The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Air chief continues jet crusade

New Delhi, Oct. 2: Nearly 20 years ago when Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy was testing products as an air commodore, he began examining the proposal to acquire an advanced jet trainer. As the Indian Air Force chief today, he is continuing with the task, so long, varied and full of twists and turns has the issue proved to be.

The air force projects the acquisition of the the AJT as a crying need. Not only to modernise an aging fleet but also to make sure that pilots adapt smoothly to the demands of combat flying.

Pilot error has often been cited as the reason for MiG-21 crashes in recent years. This year, an IAF ace, Squadron Leader Prashant Bundela, who had shot down a Pakistani Atlantique aircraft in 1999, succumbed to injuries after ejecting from one. Bundela’s aircraft was said to have crashed because of an engine flame-out.

Officers say pilot error is sometimes caused by the “leap in performance” demanded when young fliers graduate from the Kiran aircraft used for training to the MiG-21. Last month, the ministry of defence gave the impression that the agreement to acquire the AJTs had been all but clinched.

In August, defence ministry sources claimed the government was “structuring an agreement” with British Aerospace to acquire an estimated 66 AJTs. Defence minister George Fernandes told a parliamentary consultative committee that the price negotiation committee had submitted its report.

Suddenly, however, the government appears undecided. Krishnaswamy said the force had also examined a prototype of the Czech-made L-159 and had submitted its report. Krishnaswamy said the government had assured him that the acquisition would be cleared within the current financial year — March 2003. All that remains, it is understood, is for a decision to be taken by the Cabinet Committee on Security.

The Czech aircraft has the US-made Honeywell engines. This makes the buyers circumspect because Washington has in the past frowned on military sales to India.

Indian Air Force pilot instructors, however, have some experience on the L series of Czech aircraft in the West Asia. Krishnaswamy said the L-159 has evolved from the L29 and the L39.

“In my opinion, the 159 is a developing aircraft. The British Hawk, too, has undergone changes since the time we began working on acquiring an AJT,” he added.

Both British Aerospace and the Czech makers are keen to sell. The British Aerospace facility that makes Hawks is reported to be financially weak and an order from India would resuscitate it.

The Czechs, who produce an estimated 6,000 of the L-series aircraft, also approached India with their unsolicited offer.

The air force chief did not give details on the demand projected by the force.

According to one estimate, India has been in negotiations with the British company to buy 66 Hawk aircraft of which 24 were to be procured in “ready-to-fly” condition and the balance were to be either assembled or made in India. The estimate — about a year old — also put the probable size of the order at around Rs 7,000 crore.

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