Just after the crash in Ambala earlier this month, a retired air force officer said the “MiGs were beginning to drop out of the skies like birds dying in mid-flight”. It was an uncharitable remark for the aircraft that is the mainstay of the IAF’s fighting force. But 17 crashes in 11 months this year — 11 of them of MiG-21s — has meant that the Indian Air Force is losing more than one aircraft a month and it is not even fighting a war!
Every officer knows that the air force is stretching its resources to the absolute maximum for training its combat pilots. For close to two decades, it has been asking the government for an advanced jet trainer.
Yet, it is just as close to getting the AJT today as it was in 1984 when the proposal was mooted.
n Why do the MiGs crash so frequently'
n First, the MiGs are at once the backbone and the cutting teeth of the Indian Air Force. Among the MiGs, the MiG-21s make up a bulk of the IAF’s fighter/ground attack planes, accounting for some 20 squadrons or between 320 and 400 aircraft. This means the chances that any accident of an IAF aircraft is more likely to be of a MiG-21 than any other aircraft.
Second, a squadron of fighters in the IAF would comprise between 16 and 20 aircraft. Some squadrons would have less. These are likely to be squadrons that have lost aircraft in crashes or to irredeemable technological defects. Resource limitations do not allow for crashed or grounded aircraft to be replaced on a 1:1 basis. In such cases, it is likely that there will be additional pressure on the aircraft and the aircrew.
Such pressures are more acute in training outfits and on trainers. The IAF has been using the MiG-21 FL for training. Beginning next month, the MiG-21 FL will be phased out over two years. There are two squadrons of the MiG-21 FL. Each MiG-21 squadron — as also squadrons of other aircraft — are said to be equipped with a trainer.
A trainer is a two-seater, dual-control version of the actual combat fighter. A qualified flying instructor usually takes the rear cockpit and the trainee the front. A trainee is not necessarily a rookie. All pilots have to go through training even after returning to operational flying following a gap. When Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis flew an MiG- 21 shortly before he retired, he first flew a trainer with a QFI.
Third, the MiG-21 is originally of 1950s and 1960s technology. Under a license production agreement with Russia’s Irkutsk Aviation, a variant of the MiG-21, called the MiG-21 Bis is being upgraded. The upgraded MiG-21s, called “Bisons”, are said to have technology from the 1970s and are expected to serve the IAF for another 10 years. The first squadron of Bisons was formed two months ago. It is based in Ambala. Two Bisons have crashed so far.
n What is responsible for most of the crashes' Human error or technical defects'
n Official statistics put out by the IAF say 40 per cent of the accidents are due to human error and 40 per cent due to technical defects. (The balance is because of unforeseeables like bird-hits).
Pilots who have flown the MiG-21, however, say it is a difficult plane to fly for the rookie. When the rookie graduates from a subsonic HPT-32 and Kiran (both subsonic, or capable of flying at less than the speed of sound) to the supersonic MiG-21 he has to make a quantum jump. A former wing commander says “it is like appearing for your post graduation immediately after higher secondary, without completing your graduation.”
Apart from the demands of such high-speed, the MiG-21 also has mostly outdated avionics and navigational aids. It has an “endurance” time of 45 minutes, during which it must complete its mission and land. It is also a single-engine craft that flies on the “afterburner” after a mission (e.g firing, which is an energy-consuming exercise) is completed. If the aircraft has flown in bad weather, the demands on the pilot and the plane increase manifold.
In the MiG-21, as also in other fighters (which do not afford pilots the comfort of civilian aircraft), human error can be technology-induced because the aircraft tests the limits of human endurance.
n Can’t pilots be trained to deal with the aircraft'
n They are. That is why the MiG-21s are at the core of the IAF’s fighting fleet. Having said that, to allow pilots to adapt better, the IAF desperately needs a stage III trainer. Rookie pilots are trained on the HPT-32 and the Kiran. Every modern airforce in the world, puts its pilots through a stage III trainer, also known as the lead-in fighter, before the pilot is fully operational.
The IAF — the fourth largest air force in the world — has perforce had to dispense with this. The MiG-21 “Type 69” — the kind of aircraft that crashed in Bagdogra on Thursday and the MiG-21 Fls have been making do as a stage III or “lead-in” fighter.
In fact, so acutely the IAF wants trainers that at one stage — in 1995 — it was considering buying second-hand trainers. An application for four McDonnel Douglas BAe TAV-8B attack aircraft trainers is understood to be still pending with the US Congress.
n What is the way out'
n The IAF’s unequivocal answer to this is the Advanced Jet Trainer or AJT.
The AJT was first recommended in 1984 by a committee led by the then chief of air staff, Dennis Anthony La Fontaine. Since the proposal was first made, the IAF has had seven chiefs. Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, the current IAF chief, evaluated the AJT as an air commodore.
n What’s holding up the AJT deal'
n Politics, bureaucracy and the colour of money. In the years since the induction of an AJT was proposed, the IAF has evaluated several aircraft. In June this year, quizzed on the deal 18 years after it was mooted, Union defence minister George Fernandes said: “AJT is where it is. Too many people are getting involved in the deal and there are too many interests which are deciding what is needed for the armed forces.”
The first two aircraft to be considered for the AJT were the British Aerospace Hawk, used by the Royal Air Force, and France’s Dassault Aviation’s Alphajet. In 1997, the Alphajet went out of commercial production, practically leaving British Aerospace as the only vendor.
But there are trainers on offer from a host of other companies. A former bureaucrat who served in the defence ministry for three years says : “Just when we get close to a deal, someone somewhere wants us to take a look at another aircraft.”
Apart from the Hawk, other known lead-in fighters are the T-38 (used by the US Air Force), the Russian L200 and L300, the Polish M-93 and the Czech L-159B. The IAF has projected a need for 66 aircraft. The price is anybody’s guess. Latest reports say that the Hawk could cost the exchequer $ 14.5 million apiece, the Czech makers of the L-159B claim their offering costs between 25 and 40 per cent less.
n When will it come through'
n Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy says he is certain the Cabinet Committee on Security will clear the AJT deal by the end of the year.
Assuming that he is talking of the financial year, it means the IAF cannot expect to get the AJT before 2004 unless a vendor is ready to deliver off-the-shelf. There is little indication that that will be possible.
In August this year, officials in the defence ministry claimed that price negotiations for the BAe Hawk had been completed. No figures were given out. They also said they were in the “process of structuring an agreement”. It is understood that a Cabinet note has also been prepared and it recommends the purchase of 66 British Hawk AJTs, 24 on ready-to-purchase basis and the balance to be produced under license at Hindustan Aeronautics. But the note also says the decision will have to be taken not only with the requirements of the air force in mind but also based on price considerations. A conservative estimate of the Hawk deal is Rs 6,600 crore. The government finds it on the higher side.
Sensing that there was still an opening that could be prised open, the Czech company, Aero Vodochody, along with representatives of Boeing and Honeywell have lobbied with the government and got an assurance that they would be allowed to compete on a level playing field. The air force was subsequently asked to evaluate a prototype of the L-159B Advanced Light Combat Aircraft (ALCA). The aircraft was first flown this year in June at Farnborough, UK.
Boeing has a 25 per cent stake in Aero Vodochody and the L-159B’s engine and avionics are from Boeing and Honeywell. Under US laws, Boeing and Honeywell will have to secure export licenses if the L-159B is negotiated with India. India is chary of US military supplies as they have proved unreliable for political and diplomatic considerations.
If ministry officials are to be believed, the government has to choose between a tried and tested aircraft (the British Hawk) that is costly and a state-of-the-art trainer (the L-159B) that is cheaper.
n Will the contract be signed this year'
n It was just as likely that the contract would have been signed last year or the year before that. Meanwhile, the more the delay, the greater the number of players — the Polish are in the fray with their M-93, the Italians with their Aermachhi and the Russians with their MiG-AT. Admittedly, it is not an easy decision to make. Buying older aircraft will mean a guarantee on spares and longstanding technical support.
For British Aerospace, for instance, a deal on the Hawks will resuscitate its ailing manufacturing facility. Buying a state-of-the-art machine will risk allowing the IAF to be used as some kind of a guinea pig. The L-159B, is still under development and its first commercial product is not expected before 2004. Also it is not used even by the Czech Air Force; neither is the MiG-AT.
The other major consideration in choosing an AJT is to ensure that it can “convert” into a fully operational combat craft for an emergency. It would be uneconomical to buy an AJT then others for strike/intercept.
n Where does all of this leave the IAF'
n With what it has: the MiG-21.