A spate of crashes, trou­ble with spares and ab­sent pi­lot train­ers puts the In­dian fighter Fleet in crit­i­cal con­di­tion

India Today - - DEFENCE - By Gau­rav C. Sawant & Shiv Aroor With Kar­tikeya Sharma

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.


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