It is quite a paradoxical situation that our scientists are now world leaders in satellite technology and have established many records, while at the same time we are unable to rectify some of the glitches which tend to recur in our fighter aircraft.
Amidst the current developments regarding Indian Air Force aircraft, one important aspect appears to be getting overlooked.
In a written reply to a question (March 2018), Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre informed the Lok Sabha that thirty-one aircraft of the IAF had been involved in accidents during the last four years. It was said that ten accidents had taken place in 2014-15, six in 2015-16 and ten in 2016-17, while five were reported in 2017-18. These accounted for almost two squadrons of aircraft.
In order to get the full impact of these figures, one should read this together with the statement Air Chief Dhanoa made a few months ago, where he said that the depleted air force had only 31 squadrons as against a sanction of 42 squadrons (16-18 planes each) and that India faced a grave threat. In case one takes into account the IAF losses during the last ten years, almost four squadrons or even more may have been lost which is not a small number. In a way, had we cut down such of our losses, the country would have been in a much better position to face any threats.
As the IAF had the highest number of peacetime crashes in the world, quite some time ago, a committee chaired by Air Marshal La Fontaine had gone into various aspects and had come to the conclusion that amongst the main factors for crashes were pilot error at 42 per cent, bird hits at 7 per cent and maintenance and technical issues at 44 per cent. A very high rate of pilot error was blamed on the absence of an Advanced Jet Trainer. It was said that pilots, for want of an AJT, were trained on slower aircraft and got suddenly exposed to a Mach 2 situation, leading to accidents.
But losses have continued even after the induction of the AJT, as almost two squadrons have been lost during the last four years alone. As the number of crashes has not come down significantly, there have to be some other contributing factors which need to be addressed.
Earlier, in the late 1990s, the situation was even more grim as frequency of crashes had assumed alarming proportions. Eighty-one aircraft, all MIGs and its variants, had crashed during a five year period, killing 34 pilots. Admittedly, there was a spare parts crunch at that time, as some of these had been procured from the Central Asian and East European countries, that were not in a position to maintain that level of force and were reducing their inventory. These spare parts were not of the same quality as originals. So also was the case with lubricants and greases, whose shelf life had expired.
On the other hand, one of the former Air Chiefs was on record as having stated that there was a serious design flaw. While this debate was heating up, the Russian manufacturers blamed us for poor maintenance of the aircraft and making changes in the original designs. Be that as it may, the fact remains that we have lost a few hundred aircraft and valued pilots due to peacetime crashes, seriously depleting our resources and impinging on our fighting capability. Unfortunately, the same trend continues.
During the last few years, losing seven of our best possessions, Su- 30MKI, which is a fourth-generation aircraft being manufactured at Nasik, does not augur well. Most of these crashes of the Rs. 400 crore plane were attributed to technical snags connected with the wire guided system.
It has been often observed that in our country items in which foreign manufacturers of defense equipment are interested happen to be the slowest to develop. No one perhaps would be interested to sell us satellites or their launchers and look at the phenomenal progress made by us in the expertise in missile technology.
On the other hand development of battle tanks and aircraft has taken a very long time. Considering that even with the indigenously manufactured aircraft, a significant proportion and in critical areas still gets imported, their vulnerability to cyber attacks would also need to be taken into account with appropriate counter measures in place.
Now that we are in the process of acquiring state-of-the-art and latest aircraft, it is up to our technicians, maintenance crews and pilot trainers to ensure that we have an accident free record. After all every accident prevented only adds to the squadron strength of our Air Force.
The writer is a former Governor of Meghalaya and Uttarakhand and a former Commissioner of Police, Delhi.