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November 1, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

The AJT: Waiting for Godot?

After the President had presented the colours to an Air Force unit at Bareilly last week, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis flew a MiG 21 BiS aircraft in full view of journalists. This was done to allay the doubts about the airworthiness of the ageing machine and reinforce confidence amongst those who fly it. Despite his good intentions the demonstration flight was no more than a quickfix.

The mid-air collision recently of two MiG 21 aircraft belonging to the MiG Operational Flying Training Unit at Tezpur, and the crash of another MiG 21 days earlier, have once again raised doubts on the training skills of our pilots and instructors and the reliability of the MiG 21. The cacophony that accompanies such accidents confirms that the problem lies both with the singer and the song.

Between 1993 and 1996, the IAF lost 82 aircraft worth Rs 5000 crore and since 1997, written off another 57 MiG fighters. The 40-year old MiG 21 (and its variants) long past its de-induction phase is currently being upgraded by the Russians to ensure it doesn't keep falling out of the skies and also, in maintaining a full 35 squadron orbit.

The villain of the piece is India's elusive LCA (Light Combat Aircraft, sometimes called Last Chance Aircraft) which should have been operational a decade ago but is still refusing to fly. It has distorted completely, the IAF's Long Term Re-Equipment Plan (LTREP) -- started in the mid '70s by Air Chief Marshal IH Latif -- and sent its planners scurrying for whatever they can get: Sukhoi 30s, more Mirages, upgraded MiGs...

But waiting for the AJT (Advanced Jet Trainer) has become a scandal. It is also a basket case for avoiding decision-making, with both the government and the IAF to blame. A full 17 years after the requirement for the AJT was first projected, the government last month formally cleared its acquisition. It will take at least another three years before the first 16 trainers are delivered and become operational, and another five to seven years for licence production to start at HAL Bangalore.

It is understood the IAF has suggested some avionic add-ons to the British Hawk MK 115 to make it operationally more robust. Besides acquiring 66 trainers which are also combat fighters, the option is available to licence-produce another 150 to 200 Hawks to fill up the voids created by the LCA which uses the same engine as the Jaguar and is produced in Bangalore. Hawk 115, will cost around $ 14 million apiece and be able to perform at least 80 per cent of the projected role of the LCA.

The callousness in decision making and delayed selection process of the trainer has cost the country thousands of crores in loss of aircraft and priceless pilots, not to mention the reputation and safety record of the IAF. But the question remains: why was no chief of air staff prepared to put his head on the block and demand the AJT?

The painful history of the AJT, like India's wars, has more than one version. The most widely accepted goes like this: the idea of the trainer was mooted in 1983, the Air Staff Requirement prepared next year and after government approval in 1986, a joint IAF-HAL-DRDO team evaluated the British Hawk and Franco-German Alfa Jet before starting the procurement process.

The period between 1986 and 1992 is blank, presumably due to the Bofors fallout. In 1993, the cabinet committee cleared the project as top priority and price negotiations were recommenced. In the meantime, while aircraft crashed killing pilots, the acronym AJT overtook in the popularity charts, two other miscarriages -- the MBT and the LCA. The AJT became the most widely reported but comatose military project in the history of the armed forces. But hopes were kept alive by three successive CASs -- SK Mehra, NC Suri and SK Kaul -- who, between them, said AJT or doom. But none went far enough: AJT or my papers.

It is still not clear why the government in 1996 was keen the IAF buy the Sukhoi 30 -- a Rs 7000 crore deal -- and not the much cheaper AJT package especially when Kaul had unequivocally stated in 1994 and 95, that the IAF did not require the Sukhoi range and class of aircraft and that Russian product support was unsatisfactory. Still the government got the IAF around and paid the Russians a Rs 500-crore advance for an aircraft that did not exist and without signing any contract.

The second mystery is how the AJT programme came close to fructification by early 1996 but for the insistence of its new CAS SK Sarin that the Russian MiG-AT trainer which had not been fully developed be added to the shortlisted aircraft Alfa jet and Hawk. Even four years later, the MiG-AT failed to materialise and the Russian Air Force was forced to drop the project. However, a new trainer project, MiG UTS is reportedly in the offing.

On an average, the IAF has been losing about 24 aircraft a year which is a squadron plus operational reserves. In its report to Parliament in 1998, the CAG stated: "Non availability of AJT, coupled with the unsuitability of MiG 21 for transition training continues to take a heavy toll of training-related accidents." Similarly, the Standing Committee on Defence has rapped the government on delays in decision making, highlighting the case of the AJT.

The AJT episode is just the tip of the iceberg in non-decision making. There are other operational items which will keep languishing in bureaucratic closets till the equipment becomes obsolete, not to mention the cost overruns. Sometimes men in uniform also add to the decaying process.

Initially the government did not take the AJT seriously, nor did the IAF press its case earnestly. It should have categorically rejected the Sukhoi MK 30 at the time and insisted on the AJT. By going along with the government the IAF betrayed its operational priority and the health and skill of its flying fleet. The intermediate Sukhoi is still not fully operational for its envisaged strategic task. By the time it does -- if it does -- the Agni 3 will relegate it to a backup role.

The procurement process in the MoD has seen a sea change. Now for the first time, service officers instead of civilian bureaucrats are heading the ticklish Price Negotiation Committee. This innovation may be good for integrity though not such a good substitute for bargaining and experience.

In 1986, the army got carried away by the government's last minute addition of Bofors to the shortlisted medium artillery guns. It was a political decision -- fortunately a good one -- foisted on the army. The 1996 decision to buy the Sukhoi 30 was also politically motivated and equally suspiciously crafted. What the Army could not do, the IAF could have done. It could have opted out of it and by now have got the AJT instead.

While governments will act in their self-interest, the services must not deviate from the path of national interest.

General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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