroopers? Fortunately for us in Agra, the Indian High Commissioner to Maldives, Mr Banerjee, happened to be in Delhi when the coup took place and.he accompanied the team to Agra. His advice and knowledge of the geography of the islands, the obstacles and location of important installations, was crucial to the paratroopers who would be launching the assault. It would be of interest to the reader that the army officer became the COAS and the Air Force officer retired as the Inspector General of the IAF. The manner in which they interacted with the Brigade and Squadron was very encouraging, Time was now ticking away, it was 1600 hrs, and we had to make up our minds quickly. The island of Hulule with the main runway, had till now been ignored by the terrorists. How much longer they would disregard it was uncertain. If white mercenaries were a part of the group, they would most surely turn towards Hulule very soon. It is significant to note that we had no idea as to which group of terrorists we were up against. Were they from Africa, Sri Lanka, Middle East, SE Asia or the Indian Sub Continent? Their style of operations was a mystery, and it was therefore not possible to make plans based on what is commonly termed as ‘ known enemy capabilities and style of operations’.

The size of open grounds for a DZ on Male were insignificant for attempting a para drop. As is well known, an IL-76 drops 126 paratroopers in four streams, but the DZ must be large enough to take all of them. The option of flying around in circles and dropping maybe 10 at a time was ridiculous. It would have given away our presence, and before the boys in maroon berets could have regrouped, the 500 odd terrorists would have overwhelmed them, one by one. Making a para drop on the runway itself was discussed, but it had many imponderables. Winds at Hulule are generally around 20 Kms, it is just North of the Equator. To do a drop, the aircraft would have to fly about 3 kms west of the island of Hulule, and then hope that all the troopers would drift exactly that distance and land on the runway. If they landed in water it would have been disastrous. The load each soldier was carrying would have made getting out of the water impossible, many would have most surely drowned. Besides, the shallow sharp coral would have cut the para troopers to ribbons. Not one of them would have been fit for battle. To top it all we were discussing about a para drop by night. No references from the ground, prevailing winds unknown, details about obstacles and enemy capabilities scanty. This was indeed a challenge for the Indian Armed Forces, and especially for 44 Squadron and Para Brigade.

With a drop becoming more and more unacceptable, the discussions shifted to a direct landing at Hulule. The runway was reportedly still with some very lightly armed soldiers of the National Security Service of the Govt of Maldives. How well they were equipped to repel attacks by the terrorists was any body’s guess. Actually, no one was willing to make any guesses at all. Time was running out, and at this stage we collectively decided that the only option was to make a direct landing at Hulule, and that we must get airborne as soon as possible. Loading of aircraft was initiated, and orders to uprate fuel in all three aircraft were given. Normally the Il-76s have enough fuel to position themselves anywhere in India. Now we planned to fly from Agra to Hulule, remain on ground with engines running for some time, and return to Trivandrum. Each aeroplane needed additional fuel. For 3 aircraft this meant about 70,000 litres of ATF. That’s a lot of refuelling.

The Squadron tarmac resembled a combination of a beehive cum anthill. Trucks from the Brigade moving all over, fuel bowsers running to and fro, loading being supervised by the Flight Gunners, technical staff preparing the aeroplanes, ground power units connected and aircrew at their stations preparing for staring engines. Indeed we did miss out some things, and many shortcuts were taken that evening. Normally, it would have taken us at least 3 to 4 hours to refuel the aircraft. But our Chief Engineering Officer, then Gp Capt now Air Mshl Retd Gururani miraculously, and of course by wielding his whip, got all three aircraft refuelled with 60 tons each by 1745 hrs. Hats off to ‘Guru’, for what he achieved was possibly unprecedented in the history of the IAF. The result was that aircraft numbers K-2878 and K-2999 were starting engines at 1750 hrs and taxying for take off that was recorded by Air Traffic Control, Agra as 1804 hrs on 03 Nov 88, Echo Foxtrot. That’s Indian Standard Time.

Discussions and Making of Plans.

It is a fact that there was not much time for detailed discussions and planning between the Brigade and 44 Squadron. They were busy briefing their officers and JCOs, we were busy with our planning for the flight to Hulule, ATC procedures and of course the final approach and landing. Our charts were not current and the most reliable source of information was the tourist book given to us by Mr Banerjee. Like all coffee table books this one was not designed to plan an airborne assault, it was intended to attract tourists to Maldives. But that was all that we had, and of course, we ‘milked’ Mr Banerjee about all that he could give us on the runway, taxiways and so on. Col Joshi asked him all that he wanted to know about the island of Male, with details about buildings, roads, and other pertinent information for their plans to reach Mr Gayoom at the earliest.

As the reader can well imagine, most of our discussions were held not in the Squadron briefing room but on board K-2878 somewhere between Bhopal and Hyderabad. It would be of interest that Joshi had carried out a rehearsal at Agra airport on how he would deploy his troops immediately after deplaning at Hulule. The incongruity of this rehearsal is that there was no resemblance at all between Hulule and Agra. But being the professional that he is, Joe decided that some sort of simulation must be done before his troops boarded the aircraft. The rehearsal, though unrelated, had a very salutary impact on the preparedness of the paratroopers. ‘Bull’ Balsara, Joe and I discussed some important issues. Then Majors Dhillon and Umed Singh, the Company Commanders of 6 Para also joined in the discussions. How the rescue teams would go about their task was discussed in details. The tourist book had a photograph of Mr Gayoom, and each soldier was shown what their ‘target’ looked like. We were now nearing Nagpur, and it was time for a well earned dinner prepared by Govind the superb cook of 44 Squadron. Back at Agra, the Squadron and the Brigade were preparing the next three aircraft for Maldives. The rapidity of our mobilisation, and the speed with which the Indian Armed Forces reacted to the situation must be well perceived by the reader.

Our next problem was what info were we to divulge to various ATC Centres? Expectedly Delhi had done its homework well, and we were able to get to 37,000 feet by the time we reported over Bangalore. In the sector Bangalore to Trivandrum, there were many thunderstorms below us. These troubled the Mirages and AN-32s on their way to Trivandrum. It would be appropriate here to salute the professionalism and tenacity demonstrated by the young pilots from the Mirage Squadron who flew from Gwalior to Trivandrum at night through some pretty rough weather. For a single seat, single engine aircraft, with no assistance from ground control, it is truly creditable. Then Wg Cdr, now Air Marshal ‘Doc’ Vaidya, who was CO of that Mirage Squadron, has interesting details about his Squadron taking part in this operation.

On the airway from Trivandrum to Hulule is a Dead Reckoning Check Point NOKID under control of Trivandrum Centre. We would transit NOKID both ways. It is significant to appreciate that all air traffic between SE Asia and West Asia, that does not cross over India, as well as between Colombo and West Asia, transits through NOKID. It is one very busy Check Point. We had decided not to report our position at NOKID since we had no intelligence to indicate whether the mercenaries on Male or possibly their friends on mainland India, had a monitoring system to forewarn them of intervention by India or anyone else. The only option for us was to keep a sharp lookout for other aircraft with their flashing lights, and monitor transmissions made to Colombo and Trivandrum. We two pilots and the Tail Gunner, Master Warrant Officer Nandgopal normally referred to as “Guns”, looked out for traffic, and the “Radio” Master Signaller Ravindran monitored the VHF. We did see some aircraft, but they did not interfere with our flight path. Plans finalised. NOKID transitted on the Outbound, it was time to descend and establish contact with Hulule for a landing.


The Arrival at Hulule Airport.

During the pre-flight briefing, it was decided that about 20 minutes before our ETA, we would establish HF contact with one of our aircraft on ground at Agra We did that before commencing descent. They listened and we kept informing them about our position in very short messages. The reader will recollect that two aircraft had got airborne from Agra. The second one, K- 2999 was under command of then Wg Cdr now Gp Capt Retd Amardeep Gill. He maintained a fixed distance behind us, and used his radar to keep us in ‘sight’. We chatted with each other on confidential channels. At about 2125 hrs on 03 Nov 88, we made first R/T contact with Hulule. A special identification and verification procedure had been worked out to ensure that we got verified confirmation that all was well, and it was safe to land. In return, Hulule also got some codes from us to assure them that it was indeed the Indian Armed Forces and not some more terrorists. Our navigator Gp Capt Retd M K Singh, brought us in line with the runway.

We were about 25 kms from touch down when we asked for runway lights, they came on for about 10 seconds and were switched off. In those 10 seconds we aligned with the runway. The Il-76s navigation computer, KUPOL, guided us, and we continued our descent towards a dark unlit runway, smack in the middle of the Hind Mahasagar. No further R/T transmissions were made after the initial identifications were over. Our Ground Mapping Radar KP 3, was picking up an enormous echo because the coral is so shallow that it painted on the radar screen. The exact position of the runway could not be ascertained. Nor did we have any kind of perspective to adjust our descent and approach path. But the code words and authentication had been ‘positive’ and we were committed to land. After all, we had just flown more than 3,000 kms with more than 200 paratroopers from Agra, right across India, negotiated NOKID like a ghost aircraft, it was not the time to look for ideal landing conditions. The option of ‘going round’ and making a second approach was out of question. It had to be done the first time and we had to get it right.




From the cockpit nothing could be seen on ground, actually it was water. Normally lights are invariably seen around an airport, in this case it was jet black. Col Joe was sitting with MK Singh to get a good view of the airfield and its structures for making last minute changes in his plans if necessary. Apart from the standard intercommunication between the pilot / engineer / navigator, no one else spoke. The Indian Air Force with 44 Squadron in the lead was about to make history in clandestine strategic operations. Would we do it right, and do it smartly? I hoped all was well on the runway, and no surprises awaited us on ground. At about 200 mtrs above sea level, indicated on the radio altimeter I transmitted “Lights”. They came on, we flared out, chopped power, and as the tyres touched the concrete, the runway lights were switched off. Not a regular landing procedure, nor anticipated. It was pretty unnerving. K-2878 was on ground at Hulule with lethal cargo.

Having read the story so far, the reader will understand that on the approach to land, we were not sure how far down the runway the aircraft will actually flare out and finally touch down. With no runway lights, and not knowing exactly where we had touched down, we engaged Reverse on all Four engines, pulled up Brake Flaps, and sat on the foot brakes. As I recollect, we stopped in possibly the last 300 metres. The lights on the island of Male looked far too close. There was complete silence in the aircraft, someone had the intercom button pressed, and heavy breathing was heard by everyone. May be it was me.

We turned around, and started opening the cargo doors for facilitating as quick an exit as possible for the paratroopers. As the aircraft stopped the maroon berets were out like a shot. We could see them scurrying across the tarmac, totally professional, well trained rapid action forces. However, this rapid action to get onto the other side of the runway had its extremely comic and near tragic consequences. I advised Gill to land after it was clear that there was no enemy response as yet. Imagine his horror, when he saw paratroopers crossing the runway during his landing run. Amazingly, no one was even grazed by the aircraft. Some agility these para boys have. Talk about living dangerously ! According to MK, our landing time was 2148 IST. That makes it a flight of 3 hours 44 minutes from ‘ wheels up to touch down’.

What deserves unqualified credit is Amardeep Gill maintaining formation and position for all those hours, and then practically chasing me onto the runway at Hulule. Last minute changes in Brigade plans resulted in all the troops going into battle for securing the Hulule island. So the aircrew and our technical crew offloaded the Brigade stores from the aircraft. The reason being that we wanted to get off as soon as possible. There was no need to expose two giant IL-76s to some stout-hearted terrorist. Recall that time was very short in Agra, and short cuts had been forced upon 44 Squadron and Para Brigade. The end result was that ammunition had to be issued on board the aircraft. Now this is contrary to all regulations and in violation of safety procedures. But under the circumstances, it was the only option. I of course was oblivious to all this, merrily flying the aircraft, while the lean and mean troopers of 6 Para were being armed to their teeth. No one took my permission to issue ammunition, had they, what could I have replied? But here is more. Somewhere between Nagpur and Bangalore, Joe realised that his ‘boys’ were without hand grenades. Yes, dear reader, nearly 400 para-troopers were issued hand grenades, very carefully I was told later, at 30,000 feet inside K-2878 and K- 2999. It would be interesting to know which other country’s army / air force cooperation results in such action.

By 2230 hrs on 03 Nov 88 I got airborne for Trivandrum, and Gill followed soon thereafter. Our task was over, we had successfully delivered about 400 of some of the finest soldiers of the Indian Army onto Hulule within 15 hours of the first telephone call received from the Maldives. Our role now was to maintain the air bridge from Agra to Hulule. Already, Ramu and ‘Piston’ Jadhav, the Flight Commanders of 44 Squadron were preparing the next three IL-76s for Hulule. That evening, 44 Squadron flew 5 aircraft into Hulule. Then Squadron Ldr, now Air Cmde Robin Barua, brought in the last IL-76. His crew were the only ones to see Maldives by day. It is said that the Maldives are extremely beautiful. Unfortunately, the writer and many of the aircrew who took part in this operation, have not seen the archipelago by day, nor visited it ever again. We came in on a moonless night, and left before the sun had warmed the shores of Hulule on 04 Nov 88. Gill and I reached Trivandrum by 2315 hrs, the officers from Army and Air HQs briefed the AOC-in-C, Southern Air Command, Air Mshl Gabbu Sen. I got back to Agra by 0500 hrs on 04 Nov to see the sixth aircraft being readied as Stand By. All of us had been awake for more than 24 hrs. Once again 44 Squadron had lived up to its reputation. It is appropriate for me to very humbly place on record that I was uniquely privileged to command such a fine body of officers and airmen. They did a fine job, every day, and continue to do so, even today.




Progress of Ground Operations.

Joe got into the act immediately. By 2220 hrs he had secured the complete island of Hulule. He then set about commandeering boats to move across to the island of Male. During the crossing they saw a large ship moving in the harbour and fired 4 rockets all of which hit their target. But Joe’s job was to secure President Gayoom and not chase ships. The beach-head was established just after mid-night on 03 / 04 Nov 88, and by 0215 hrs the President Mr Gayoom was under the protection of 6 Para. Simultaneously, house to house searches were made, and about 30 odd mercenaries were captured with large quantities of arms and explosives. About 60 had fled on the very ship that the paratroopers had hit with rockets. She was MV Progress Light, and the terrorists had taken many locals as hostages. Joe then called Brig Balsara and Mr Banerjee across to Male, and some time after 0400 hrs they met up with a very relieved Mr Gayoom. After some discussions, they called New Delhi, and Mr Gayoom had a small chat with Rajiv Gandhi who was then our PM.

The Indian Navy was involved in the classic and surgically conducted interception of MV Progress Light on high seas. The terrorists killed one hostage, but surrendered to INSs Godavari and Betwa. They were brought back to Male along with all hostages. The details of how INSs Godavari and Betwa carried out the interception is a story by itself, and must be told by the Navy. The events may not compare with River Plate, Bismark, Midway or Falklands, nevertheless, it was a fine naval engagement, with good lessons Lessons and Conclusion This forum is certainly not the ideal place to discuss lessons for the Indian Armed Forces and various ministries in Govt. The story has been recounted to make the public at large, through the pages of Vayu, aware of this tidily conducted operation in support of a friendly neighbour.

There are many elements of this story that remain confidential and for very good reasons too. India’s predominant geographic position in the Indian Ocean, the size of her economic, political, commercial, technical, industrial and mercantile strength, and of course her military potential, places a heavy burden on her. This burden is to be borne with grace and redeemed with positive action for maintaining stability, composure and tranquillity in our region. We may be asked to render similar help by any of our immediate neighbours and also countries a little distant. We have proven our capacity to react swiftly and determinedly by our response at Maldives, and this has not been forgotten by other nations. The lesson therefore is to be fully prepared both militarily and politically to render assistance on invitation, with level headedness. Far too many anti-establishment individuals and organisations protest against the existence of elements that keep us ready, able and willing to take such action. The airborne assault at Hulule was not done to impose our systems and culture upon another people. But if we are unprepared, and those inimical to the existing state of affairs are aware of this hesitation within India, they will be tempted to create mischief and destabilise matters for their selfish greed. An unprepared India will pay dearly to re-establish normalcy in this region. Examples are abundant.

The air assault at Hulule was India’s first undisclosed strategic intervention at the request of a neighbour. The IPKF was well advertised before the first soldier set foot on Sri Lankan soil. We got it right, and while errors took place, they were quickly remedied. Good training, measured audacity, daring initiative, swift action, considered decisions, full backing and non-interference in military matters by political leadership, all contributed to the success. It is true that the world powers were in awe by the rapid and determined reaction of the Indian Air Force and Indian Army. It is for the reader to make comparisons with other similar operations that have been conducted by other countries, and then proudly conclude,

Maldives Coup 1988
1988 Maldives Coup - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

‘Hindustaan ke faujiyon mein vakai kuch baat hai ’.
 
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An-12s carrying paratroopers and equipment in Maldives




Indian Snipers during Operation Cactus
 

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Personnel of the Indian Marine Strike Force (IMSF) - now known as the Marine Commando Force or MARCOS - guard the commander of hijackers after boarding the ship.


Personnel for the 50 Ind Para Bde and local militia men with a PLOTE miliant under arrest.



Bullet riddled walls of the Malivian National Security Service (NSS) head quarters which was attacked by PLOTE invaders.


Attack underway on the escaping vessel MV Progress Light with the hijackers and hostages.



Smoke blows from the ship under siege by the Indian Navy.
 

Capt.Popeye

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Thanks for posting. This operation was a good example of inter-service co-ordination on a trans-national deployment. The IAF's program to augment air-lift capacity has some genesis in this episode. One of the most ingredients for a successful operation is rapid deployment of assets.
 

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