An obsolete MiG-21 fighter of the Indian Air Force

It is unfortunate that instead of modernising the force, the successive governments have relied more on a ‘Jugaad’ approach

A string of recent accidents involving the Indian Air Force has once again brought to the fore the gaping loopholes in aircraft inventory and maintenance. It is distressing that instances of Indian warplanes crashing on training flights have become almost routine news. The IAF has a severe shortage of aircraft. It is now down to 30 fighter squadrons whereas the ideal requirement is 42 squadrons to meet the challenges of a potential two-front war. In contrast, a smaller country like Pakistan is planning for 25 fighter squadrons by 2021. A plethora of problems, including ageing aircraft, tardy progress on indigenous production and slow pace of induction of foreign imports, is plaguing the IAF. Modernising the military has been an unkempt promise of the successive governments. Historically, India depended heavily on Russia for military support.

The Russian-made aircraft, forming the backbone of the Indian fleet, have been the most accident-prone. The MiG jet, in particular, has come to be known as the ‘flying coffin’ or the ‘widow maker’. Of the 874 MiG-21s that India had purchased since 1963, as many as 490 were involved in accidents or crashes claiming the lives of almost 200 pilots. About 120 MiG-21s continue to be in service, to be phased out by 2021-2022. The inordinate delay in the indigenous ‘Tejas’ Light Combat Aircraft programme is adding to the woes of the IAF, which has gradually been retiring the older planes, some dating back to the 60s. The delay in introducing replacements is putting India’s security at risk as parts of the fleet were on their last legs.

A series of submarine mishaps in 2013 had left 18 sailors dead and the vessels involved were Russian-made. The Russians have been found to be tardy with supplies of spare parts. In 2017, it was revealed that 18 of the brand new Sukhoi 30 MKI, a multipurpose twin-seater supersonic fighter aircraft, were fitted with the already-used engines. Recently, a Mirage 2000 trainer aircraft crashed after taking off from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited airport in Bangalore, killing two IAF officers – Squadron Leaders Siddartha Negi and Samir Abrol. The aircraft crashed soon after taking off, suggesting a possible problem with landing gear. The accident adds to the growing list of IAF aircraft crashes in recent years. The problem is that the decades-old aircraft like the Mirage 2000 have to be upgraded to extend their operational lifespan. The aircraft that crashed in Bangalore was one such upgrade. It is unfortunate that instead of modernising the force, the successive governments relied more on a ‘Jugaad’ approach, undermining the defence preparedness and putting the servicemen at risk. Greater private sector participation is needed to increase indigenous production and create a military-industrial complex.