|Feb 7, 2000|
The Widow Makers
With 28 fighters lost in 1999 the IAF's flight record plummets. But is the MoD listening ?
By Ninad D. Sheth
There could not have been a more tragic irony. In mid-1999 at the height of the Kargil conflict Flying Officer Pankaj Joshi and Flight Lieutenant Gaurav Chibber, both in their early 20s, were war heroes. They had flown almost 30 successful sorties braving enemy fire and knocking bunkers with almost surgical precision. But six months later both of them are dead -- victims of peace-time air crashes that has seen the Indian Air Force's (IAF) flight record plummet to worrying depths.
Chibber died soon after the Kargil war on August 6, 1999, when his MiG-29 on a routine sortie over Himachal Pradesh suddenly developed problems and crashed into the pine forests. Joshi died on December 12 near Chandigarh, when his MiG-21 inexplicably burst into flames and went out of control. Joshi did try to save himself by ejecting from the cockpit but for some reason his parachute never opened and he dropped like a stone to his death.
Joshi and Chibber joined the long list of 28 IAF pilots who died in peace-time crashes in 1999 -- the highest so far in the decade. The new year brought no respite. On January 10, a MiG-27 on a routine flight from the Jodhpur air base suddenly nosedived and smashed into the desert sands like a dart on a cardboard target.
The IAF's track record in the past decade is dismal by any standards: In the '90s, according to its own submissions in Parliament, it lost 80 pilots and 185 aircraft. Which makes it almost a squadron a year or a fourth of its entire fleet in the past decade alone. And the estimated loss: Rs 6,800 crore.
What is worrying is that much of the loss has happened in the past five years. "There is no doubt that after stabilising in the mid-'90s the crash rate -- especially vis-a-vis the old MiG-21s -- has gone up dramatically in 1999," says Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Kapil Kak of the Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). A senior IAF pilot instructor says, "Whatever the establishment may maintain, such crashes send the morale of the force plummeting."
The IAF in its defence says one reason for the high crash rate is that compared to previous years the force is flying at least 20 per cent more sorties in peace time because of the tense security atmosphere. A senior operations officer maintains that Combat Air Patrol Sorties or caps has gone up in forward air bases such as Jodhpur, Ambala, Tezpur and Adampur. Officials also point out that the rate of crash has remained a steady three per 10,000 hours of flying for the past decade. The IAF considers this as a normal attrition rate. But senior officers acknowledge that the rising number of crashes are cause for concern.
Much of the problem relates to the ageing MiG-21 which accounts for 62 per cent of the crashes. The aircraft, which this year completes 39 years with the IAF and still remains its backbone, is beset with problems. All the 22 MiG-21 squadrons are at least two-decades old. A third of the fleet is believed to be grounded for the lack of confidence in their ability to keep airborne without a glitch. The IAF loses one MiG fighter every 2,500 flight hours, making it one of the most vulnerable machines in service with any force in the world.
Most MiG-21s crash because of engine burnouts immediately after take-off and stress fractures to the airframe. The burnouts are often a result of poor engine maintenance and inadequate supply of spare parts especially of the critical blades of the engine that provide the thrust. But as a senior officer commanding MiG-21 squadrons points out, "Since nearly 22 of the IAF's 35 squadrons comprise of the MiG-21s, it is bound to reflect in the accident rate as well. Do not forget that as many as 17 Jaguars have crashed and we have only four Jaguar squadrons in the air force."
Part of the blame for the high rate of crashes lies with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the IAF. They did not act fast enough to induct the planned MiG-21 upgrade which was expected to enter service after a comprehensive refit in 1999. The refit has now been delayed by at least three years -- first, because the government could not decide the contract between Israel and Russia; and secondly, owing to lethargy on the part of the Russians. Instead of upgrading the entire MiG-21 Bis fleet, all that has been achieved so far is flight-testing of two MiG-21s in Russia.
Ageing MiGs are only one aspect of the problem. "There are two reasons for the IAF's poor air safety record," says Air Commodore (retd) Jasjit Singh, director IDSA. "The first is a 16-year delay in procurement of the Advance Jet Trainer (AJT). The second is the consistently poor quality of spare parts that are needed to keep the fighter planes airworthy." With the AJT absent, Indian fighter pilots do not get sufficient training to equip them to move from basic aircraft, such as the Kiran Mark II, to the most advanced ones like the Mirage 2000.
The IAF depends on the oldest version of the MiG-21 -- the MiG-21 FL -- for training but found the craft unsuitable because it is essentially a fighter-interceptor and does not incorporate any features of a trainer jet. Analysts say that bad training results in fatal errors of judgement at high speeds and these often lead to crashes. Says former air chief S.K. Kaul, "The government's lack of action on the AJT is nothing short of crass disregard for the force's vital needs." Even the present chief, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, at a commanders' conference in June 1999 blamed poor training for the high number of air crashes
A decision on the AJT though may at last be on hand. A French team visited Delhi last week and an English one is expected over the next two weeks to hammer out a deal. Even when the AJT is acquired indications are that India may go in for only 60 such aircraft. Air forces with comparable force structures, such as the UK and France, have opted for 150 aircraft, including about one squadron in reserve. So the problem of lack of training may persist.
Another major cause for the alarmingly high rate of IAF accidents is the lack of spare parts. In the mid '90s, a committee appointed to look into the air crashes pointed out this problem and pinned part of the blame on the spares made by the public-sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. As for the spares from Russia, sources say that though they are now supplied on time, the costs since 1991 have skyrocketed, in some instances by as much as 400 per cent. Given the fact that 70 per cent of Indian fighters are of Russian origin this has a negative impact on procurement of crucial components.
Each of the major reasons for the increasing number of crashes -- poor training, ageing fleet, pilot error, defective spare parts -- are problems that can be addressed if the IAF and the mod get down to brasstacks quickly. Otherwise, most of the fighters would have to be nicknamed "widow makers".