When India decided to go in for its first Helicopter Gunship, it was decided to go in for the Mil Mi-25, which was an export version of the famous Mi-24 Hind that saw much combat and action in Afghanistan, flying for the Russian forces. A batch of Indian helicopter pilots soon found themselves undergoing training on the Mi-25 in Russia in the early 80s.
No.125 Helicopter Squadron was formed on 01 Nov 83 as the designated squadron for the Attack Helicopters. Initial training was done on other types and the first attack helicopters only came on 5th May 1984. The Task of the Squadron at the time of its inception was to evaluate the Aircraft for the various offensive roles. After comprehensive trails the Squadron was allotted the Anti Tank and SHBO Escort as its primary roles. In addition, it was to be employed in COIN ops, SAR as and when required. While the IAF operated the Squadron in the initial years, command and control of the unit was handed over to the Army in November 86.
On the aftermath of the disastrous Jaffna University attack, the Indian Air Force realized the urgency of bringing in more firepower to support Army operations and SHBO activities. The damage to the Mi-8s could have been avoided if there was more firepower to suppress ground fire and if the Helicopters had additional armour to protect themselves.
No.125 Helicopter Squadron under Wg Cdr SC Malhan was sounded out to move south to take part in the Jaffna Operations. It is believed six Mi-25s were initially flown to Jaffna very soon after the Jaffna Helidrop Operation. The detachment was under the command of Sqn Ldr Rajbir Singh, who had been with the squadron since October 85.
The first strike mission was flown on 26th October over Jaffna. Flt Lt Atanu Guru, who had only recently completed conversion flew the sortie over the Karaitivu Causeway linking the Jaffna peninsula. As soon as he arrived over the causeway, he noticed five vehicles of the LTTE attempting to flee towards Karaitivu. It didn’t take much time for the 12.7mm bullets to find their mark. Guru destroyed all the five vans and several LTTE militants were killed. These causalities were later confirmed by an IPKF ground party that reached the site later on.
The next day, 27th October, a two ship mission was flown to the town of Chavakacheri, led by Sqn Ldr Rajbir Singh. It was reported that the Indian Army incurred the least losses , thanks to the deployment of airpower, but the operation was not without criticism. The attack from the air was witnessed in person by India Today correspondent, Shyam Tekwani, who was covering the conflict from the LTTE’ side. Tekwani reported that several civilians were caught up in the initial attack and were killed. This deployment of the attack helicopters was later confirmed by the Southern Army Commander, Lt Gen Depinder Singh.
The Action at Mulai
On 3rd November 1987, 1st Para Commando was tasked to advancing against LTTE Targets at Mulai. No.125 Squadron dispatched two Mi-25s flown by Sqn Ldr Rajbir Singh and Flt Lt Atanu Guru to fly ahead and strike at militant strongholds near the place. Rajbir arrived over the area and found himself in the midst of some heavy machine gun fire. He used his front gun to hit the ground targets in multiple runs. Two LTTE boats were destroyed in the initial attacks. While doing his third run flying against a Machine gun emplacement, he felt his Mi-25 shudder under hits from the ground. He immediately pulled out of the attack to assess the damage to this helicopter. He found his left engine RPM had fallen rapidly and was probably damaged. The Oil Pressure in the engine had also fallen rapidly indicating a heavy oil leak.
Rajbir immediately switched off the port engine and commenced his return flight to base. He had a choice of jettisoning all his armament stores – the rocket pods under the stub wings which still had a few rockets in them, but chose not to do so as the stores would fall in rebel captured area. Flying with the relatively heavy payload on a single engine would put enormous stress on the aircraft. A forced landing would mean that the aircraft and the aircrew will fall in the militant hands. For Rajbir, the choice was clear, he coaxed the aircraft back to Jaffna where he bought in the aircraft down to a smooth rolling landing. Subsequent inspection revealed that the R/T system was also knocked out by the ground fire.
Meanwhile a call was received by a beleaguered detachment of the Para Commandos who came under withering fire from the LTTE positions. Atanu Guru who was left holding the fort after Rajbirs departure assessed the situation. The Para commandos were hardly three hundred meters away from the LTTE positions. There would be no room for error. As he came in to attack the ground positions, the LTTE militants directed a heavy stream of anti aircraft fire at him. Ignoring the streaks of tracer coming up to him, Guru continued firing his forward gun into the enemy positions. The militants fire was no match for the battering they got from the Mi-25s weapons. They soon withdrew from their positions. Guru had used up nearly a thousand rounds in his attack.
The close air support from Rajbirs and Guru’s Mi-25s was so effective that 1 Para was able to overcome the LTTE positions. They managed to capture a flag belonging to the LTTE which was sent to No.125 Squadron as a token of appreciation.
A month later, on 7th December 87, Guru, while flying in support of the Paras located a tractor transporting militants at Mulaitivu. The militants disembarked from the tractor and started firing at the Mi-25. Guru returned fire accurately, destroying the vehicle and inflicting several causalities on the militants. This was later confirmed via radio intercepts.
A similar situation happened on 15th December, when Guru had to destroy a Van carrying LTTE militants at Karaitivu. This time return fire hit one of the rotor blades damaging it. But Guru recovered the chopper back to base without further ado.
These operations instilled a sense of fear among the LTTE against the ‘Crocodiles’ as they had come to dub the Mi-25s. It was no surprise that a few months later, Both Rajbir Singh as well as Atanu Guru was awarded the Vir Chakra by the President of India.
Rajbir was to later command No.125 Squadron itself, but fate snatched him away in 1994 when his Mi-25 crashed in the Himachal Pradesh Manali area killing him and the other crew members, Flt Lt A Bharadwaj and Sgt S K Aich.
In its stay of two and a half years , from Oct 87 to March 90, The Squadron earned two VrCs and two YSMs.