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A NEW PLANE THAT CRASHED IN FINE WEATHER

How does one take the fatal Friday, March 28, 2014 crash of a brand new American Lockheed Martin-made Super Hercules ‘medium transport/multirole’ aircraft fuselage fitted with four British Rolls Royce AE-2100D3 turboprop engines, operated by top-grade ‘master green’ transport pilots of the Indian Air Force, that fell from the sky in broad daylight and in fair-weather flying conditions? Were the Indian fliers so incompetent as to mess up a ‘super-sophisticated’ aircraft of American origin in perfect flying order? Or was it something else which was totally unavoidable owing to unforeseen and unprecedented machine malfunction? Although a prompt ‘court of inquiry’ has been constituted to uncover the details of the crash, one sincerely hopes that it does not end with an ‘avoidable pilot error’ from India as the most ‘plausible reason’ for the accident, concluding that there was nothing wrong with the brand new four engine American Lockheed Martin C130 J-30 Super Hercules. Surely, one has full confidence on Indian Air Force’s professionalism to unearth the true cause of the accident.

It is an aircraft that made its debut in the global arena in the 1950s as Lockheed Hercules 130-A. Through constant development and upgradation the present model, the C-130J-30, is in use, apart from the United States of Amercia, among selected customers such as Australia (12), Canada (17), UK (25), Denmark (4), Israel (3), Italy (22), Norway (4), South Korea(4), Iraq (6), Kuwait (3), Oman (3), Qatar (4), Tunisia (2) and India (6).

Users aside, what makes this highly sophisticated aircraft interesting to be watched is the wide price variation of similar aircraft (C-130 J-30) as can be seen from the credible open source information gleaned from Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. Thus, whereas the unit cost of 1995 Australian craft was $55 million, the baseline price of the same C-130 J-30 was quoted as $67 million in 2002. The unit price of the craft nevertheless went up to $70.5 million in 2003 and a single C-130 J-30 for Israel was quoted at $98.6 million.

However, when in March 2008, the Indian ministry of defence announced the signing of a contract worth $1.06 billion to receive six Lockheed Martin C-130 J-30 Super Hercules transport aircraft from the US under the “foreign military sales” programme, the aircraft unit cost to the Indian customer went up to more than $160 million. That was far more than the price quoted to other customers. That, perhaps, is the way Indians do the shopping of imported military hardware since the Bofors days of the mid-1980s. Thus, taking a standard exchange rate of Rs 60 to one American dollar, the loss of an IAF aircraft is a cool Rs 1,000 crore down the drain along with the loss of precious human lives.

Since 21st-century India is a new customer of US military hardware (after a long gap during which it was the user of the Sikorsky S-55 helicopter and the transport and troop carrier, Fairchild Packet-119, and the iconic DC-3 Dakota of post-Second World War vintage), it perhaps would be in order to examine what the experience of the traditional users (like Canada) of US aircraft is at present. It was reported by Greg Weston, CBC News, in January 2013 that “despite repeated government denials... some of Canada’s new Hercules military transport planes have counterfeit Chinese parts in their cockpits that could leave pilots blank instrument panels in mid-flight”.

The report went further to suggest that in spite of the knowledge of bogus electronic chips in the giant Hercules C-130 J-30 aircraft since at least July 2012, the Canadian establishment continued to hide facts.

The most damaging revelations were made by the Americans themselves when an investigation by the powerful US senate armed services committee concluded in 2012 that “counterfeit parts in Hercules transports and other American made military equipment are prone to failure with potentially catastrophic consequences”.

It must be clarified here that one is not on a fault-finding mission regarding the American aviation platforms. But what is being pointed out is what the Americans themselves have to say after careful scrutiny of their high-tech military hardware. The Americans seem to have a real situation on hand. Their internal cost-cutting programme, coupled with the international outsourcing formula, appears to have created genuine after-sale logistics and maintenance problems for the users of US manufactured aviation assets.

There is no doubt that the quality of American aircraft is facing questions from the customers. We have seen this in the case of the Boeing-787 Dreamliner which is facing too many technical problems, used by Air India as well as other international carriers across the globe. Whether the questions relate to minor or major faults is not the issue; but when the aircraft is grounded even for a small technical fault, the profitability of the user becomes suspect and the reputation and product quality of the manufacturer face awkward question and unpleasant criticism. And the American manufacturers know that rather well.

Thus, matters do not seem too rosy when the words of the Arizona senator, John McCain, the then senior Republican on the armed services committee in November 2011 are recalled. He said that the “origin of the counterfeits is cloaked by passing them through a chain of three or four sham companies”. In an interview on Bloomberg TV, McCain asked “China to be more vigilant... They know where it comes from”.

The most damaging comment of all, however, came from the senate armed services committee chairman, Carl Levin, a Michigan democrat: “The fact that defective parts are in aircraft that are deployed to Afghanistan is evidence of the seriousness of the problem.” The senate committee’s investigative staff further amassed a database with 1800 cases of counterfeiting, totalling about one million parts. And after scrutinizing 100 cases, 70 per cent of the suspect parts were traced to Chinese firms. Thereafter, “nearly 20 per cent of the remaining cases were tracked to the UK and Canada — known resale points for counterfeit electronic parts from China”.

In this connection it, however, may not be too late for the Indian establishment to take lessons from the post-damage wisdom of Carl Levin: “There’s a lot of possibilities here. Right now, there is ambiguity in some of the contracts. It depends on some extent as to the wording of the contract... Legislation will force contractors to tell their sub-contractors and their contractor’s suppliers that they need to make sure the parts being sold are legitimate. If you put out the onus on all of our contractors they will get the message back to their suppliers as well.”

Here what comes to mind are the defective and useless Westland helicopters which were bought by the Indians in mid-1980s. It also brings back (mid-1980s) memories of a determined, but futile, US attempt to offer/sell Northrop Tigershark “lightweight tactical” aircraft which was a non-starter from the very beginning as two of its three prototypes had crashed.

The motivation to write this piece is not to pre-judge a serious matter pertaining to the security of the state. It is simply to remind the readers that there could be a myriad factors leading to the crash which indeed calls for delving deep into the entire issue: from procurement to the actual crash of the craft. Since India is eternally at the receiving end so far as high-tech military aviation is concerned, we should be prepared to face the flak from the manufacturers and the marketing men thereof as a bunch of incompetent operators. Truth or no truth.