AIR POWER BECOMES A MIRAGE
A spate of crashes, trouble with spares and absent pilot trainers puts the Indian fighter Fleet in critical condition
The Indian Air Force ( IAF) was never more vulnerable. Its combat squadron strength is down to 31 squadrons of fighter aircraft (approximately 600) as against a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons (around 800). Two-and-a-half squadrons comprising 50 of its frontline multi-role combat aircraft, Mirage 2000, have been grounded for nearly two months after two crashes in a span of less than 10 days because of engine trouble. Worse, a three-year absence of a basic Stage I trainer aircraft for its rookie aircraft has thrown its pilot training programme in a tailspin. “A court of inquiry is underway. We are still trying to ascertain the cause of Mirage 2000 crashes,” says a highly
The Mirage fleet not flying for almost two months results in loss of precious training hours for pilots. A.K.SINGH, Former Air Officer commanding-in-chief, Western Air Command
placed source in Air Headquarters.
“The Mirages were grounded for over 50 days since March 5. Both crashes, on February 24 and March 5, were due to engine trouble,” says Air Marshal (retired) A.K. Singh, former air officer commanding-in-chief, Western Air Command. Till the causes of the crashes are known, only restricted flying will continue so that training of pilots does not come to a complete standstill.
In both cases, the aircraft were being flown by experienced pilots. On February 24, the pilots were Air Marshal Anil Chopra, air officer (personnel), and Wing Commander Ram Kumar, the commanding officer of the Mirage squadron. The pilots took off from Gwalior and were flying over Bhind when they reported an engine flame-out above 15,000 feet. Repeated re-light attempts failed and the two pilots were forced to eject, highly placed sources in the IAF headquarters said. During another training sortie less than 10 days later, a Mirage 2000 flying over Rajasthan reported a fire in the engine. The pilots barely managed to eject, but the aircraft was lost. Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne is hopeful that the fleet will resume normal flying once the problem has been identified and rectified.
Grounded Mirages are only a part of the problem. The falling IAF combat squadron strength is the bigger cause for alarm. Majority of the fighter jets in IAF’S inventory are over 30 years old. “Compare our decline to the rapid modernisation and growth of the Pakistan Air Force and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force of China, a bigger cause of concern. The Chinese frontline fighter strength stands at over 400 Su-30 and Su-27 fighters. Post-kargil, Pakistan embarked on a rapid modernisation and upgrade programme for its air force. It will have 115 F-16s (Block 50 and Block 52) with latest modifications. For India, the situation is extremely critical,” warns Air
Commodore (retired) Jasjit Singh, director, Centre for Air Power Studies.
Most variants of the MIG-21 that the IAF flies are almost 40 years old. Mig-27s and Mig-29s have been in the IAF inventory for more than 20 years. Most Mig-21s and Mig-27s will be phased out by 2017. They are to be replaced by Su-30 MKI, Medium MultiRole Combat Aircraft (though the deal has not been inked yet), Light Combat Aircraft ( IAF still waiting) and Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (still on paper). The IAF had warned the government of falling force strengths in 2006. The then chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi, had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warning that at the rate at which IAF was acquiring its fighters, it would lose its combat edge even to Pakistan.
Even if the $18 billion (Rs 90,000 crore) deal for 126 French Rafales is inked today, it will take at least three years for the first fighters to fly in. “In the meantime, existing aircraft will have to be phased out and squadron strength will fall further. We have better aircraft and more force multipliers today compared to 1965, but unless you have force (combat aircraft), what can force multipliers do?” asks Air Marshal Vinod Bhatia, former air officer commanding- in-chief, Western Air Command.
The bad news for IAF does not end here. Since 2009, it has not had a basic Stage I trainer for rookie pilots. The HPT-32 stage I trainer fleet of 70 aircraft was grounded when two ace pilots were killed in an air crash on July 31, 2009. All pilots—about 150 are trained each year—are now being sent straight to Stage II training on Kiran trainer aircraft. The sting is in the tail here. From a fleet of 234 Kiran Stage II trainers inducted, the IAF fleet has shrunk to 81 aircraft. “The rookie pilots learn the basics about taking off and landing on a piston-engined slow aircraft. But with no HPT-32, pilots are going straight to Kiran aircraft. Their basics are not clear,” warns Air Commodore Jasjit Singh.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the Rajya Sabha on March 19 that 46 per cent of all crashes are because of human error (air crew). Analysts warn of a danger of this figure increasing over the next few years because of a truncated training schedule. IAF hopes to send pilots abroad as soon as a deal for buying 75 Stage I trainers is inked.
IAF pilots undergo three stages of training, on HPT-32 (Stage I), Kiran (Stage II) and Hawk Advanced Jet
Trainers (Stage III for combat pilots). Of the 434 trainers and simulators
in IAF, only 255 are available to pilots. “There is critical deficiency of trainer aircraft. Of the 46 simulators, 16 are not operational. So the shortage in trainer aircraft and simulators is resulting in inadequate training,” says a source in Air Headquarters.
The air force cannot afford to continue losing life, limb or aircraft in training. It desperately hopes to return to its motto—the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.
AMIRAGE-2000 CRASH IN GWALIOR ON FEBRUARY24