Rajnath’s challenge

The AN-32 incident

One of the first built An-32 is arriving to its homeland. wikimedia commons

One of the biggest challenges facing new Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is the one his predecessors going back a decade have faced: the Indian Air Force’s depleting war machinery — fighters and other aircraft. The depletion of fighters has been much talked about — IAF is down to 32 squadrons from the 42 required. The situation is no better with regard to transport aircraft. The IAF is saddled with old aircraft that are prone to accidents, and replacements for them are not coming through quickly enough due to both a funds crunch and bureaucratic hurdles.

On June 3, the IAF lost its fifth Soviet-origin Antonov AN-32 military transport aircraft. The twin-engine plane went missing after taking off from Jorhat in Assam with 13 air force personnel on board. It was flying to an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in Menchuka, Arunachal Pradesh, near the Chinese border. Strangely, on three occasions, including this time, the aircraft has disappeared without a trace.

An aerial and ground search-and-rescue (SAR) operation was launched immediately – two Su-30 fighters, a C-130J transport, another AN-32, two Mi-17 helicopters and one Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) have been carrying out sorties in the area around Siang district. A P8i long-range reconnaissance aircraft of the Indian Navy took off from Tamil Nadu to join the search operations.

Isro’s Cartosat and Risat satellites are taking images of the area; ground parties of the Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) as well as locals and district administration officials are also searching the area, and a group of mountaineers have joined the effort now. However, no wreckage has been sighted so far.

The AN-32s have a spotty safety record. The plane and its variants have been involved in 15 incidents since 1986, according to the Aviation Safety Network. In 1986, an AN-32 disappeared over the Arabian Sea on a delivery flight from the Soviet Union via Oman. No trace was found of it or of the people on board. In 2016, another IAF AN-32, with 29 personnel flying from Chennai to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, went missing over the Bay of Bengal. In between these two incidents, there were two crashes, in 1989 and 2009, resulting in the deaths of crew and passengers.   

The IAF has over 100 AN-32s which play a critical role in equipping India’s frontline forces. The IAF supplies nearly 40,000 tonnes of material, including food and kerosene, every year to far-off places. The AN-32 has done a fantastic job for IAF and the country. Some 15 years ago, it was used to transport meat on the hoof, including sheep and lambs, to Ladakh, Siachen and Arunachal bases. Not for nothing is it called a workhorse.

Following the 2009 crash, the Ukrainian manufacturer of the aircraft, Antonov Aeronautical Scientific/Technical Complex, was awarded a $400 million order to upgrade 104 AN-32s. Forty of them were to be upgraded in Ukraine, the rest at HAL’s Kanpur depot between 2009 and 2013. The engines and airframes were to get a life-extension, and the aircraft were to be fitted with an improved avionics suite, communication equipment and landing aids. The Ukrainians played truant all through, finally walking out of the Kanpur depot and refusing to transfer technology, apparently because India did not sanction Russia after the latter invaded Ukraine in 2014.

The twin-turboprop AN-32s, which ferry troops and supplies to forward areas, have since suffered from poor serviceability, tardy maintenance, delays in overhauls and shortage of spares, resulting in a high aircraft on ground (AOG) percentage. Unfortunately, this non-upgraded aircraft was operating in such a hostile and rugged terrain. Rajnath Singh must ensure that some heads roll for such a serious lapse.

Of the 28 IAF fighters that crashed between April 2012 and March 2016, eight involved the MiG-21, six of which were the upgraded MiG-21 Bison variant, the government told Parliament in March 2016. From 1993 to 2013, 198 MiG-21s— dubbed “flying coffins” by pilots — of different variants have crashed, killing 151 pilots. Over 10 squadrons of MiG-21 Bisons and MiG-27 Floggers will retire by the end of this year. By 2022, these aircraft will have reached the end of their extended lifetime and the MiG-21s along with the MiG-23 and MiG-27 will all have to be phased out. To overcome its depleting fighter strength, the IAF will have to acquire new fighters as soon as possible.

To hold up against today’s fighter-jets, an aircraft needs the latest technology, such as advanced avionics and radar, greater weapon-load capacity, stealth technology, electronic warfare capability, precision weaponry and other such features, which the MiG-21 does not have. To arrest the drawdown, IAF will induct Sukhoi-30s, the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and Rafale jets.

In April 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sidestepping a three-year negotiation process to buy 126 Rafale fighters, announced the purchase of only 36 of the fighters instead in a deal struck with the French government. While the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters, to be delivered in the time frame 2019-23, will ameliorate the situation somewhat, IAF’s squadron strength will still be alarmingly worrisome.

There is a dire need for a spirit of enquiry in a country where, year after year, an ever-increasing defence budget (Rs 4.18 lakh crore for FY2019-20) gets passed in Parliament without any discussion or debate, even as India’s security challenges continue to mount. Yet, despite this huge allocation, the capital outlay remains both inadequate and under-spent due to bureaucratic interference.

The depletion of IAF’s war machines is a matter of great concern. How can a nation afford to lose highly trained and brave pilots and billions of dollars of war equipment and watch its combat efficiency plummet! Rajnath Singh must uproot the lackadaisical attitude of the bureaucracy by integrating the military leadership into the MoD. With a fresh budget about to be presented, he must pitch for a higher capital outlay to start rebuilding IAF’s squadron strength.

(The writer is a defence analyst and commentator)

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