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Ukraine troubles threaten air force fleet

An Ukrainian-origin AN32 aircraft at an IAF frontier airbase

New Delhi, March 6: The Crimean crisis threatens to ground the Indian Air Force’s transport fleet.

The mainstay of the fleet — the Antonov 32 aircraft — which ferries troops, special forces and cargo to the frontiers with Pakistan and China is Ukrainian.

The transport fleet now also has two US-origin aircraft, the C-130J Hercules and the C-17 Globemaster III. But the AN32 is the workhorse. The Kiev-headquartered Antonov company is currently upgrading the IAF’s entire fleet of 105 AN32 turbo-prop aircraft.

The IAF rates the AN32 high on safety, and its pilots claim that it can fly even if one of its two engines fails. The contract to upgrade the IAF’s fleet was signed in 2009, days after an AN32 crashed near the Mechuka advanced landing ground in Arunachal Pradesh near the China frontier.

The agreement to give the IAF’s AN32 aircraft a total technical life extension of 15-20 years was signed with Ukraine’s state-owned military trade firm, SpetsTechnoExport. It was reached about a week after the AN32 aircraft crashed shortly after taking off from Mechuka in June 2009.

Under the agreement, Ukraine was to modernise about 40 of the IAF’s AN32 aircraft. The rest were to be upgraded at the IAF’s 1 Base Repair Depot (1BRD) in Kanpur under the supervision of Ukrainian specialists. SpetsTechnoExport claims that 35 of the aircraft have already been upgraded.

The AN32s were procured by India in the 1980s. The upgrade programme, initially estimated to cost $400 million, involves a refit of major systems as well as strengthening the airframes.

The Ukrainian specialists have been contracted to equip the AN32 with glass cockpit displays and even changing the layout of the cockpits and improve flight management systems.

But the violence in Ukraine and the geopolitical tensions are worrying not only diplomats and military personnel but also the Ukrainian specialists who are fearful of how the changes will impact their and their families’ lives.

In a written reply to Parliament in July 2009, defence minister A.K. Antony had said: “A contract for total technical life extension, overhaul and re-equipment of AN32 fleet has been concluded with SpetsTechnoExport, Ukraine, to overhaul and upgrade these planes, as part of the IAF fleet management approach.

“The project includes calendar life extension up to 40 years, overhaul and re-equipment of AN32 aircraft. There were no conditionalities at the time of acquisition of AN32 with the Russian government.”

When the AN32s were first contracted, Ukraine was a Soviet republic. An estimated 30 per cent of the former Soviet Republic’s military industrial complex was based in Ukraine.

Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union, India has continued to depend on Ukraine not only for its Antonov aircraft but also for the supply of engines for the Indian Navy’s Delhi-class warships (destroyers). The Antonov company’s military trade with India is more than 50 years old.