During the 1971 India-Pakistan War, the Indian Air Force deployed nearly 600 combat aircraft and lost around 70 aircraft. According to figures released by the IAF, around 50 per cent of the fighters were brought down by ground fire and around 30 per cent were lost in dogfights. Incredibly, a fifth of aircraft losses were not due to enemy action - during the 14 day conflict India was losing more than one aircraft daily in accidents.
Nearly five decades since that war, India's armed forces continue to have a poor air safety record and have experienced troubles with virtually every aircraft in its fleet. According to the Ministry of Defence, since 1963 more than 490 MiG-21s have been lost in crashes, resulting in the deaths of 171 pilots. The British made Jaguar also has an unusually high crash rate, and even the latest Russian Sukhoi Su-30s - each costing Rs 450 crore - aren't immune from accidents.
It is in this backdrop that the crash of the Mirage-2000 on February 1, leading to the tragic deaths of squadron leaders Siddhartha Negi and Samir Abrol, has once again focused attention on the IAF's safety record as well as the competence of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to service these jets. The French made jet that crashed at HAL Airport in Bangalore while the aircraft was taking off for an acceptance test flight after it had been upgraded by the public sector company.
Since the Mirage-2000 fleet is 34 years old, sections of the media and several observers have raised the possibility that the aircraft's age may have been a contributing factor. HAL's abilities - or the lack of them - have also been cited as one of the reasons for the crash. However, pinning the blame on any single organisation is a mistake because there are a number of stakeholders in the purchase, operation and maintenance of aircraft.
India isn't the only country to lose Mirage jets. Exactly a month back, on January 1, a French Air Force Mirage-2000 went off the radar while conducting a low-altitude training flight in eastern France. Days later the bodies of its two pilots were found in the plane's debris buried in the snow. In April 2018, a Hellenic Air Force Mirage-2000-5 crashed into the Aegean Sea, killing its pilot. In fact, Greece has lost a total of 13 Mirage-2000 jets in the last 29 years.
Attempting to pin the blame on aircraft age or HAL is futile because there are a number of factors that impact flying efficiency. Let's look at the different issues at play and what needs to be addressed to lower the accident rate.
HAL: Myriad of problems
Those who take potshots at HAL for its allegedly shoddy products forget that the public sector undertaking once exported spares to a technologically advanced Western country. In 1962, the company inked a licensing arrangement with Aerospatiale of France to build the Lama (Cheetah) and Alouette III (Chetak) in India. In his book 'Military Industry and Regional Defense Policy: India, Iraq and Israel' military historian Timothy D. Hoyt writes that HAL eventually built 300 Chetaks, "and by 1966 the French were buying spares from HAL".
Four decades before it developed the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft, HAL had built India's first jet fighter, the HF-24 Marut. Like any developmental aircraft, the Marut too had teething issues, which were hardly insurmountable. The way forward would have been for the IAF to accept limited numbers of the initial version and then wait for HAL to build better iterations. This is called the incremental or ladder approach in which the weapons system gets better with each generation.
However, in 1975 production was halted - barely 20 years after the decision to begin development. The culprit was the Soviet Union which convinced India to licence build the MiG-21 aircraft in India. However, HAL could never build a fully 100 per cent MiG-21 because its production always required procurement of some parts from the Soviet Union. In the end, HAL was not allowed to build the Marut and neither was it able to master the MiG-21. It was a clear case of external sabotage coupled with internal acquiescence.
HAL can only be as good as it's allowed to be. Being a PSU, it faces a myriad of problems that state owned companies generally suffer - political interference, bureaucratic inertia, mismanagement of resources, job reservations and corruption.
This doesn't mean HAL isn't accountable. A newly upgraded Mirage-2000 exploding at takeoff is a scene straight out of a B-Grade Bollywood flick, but the fact that it happened is a pointer to the notorious 'chalta hai' attitude that exists in India's government sector.
According to Air Marshal (Retd) B.K. Pandey, Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, one of the contributory factors to the poor quality of output by HAL especially on aircraft engines is the rush to meet with production targets towards the end of the financial year. "In one particular year, HAL overhauled four engines of the MiG-29 aircraft in the first six months of the financial year," he writes inMilitary, Aerospace and Internal. "However, in the last three months of the same financial year, under pressure to meet with deadlines, the Indian aerospace major completed overhaul of four engines. Compression of time by 50 per cent would have undoubtedly had deleterious effect on the quality of work output."
Another example of the inefficiencies inherent in HAL can be seen in the production of the Su-30, which HAL licence builds in India. The original Russian aircraft costs Rs 350 crore but its price shoots up to Rs 450 crore when built at HAL. But more serious from a war fighting point of view is that the Sukhoi's availability rate (aircraft available for immediate combat) is just 55 per as opposed to the minimum stipulated 70 per cent to meet operational tasks. This means on any given day, only half of the IAF's 272 frontline fighter jet are ready for missions, as the remaining are grounded for repair and maintenance due to delay in supply of spare parts.
In such a scenario, aircraft cannibalisation is a common practice worldwide. Compared with MiGs, Sea Harriers and Jaguars, the Mirage-2000 has one of the best safety records in the IAF fleet, but whether individual aircraft are being cannibalised will only be known once the current inquiry is over.
Clearly, a confluence of factors is responsible for all that's wrong at HAL. While PSU chiefs, unions and workers will come and go, the sufferer is the IAF. As former navy chief and 1971 War hero Arun Prakash concluded after the Mirage crash: "HAL bashing may be justified to a point, but (it's) time to question elected (representatives) too; 35 defence ministers have overseen this giant defence PSU since 1947. While pampering its union, none demanded quality, productivity and aeronautical innovation of HAL, or hand-picked a dynamic CEO."
The IAF is among the few air forces in the world that conduct intense, year-round training. Benjamin Lambeth of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the IAF trains for a "high intensity, high stakes" conflict. Keeping in mind the possibility of a two-front war, the IAF puts its pilots and aircraft through the wringer.
Mock air combat can involve hundreds of aircraft flying thousands of kilometres. Last year's Gaganshakti 2018 saw the participation of large numbers of Sukhois, Jaguars, MiG-29s, Mirage-2000s, MiG-21s, Hawk and even the Tejas. The IAF also carried out long-range strike missions over the extended area of the Indian Ocean Region. In a previous war game in 2013, Sukhois flew 1,800 km bombing missions from Chabua in Assam to the western front, with mid-air refuelling. In fact, IAF pilots are known to lead missions over 10 hours in their Sukhois.
Such training places a great deal of stress on aircraft, pilots and air crews, which means potentially more accidents. But that's the way the IAF trains for war. In fact, a former air force chief has gone on record that he would rather lose pilots during training than during war.
The strategy has been amply rewarded. In the 1971 War, for instance, the IAF was able to conduct a wide range of missions - troop support; air combat; deep penetration strikes; para-dropping behind enemy lines; feint runs to draw enemy fighters away from the actual target; and reconnaissance.
In contrast, the Pakistan Air Force, which was solely focused on air combat, was blown out of the subcontinent's skies within the first week of the war. Those PAF aircraft that survived took refuge at Iranian air bases or in concrete bunkers, refusing to offer a fight.
Similarly, the PLAAF has nearly 2,000 planes, but only a fraction of the peace-time accident rate. According to Foreign Policy, "(Chinese) pilots are neither trusted nor properly trained. Drills are regimented, centrally controlled, and divorced from realistic combat conditions."
A PLAAF fighter pilot would most likely be reprimanded if he deviated from the flight plan set by his commanders. Losing a plane would be cause for a court martial. Thankfully, the IAF does not believe in having robots but values superior training and innovation. IAF pilots have truly internalised what Sergei Dolgushin, a Russian Air Force ace with 24 victories in World War II, said is a prerequisite to be a successful fighter pilot: "A love of hunting, a great desire to be the top dog." Such aggressive is what makes the IAF one of the world's most respected and feared air forces but it comes with a price - the occasional accident.
Harsh is normal in India. The tropics are an unforgiving environment for any aircraft, especially European designed aircraft that were designed, tested and built to fly in completely different weather conditions. The hot air of the tropics means aircraft engines produce less thrust and the wing produce less lift compared with similar aircraft flying in European skies. Sun baked runways are also known to impact landing safety. These are factors IAF pilots have to live with.
Bird hits are another huge factor in aircraft accidents over India. The IAF attributes around 10 per cent of accidents to bird hits. Most IAF bases are located near populated areas, where birds are a constant menace. Take the Hindon Air Force Station, east of Delhi, which is a C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft base. When it was built in the middle of the last century it was the middle of nowhere, but today it is surrounded by thickly populated housing colonies.
The situation has got so dire that the IAF has issued global bids for 45 bird detection and monitoring radar systems to be installed at airports and air bases across India.
Depleted air force
The IAF's fleet strength is currently down to 29 squadrons or less than 600 warplanes - the same number of aircraft the service had 50 years ago. The sanctioned number is 42 squadrons. In a country as vast as India, with multiple threats, such depletion in fighter numbers means fewer aircraft have to perform more missions to get the same job done. The IAF is therefore forced to keep older aircraft such as the MiG-21 in its fleet well past their use by date. It also means aircraft are spending less than the required down time in maintenance hangars.
Fleet shortages are primarily because of decision making delays by the political leadership. The worst example is the 10-year tenure of former Defence Minister A.K. Antony during which procurement reached its nadir. The drawn-out fighter competition that finally led to the current drama over the Rafale took more than 10 years.
This is where induction of more locally built LCA Tejas and Su-30s can mitigate the fighter crunch. However, HAL's erratic production isn't helping. Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhano told the media in October 2018: "Additional production of the Su-30 is delayed by over two years and LCA production commitment (has been delayed) by over six years."
The good news is that aircraft crashes have shown a declining trend over the past few years. The Indian armed forces lost as many as 264 fighter aircraft from 2000 to 2015 or an entire squadron (approximately 18 aircraft) in each of those years. However, during the period 2014-17, the collective aircraft losses of the IAF, army and navy fell to around seven per year. "India has reduced its military aircraft crash rate by over fifty percent in the last decade," says Strategy Page.
Bringing the crash rate down to US or European levels should be the goal. While the armed forces are clearly doing their best under the circumstances, it needs to be kept in mind that military aviation will never be crash-free. Military aviators push their aircraft to their limits - test pilots even more. Intense dogfight manoeuvres during mock combat place a huge strain on both men and machine and this is often a contributory factor in crashes. As India phases out older combat aircraft, and acquires modern jets and trainers, the crash rate is bound to come down. Continuous upgrading of the fleet is the only way to ensure fleet safety.
(Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst)
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