IAF's MiG-21 'Bison' interceptor as seen a spate of crashes in the last decade

Around 20 per cent of aircraft in Indo-Pak war - one aircraft a day - were lost due to accidents; on any given day, only half of the IAF's 272 frontline fighter jet are ready for missions, as the remaining are grounded for repair.

by Rakesh Krishnan

During the 1971 India-Pakistan War, the Indian Air Force deployed nearly 600 combat aircraft and lost around 70 aircraft. According to figures released by the IAF, around 50 per cent of the fighters were brought down by ground fire and around 30 per cent were lost in dogfights. Incredibly, a fifth of aircraft losses were not due to enemy action - during the 14 day conflict India was losing more than one aircraft daily in accidents.

Nearly five decades since that war, India's armed forces continue to have a poor air safety record and have experienced troubles with virtually every aircraft in its fleet. According to the Ministry of Defence, since 1963 more than 490 MiG-21s have been lost in crashes, resulting in the deaths of 171 pilots. The British made Jaguar also has an unusually high crash rate, and even the latest Russian Sukhoi Su-30s - each costing Rs 450 crore - aren't immune from accidents.

It is in this backdrop that the crash of the Mirage-2000 on February 1, leading to the tragic deaths of squadron leaders Siddhartha Negi and Samir Abrol, has once again focused attention on the IAF's safety record as well as the competence of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to service these jets. The French made jet that crashed at HAL Airport in Bangalore while the aircraft was taking off for an acceptance test flight after it had been upgraded by the public sector company.

Since the Mirage-2000 fleet is 34 years old, sections of the media and several observers have raised the possibility that the aircraft's age may have been a contributing factor. HAL's abilities - or the lack of them - have also been cited as one of the reasons for the crash. However, pinning the blame on any single organisation is a mistake because there are a number of stakeholders in the purchase, operation and maintenance of aircraft.

India isn't the only country to lose Mirage jets. Exactly a month back, on January 1, a French Air Force Mirage-2000 went off the radar while conducting a low-altitude training flight in eastern France. Days later the bodies of its two pilots were found in the plane's debris buried in the snow. In April 2018, a Hellenic Air Force Mirage-2000-5 crashed into the Aegean Sea, killing its pilot. In fact, Greece has lost a total of 13 Mirage-2000 jets in the last 29 years.

Attempting to pin the blame on aircraft age or HAL is futile because there are a number of factors that impact flying efficiency. Let's look at the different issues at play and what needs to be addressed to lower the accident rate.

HAL: Myriad of Problems

Those who take potshots at HAL for its allegedly shoddy products forget that the public sector undertaking once exported spares to a technologically advanced Western country. In 1962, the company inked a licensing arrangement with Aerospatiale of France to build the Lama (Cheetah) and Alouette III (Chetak) in India. In his book 'Military Industry and Regional Defence Policy: India, Iraq and Israel' military historian Timothy D. Hoyt writes that HAL eventually built 300 Chetaks, "and by 1966 the French were buying spares from HAL".

A Chetak helicopter of the Indian coast guard

Four decades before it developed the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft, HAL had built India's first jet fighter, the HF-24 Marut. Like any developmental aircraft, the Marut too had teething issues, which were hardly insurmountable. The way forward would have been for the IAF to accept limited numbers of the initial version and then wait for HAL to build better iterations. This is called the incremental or ladder approach in which the weapons system gets better with each generation.

However, in 1975 production was halted - barely 20 years after the decision to begin development. The culprit was the Soviet Union which convinced India to licence build the MiG-21 aircraft in India. However, HAL could never build a fully 100 per cent MiG-21 because its production always required procurement of some parts from the Soviet Union. In the end, HAL was not allowed to build the Marut and neither was it able to master the MiG-21. It was a clear case of external sabotage coupled with internal acquiescence.

HAL can only be as good as it's allowed to be. Being a PSU, it faces a myriad of problems that state owned companies generally suffer - political interference, bureaucratic inertia, mismanagement of resources, job reservations and corruption.

This doesn't mean HAL isn't accountable. A newly upgraded Mirage-2000 exploding at takeoff is a scene straight out of a B-Grade Bollywood flick, but the fact that it happened is a pointer to the notorious 'Chalta Hai' attitude that exists in India's government sector.

According to Air Marshal (Retd) BK Pandey, Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, one of the contributory factors to the poor quality of output by HAL especially on aircraft engines is the rush to meet with production targets towards the end of the financial year. "In one particular year, HAL overhauled four engines of the MiG-29 aircraft in the first six months of the financial year," he writes in Military, Aerospace and Internal. "However, in the last three months of the same financial year, under pressure to meet with deadlines, the Indian aerospace major completed overhaul of four engines. Compression of time by 50 per cent would have undoubtedly had deleterious effect on the quality of work output."

Another example of the inefficiencies inherent in HAL can be seen in the production of the Su-30, which HAL licence builds in India. The original Russian aircraft costs Rs 350 crore but its price shoots up to Rs 450 crore when built at HAL. But more serious from a war fighting point of view is that the Sukhoi's availability rate (aircraft available for immediate combat) is just 55 per as opposed to the minimum stipulated 70 per cent to meet operational tasks. This means on any given day, only half of the IAF's 272 frontline fighter jet are ready for missions, as the remaining are grounded for repair and maintenance due to delay in supply of spare parts.

In such a scenario, aircraft cannibalisation is a common practice worldwide. Compared with MiGs, Sea Harriers and Jaguars, the Mirage-2000 has one of the best safety records in the IAF fleet, but whether individual aircraft are being cannibalised will only be known once the current inquiry is over.

Clearly, a confluence of factors is responsible for all that's wrong at HAL. While PSU chiefs, unions and workers will come and go, the sufferer is the IAF. As former navy chief and 1971 War hero Arun Prakash concluded after the Mirage crash: "HAL bashing may be justified to a point, but (it's) time to question elected (representatives) too; 35 defence ministers have overseen this giant defence PSU since 1947. While pampering its union, none demanded quality, productivity and aeronautical innovation of HAL, or hand-picked a dynamic CEO."