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UK order hots up Hawk race

New Delhi, July 31: As defence minister George Fernandes prepares to don a g-suit and get into the cockpit of a MiG-21 fighter tomorrow, a British government decision to place orders for the Hawk trainer aircraft for its Royal Air Force is set to intensify the race for the Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT) that India has been negotiating for 20 years.

The septuagenarian Fernandes, who has earlier been taken in a sortie on the Sukhoi 30 Mki and has spent a night in a submarine, has been personally wanting to fly on the MiG-21 for a publicity exercise that is aimed at restoring faith in the aircraft. Three years ago, the then chief of the IAF, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, a licensed and experienced pilot, had flown the MiG-21 for the same purpose.

Fernandes, a non combatant, does not have a license to fly but obviously he will not be at the controls of the aircraft.

Indian Air Force sources said Fernandes will fly a sortie in a MiG-21 trainer at Ambala Air Force station. The IAF has arranged to fly a media team to Ambala to witness the defence minister’s feat. MiG-21 trainers are two-seater aircraft — otherwise MiG-21s are single-seaters — on which rookie pilots are initiated into the skills of flying the fighter by an instructor.

The combat worthiness of the MiG-21, the mainstay of the IAF’s fighter fleet, is suspect because of its high casualty rate that has taken a toll on pilot and, at least in one occasion last year, on civilians. Fernandes did tell Parliament yesterday that MiG-21s will have to be phased out but did not specify a time-frame.

A conservative estimate in air headquarters puts the minimum number of years for which the MiG-21s will continue to be in service is 12 unless there is a dramatic decision to replace the entire fleet of the interceptor aircraft — about 20 squadrons. The exact number of the MiG-21 aircraft in service is classified. It could be about 350 aircraft.

One of the reasons cited by for the high casualty rate is the absence of an Advanced Jet Trainer without which pilots graduating from the subsonic Kiran aircraft to the supersonic MiG experience a leap. Flying the MiG-21 is a test of human endurance.

The Indian government has been in talks for two decades for an estimated Rs 7,000-crore deal to acquire about 66 AJTs. Last week, Fernandes told the Parliament that the government had sought clarifications from the British government before it pushes ahead the proposal that defence ministry sources say is with the cabinet secretariat.

Fernandes did not give details of the clarification that has been sought but it is understood that the government’s confidence in acquiring the British Aerospace-manufactured Hawk AJT was shaken since the UK’s Royal Air Force was not placing orders for it.

A press release issued by Rolls Royce, suppliers of the engines for the Hawk, today said the UK government had now placed an order for 20 Hawk trainer aircraft and “will place options for another 24”.

The race to bag the Indian AJT contract saw a bitter and intensive competition primarily between British Aerospace and Aero-Vodochody with each side making claims and counter-claims. The IAF evaluated the Hawk and a prototype of Aero Vodochody’s L-159B.

Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy was on record saying that the deal would come through by the end of the last financial year. That has not happened.

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