Circling in to land at the tiny airstrip in Kargil, the Indian Air Force AN-32 transport plane is closely observed by the Pakistan army pickets overlooking the area.
With heavy winter snowfall on the Zoji La pass, the bi-weekly IAF flight is Kargil's only link with the rest of the Kashmir Valley and the world from December to May. Following a memorandum of understanding signed on October 20 last year, the IAF aircraft ran scheduled flights carrying civilians to an Airports Authority of India airfield operated by the military.
The relationship between civil aviation and the military is so close that it often goes unnoticed.
As many as 28 airports regularly used by civil airlines are actually IAF or navy bases. Landing in Pune, Bangalore, Goa, Srinagar or Chandigarh, fliers seldom realise they are at a military base, even if they notice IAF fighters parked at a distance.
Their planes park in what is called a "civil enclave," where passenger facilities like check-in counters and baggage collection are located.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation believes that with airlines opening up new destinations, it makes good economic sense to create "civil enclaves" at existing military airfields, rather than spend Rs 500-600 crore building a separate airport. The IAF obliged when this meant including just a couple of civil flights a day.
But now, with 14 scheduled airlines jostling for business, there is increasing friction between the IAF's military requirements and the AAI's need to provide infrastructure to a gaggle of airlines, all clamouring for more operating time and better civilian facilities.
Newer and bigger airliners make newer and bigger demands on military airfields. Instead of the 6000-foot runway at many IAF bases, today's wide-bodied aircraft need 7,500 feet. And aprons (parking areas in front of terminal buildings) that accommodated two earlier-generation aircraft, must now be expanded to cater to three or four larger modern aircraft.
As far as the IAF is concerned, these requirements are secondary to its own priorities of security and training.
The IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Sashindra Pal Tyagi, told Business Standard: "My primary job is to train pilots to fight and win a war. Beyond that, I realise the growth of civil aviation is vital for India's growth, and I only say 'no' when there's no way I can accommodate (AAI demands)."
But AAI officials insist that growth in civil aviation is being stunted by the IAF's reluctance to make space for civil operations. They cite examples like Pune, which is both the home base of the IAF's frontline Sukhoi-30 fighters and a fast-growing civilian traffic hub.
The IAF has only partially granted requests for landing and take-off slots from airlines like Deccan, Kingfisher and Go Air, because morning and evening timings that suit passengers clash with the training schedules of Su-30 fighters.
Air traffic controllers are another sore point: the IAF says its ATCs are overworked just handling fighter training. With restrictions on how long an ATC can be on duty, the IAF doesn't have enough manpower to extend operating hours for civil traffic.
Top AAI officials say they are willing to negotiate reasonably, but the IAF's tendency to focus on what it is giving rather than what it is getting, causes hard feelings.
AAI chief K Ramalingam points out: "Whenever Air Force asks for help, for instance when their Instrument Landing System broke down in Srinagar, we provide spares and technicians to repair their systems free of charge. Now, we have received a help request from the IAF for Bangalore, where they are about to hold an international airshow, Aero India 2007. We will be providing that free of charge."
Civil Aviation Secretary Ajay Prasad believes that there is no choice but to work around this friction; duplicating hugely expensive air bases is scarcely an option. He points to the cooperation in Goa, a navy-owned airport, where the AAI gave the navy land in Kochi and Porbandar in exchange for land to expand operations in Goa.
"The navy has been very accommodating," he says, adding, "They have allowed 24-hour (civilian) operations, and they are dovetailing their training requirements with civilian requirements."
So pleased is the MoCA with the naval model of cooperation that Minister for Civil Aviation Praful Patel met Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju on August 24 to suggest a similar approach with the Air Force. Joint working groups have been set up for smoother interaction, but suspicion lingers between the AAI and the IAF.
The IAF has its reasons for caution, including long-term expansion plans for which free land is needed and top-secret equipment in place at a handful of bases.
Tyagi also says that some bases are already so crowded that even IAF fighters have to queue up for the runway.
"In Adampur, for example, there are over a hundred flights a day. There is no question of accommodating any outsider. We have to divide timings between four squadrons and when one squadron is using the runway, the other actually taxies out and is waiting."
Despite the merits of arguments on both sides, this is a high-stake game in which political, developmental, security and economic considerations often clash with one another. One example is the ongoing imbroglio over the proposed airport at Halwara, which stemmed from Ludhiana's long-standing demand for an international airport.
Worried that the Akali Dal would rake up this popular issue in the Punjab elections, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh proposed an airport at Ludhiana. The IAF, reluctant to allow another airport in the vicinity of Halwara -- a major air base near the city -- offered a civil enclave at Halwara air base, provided no cost accrued to it.
With the Punjab government unwilling to contribute anything more than the land, the AAI would have to foot a Rs 220 crore bill to extend the runway, build a taxi track, and install international-standard instrument landing and navigation systems.
Since the AAI is a self-financing institution, the only option for raising such sums is through Public-Private-Partnership (PPP), where a private contractor is allowed to build and run hotels, restaurants and other revenue-generating mechanisms, to recover his cost of construction.
Here the proposal ran into the stone wall of security: the MoD refused to allow PPP contractors anywhere near the high-security base.
Such problems are not insoluble; once more, the navy has shown the way forward. The Rs 200 crore project to convert the naval airfield at Vishakapatnam into an international airport had a three-way sharing arrangement: the Navy provided Rs 130 crore, AAI chipped in with Rs 30 crore, and the Andhra Pradesh government contributed the balance and the land. With no private partners, security was a non-issue.
Despite the friction, civil-military cooperation is increasing, driven by the remorseless logic of resource optimisation. Pathankote became the latest military airport to support civil operations when, on November 22, Deccan Airways launched a daily flight to and from Delhi.How accommodating the AAI and the IAF, and their parent ministries -- the MoCA and the MoD -- can be, will play a substantial role in determining the future of India's aviation growth story.