The Indian Air Force lost 52 fighter aircrafts in accidents since January 2000. This includes 32 Mig-21 variants, 11 Mig- 23s and six Mig- 27 fighter bombers. Naturally, there is a very strong and adverse media reaction which needs to be assuaged. But, in the rising crescendo of public outrage, the crucial issue of the Air Force’s operational preparedness is being lost sight of which should be addressed with expediency and foresight. There are several factors in this conundrum and issues that are intertwined.
The foremost issue is of replacing the aging fleet. In the long term re-equipment plans drawn up by the Ministry of Defence, the LCA, India’s own Light Combat Aircraft was to have been inducted by the turn of the century, to take on the role currently being assigned to most of the Mig fleet. This could not happen, due to several reasons; the principal being, inadequacy in the country’s technological capacity to achieve LCA’s development on its own and restrictions imposed by western powers on allowing the import of new technologies. Having overcome some of these barriers, we are now looking at the year 2012 for the LCA making an appearance on the Indian air power scene.
A yawning gap thus had to be filled. The government resorted to a twin track approach. First, the Russian multi-role Su-30 was inducted and secondly, an upgradation programme of the existing Mig fleet was embarked upon. Both these ventures however, will only bear fruit over the next ten years or more. Substantial augmentation will only take place at the end of this intervening period when these aircraft start rolling out from the assembly lines of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. We have also to take note of the existing Jaguar fleet that needs replacement down the line and it can be assumed that their role will be performed by the Su-30 fleet.
A gap in the preparedness levels will remain for a minimum of six to eight years, which the existing Mig fleet will have to fill. The problem with the fleet is that despite assurances at all levels of the government, its credibility has eroded and it has not been able to instill the necessary degree of confidence. In the current situation of accidents and crashes, the aircraft is obviously being operated with severely imposed restrictions to avoid mishaps as far as possible. With pure safety in view and in a peace time training environment, this may be appropriate. But in a combat scenario, will these aircraft be utilizable to their full potential? Will they be able to withstand the high maneuver low level combat profile without failing at a crucial juncture? These questions assume great relevance especially since the same fleet is being upgraded with replacements in avionics, radars and other on board electronics. Therefore, with preparedness as the ultimate objective, would it not be prudent to augment the Air Force fleet with the well proven Mirage 2000, albeit in smaller numbers? Nothing has been heard about any such steps.
This brings us to the equally relevant question of inducting the so called Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT), an aircraft used for training pilots in transition from a subsonic envelope to a high performance trisonic environment. As the term goes, the AJT is a misnomer as in air forces in the West, including some states in Africa, such a transitory platform is described as a lead in aircraft to prepare the aircrew for extremely high acceleration, rates of climb and high rates of turning maneuvers. These operations demand the pilot, in body and mind is always with his aircraft. It also goes on to train pilots to physically and mentally adjust to a complex cockpit layout, replete with head up displays, navigation and attack systems and radar management . In the absence of such a platform, the Indian Air Force pilots have been adapting themselves on makeshift trainers, never fully at home in a high performance environment. Although the government has decided to go for this AJT, urgent induction is important. It would, however, be unrealistic to ascribe our Mig losses to this shortcoming alone.
Lastly, the public outcry against the Mig-21 aircraft can not be wished away, even if two Service chiefs and the country’s Defence Minister demonstrate by example with well publicized flights. They would be viewed with skepticism. The greater fear is that the uncertainties of the Mig performances may affect the crews’ morale to the detriment of our operational efficiency. The answer clearly lies in sharing fuller details with the operators about the steps taken to “logical conclusions”, as claimed by the government.