While unstintingly commending the efforts of the Indian Air Force to recover the mortal remains of the 13 personnel killed in the AN-32 mishap in Arunachal earlier this month, the skimpy information available of the retrieval operation will render relief rather than closure to the bereaved families. Details are yet to trickle in, but it appears that not all the bodies of the 13 victims were recovered intact ~ 17 days after the medium-lift transport aircraft disappeared from radar screens when undertaking a routine sortie from Jorhat to Mechuka, an Advance Landing Ground in the Siang region. Bad weather is suspected to have caused the crash of the Soviet-origin plane.

Continuing inclement weather, and treacherous terrain, combined to make the recovery mission a truly vexing ordeal. While it was days before a Mi-17 helicopter visually spotted the wreckage after more sophisticated aircraft failed, the weather hindered the retrieval after the “black box” was recovered. Questions must arise if there were adequate weather warnings available when the AN-32 was on its way to the ALG, and hindsight could suggest that it was subjected to undue risks. The IAF must reveal all when the probe is concluded. The suitability of committing an obsolescent aircraft to such demanding missions will also be queried. Are other AN-32s still operating to ALGs in the region? It could be years before a new light-transport is acquired: there has been talk but no action about the Airbus-Tata C-295 to replace the vintage Avro748s.

While the condition of the ageing Mig-21 fighters has necessitated frequent upgrades and modernisation, the transport fleet remains relatively neglected. Could the fact that fighter boys hold all the key IAF operational appointments have a negative impact? A cultural revolution in the force might be considered ~ helicopter and transport pilots also perform a national duty.

When addressing the open session of Parliament the President echoed the brand of nationalism that paid the Prime Minister rich dividends during the recent poll. Yet the laudatory terms the Supreme Commander used for the Balakot action must have hurt the transport pilots as they grieved the loss of the 13 crew members and the AN-32. The short-point being that the IAF, all wings of it, are in urgent need of new platforms: and it has been five years since AK Antony was “grounded”. The political noise over the impending arrival of the first batch of Rafales will give the netas much thrill ~ the professionals will note that the IAF will still creak.

The lip-service that the politicians pay to the military is also evident from no plans being announced of the defence minister or the NSA visiting Jorhat to offer token solidarity with the crew of the AN-32. “Martyr” is a much-misused term in a military context these days: does there have to be a Pakistan “angle” to a soldier’s killing for that term to come into play?