Monday, July 25, 2016

The Missing AN-32 Plane Tells: Most Of IAF's Inventory Is Three Decades Old


The photograph of a tense Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar peering down at the waters of the Arabian Sea through the window of an Indian Air Force Boeing P8i, a maritime surveillance aircraft, looking for the AN-32 that went off the radar off Chennai on Friday, defines the poignancy of the search.

He could well have been staring at disaster. No less than 42 military aircraft and helicopters have crashed since 2011 and as many lives have been lost.

Twenty-eight aircraft, including 20 fighter jets, of which 14 were MiGs, went down; 14 helicopters were lost in accidents since 2011.

Nearly two-thirds of IAF’s fleet is of Russian origin. When they cross their stipulated life span, they are sent to Russia for a mid-life refitting. Availability of spare parts delays the process, though Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd has pitched in with service and maintenance.

A Defence Ministry audit shows that technical snags have hounded IAF planes, including India’s frontline Su-30s. The majority of the IAF inventory is three decades old.

The IAF recently told a parliamentary committee that its maintenance capability, which can handle just over 60-65 per cent of the total fleet, can be hiked to 77-80 per cent, provided spares are available. With the French Rafale deal stuck over price, pilots of the world’s fourth largest air force are forced to guard the skies in MiGs, dubbed ‘flying coffins’. Official records note that over 170 IAF pilots have been killed in MiG-21 accidents since 1970. At least six MiG-21 Bisons have crashed in the last five years.

The IAF’s combat strength is down to 33 squadrons, from the sanctioned strength of 42. This means the force is short of 144 aircraft. The plan is to expand fighter squadrons to 45, envisaging a war-on-two-fronts scenario with China and Pakistan. Alarmingly, the IAF’s cockpit ratio is one pilot per aircraft (0.84) against the sanctioned strength of 1.25. Pakistan has 2.5 pilots per aircraft.

Of the IAF’s 33 squadrons, the vintage MiG-21s and MiG-27s form 11. The Sukhoi 30-MKIs populate 10 squadrons. The 1970s’ British Jaguars form six squadrons, followed by French Mirage 2000s and Soviet Union’s MiG 29s two and three squadrons, respectively. The last three are being upgraded with better missiles and avionics.

An internal audit of the Defence Ministry on the maintenance of MiG-21s and Bisons warned of multiple quality issues, which include fuel leaks from the aircraft’s main fuel pumps. It also found faults in the quality control systems.

The IAF is staring at a shortage of aircraft. “Unclear documents, translation errors, deviations of actual part dimensions from the laid-down technology limits, non-user-friendly and complex reference of technology have led to frequent updates and clarifications from the original equipment manufacturers,” the audit pointed out.

The IAF plans to phase out all variants of the Mig-21 by 2022, to be replaced with the home-made LCA Tejas and Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft. But the Tejas is not combat ready yet.

The mid-life upgrades and life extensions of the 101 AN-32s commenced in 2010. However, only 40 of these aircraft have returned from Keiv. Work on the rest is affected by the turmoil between Russia and Ukraine. Only 10 aircraft could be upgraded in the Kanpur-based Base Repair Depot. The missing AN-32, which was upgraded in September 2015 at Kanpur, had three technical snags in July.

Most worrisome are the vintage Cheetah and Chetak light utility choppers. They were purchased from France in 1971, and are the main lifelines for soldiers deployed in Siachen. Around 250 of these are in service with the Army aviation corps.

The airframe life of the light-utility helicopter is about 4,500 flying hours, but most of the Cheetahs have logged over 6,000. The engine life of the chopper is 1,750 hours and most have flown way more than that.

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