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The Rediff Special/Josy Joseph

April 17, 2003

Despite an alarming number of Indian Air Force fighter planes falling out of the sky, there is an acrimonious clash and a long delay over the acquisition of Advanced Jet Trainers, which could significantly reduce the pilot error responsible for more than 40 per cent of these crashes.

Powerful arms lobbies are holding back the acquisition of the AJTs, which have been identified, in as early as the eighties, as a key lacuna by the first committee that investigated the crashes involving IAF fighters, say senior IAF officers.

The committee, headed by Air Chief Marshal DennisLa Fontaine, then IAF chief, had identified three main causes for the crashes: maintenance failure, bird hits and pilot error.

Pilot errors, say sources, result when an IAF pilot trained to fly subsonic aircraft such as the Kiran is trained fly the MiG-21 and other such supersonic fighters (supersonics are planes that fly faster than the speed of sound; MiG-21s can fly at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound).

In 1985, the La Fontaine committee recommended the acquisition of AJTs to help reduce pilot error; in 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government approved the acquisition of 66 AJTs.

What AJTs basically do is smoothen a pilot's transition from flying a subsonic fighter to a supersonic one. If AJTs are inducted into the Indian Air Force, pilots can train in them before they move on to actually flying a supersonic fighter. In fact, advanced training on AJTs is universally proven to bring down the accident percentage among fighter pilots.

Another major factor that leads to fighter planes crashing are technical problems like engine flameout or any other defect/glitch that stops the engine from running in midair. The MiG-21 is a single engine fighter so, in case of such technical problems, it crashes.

In fact, Air Force officers call the MiG-21 an 'unforgiving fighter.' This, probably, is why it has been banned from participating in various fly-pasts, including the prestigious January 26 Republic Day parade in New Delhi.

But the massive overhaul of the MiG-21 Bis fleet of 125 aircraft that is underway -- the upgradation agreement was signed in 1996; the first two planes were upgraded in Russia and rest are being upgraded at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Nasik -- does not seem to be reducing the accident rate.

The MiG-21 that crashed on April 7 in a residential colony in Ambala, Punjab, and injured two children and three women, was part of the first squadron of the upgraded MiG-21 Bis. This was the second upgraded MiG-21 Bis to go down -- the first crashed last September -- since their induction began last year.

Three days earlier, on April 4, three women and a child were killed and five persons injured after a MiG-23 that was on a routine sortie crashed in a residential area in Mullanpur Dakha, Ludhiana.

Immediately after the first MiG-21 Bis upgraded version crashed, the IAF grounded the fighters that had R-25 engines, which are most popular engines for the MiG-21 Bis model. They have 10 interconnected flame tubes in the combustion chamber, where the fuel combustion takes place to produce the energy required to drive the MiG-21's turbines.

According to an IAF source, the interconnected flame tubes and its surrounding areas seem as if they have been burnt. "Over half the R-25 engines coming in for routine overhaul have a noticeable level of such burning," said a senior IAF officer.

Sources assure that both the IAF and Russians are working at ironing out the R-25's defects.

An IAF officer says, "There is no one single factor responsible for the high rate of accidents. Besides human error and engine problems, a noticeable number of fighters crash due to bird hits."

Thedefence ministry has constituted a committee to look into improving the surroundings of airports to reduce bird hits and projects are underway to modernise the MiG-21 fleet and the defective engines, but there is no final push to acquire the AJTs.

"That is distressing," said IAF officers. "AJTs are an urgent need for training our pilots to overcome pilot error."

Statistically speaking, India has lost several times the money needed for purchasing AJTs in air crashes. A fighter is worth about Rs 100 crores (Rs 1 billion) and a pilot's training costs in the range of Rs 23 to Rs 45 crores (Rs 230 million to Rs 450 million) according to the Fifth Pay Commission. Simple arithmetic says India has lost over Rs 12,000 crores (Rs 120 billion) in the past decade that saw almost 100 fighters go down.

In the war to liberate Bangladesh in 1971, India lost some 23 fighters. Though the next three decades saw almost no aerial warfare except for limited action -- IAF fighters were used in Kargil and in the Neelam Valley last year, in what is called Kargil II the IAF is estimated to have lost almost 600 aircraft and 200 pilots. It has lost its entire fleet once over and some of its finest pilots without even fighting a war.

Behind the scenes, AJT manufacturers are fighting a pitched battle for the contract, which could be worth around a couple of billion dollars.

India has, for some years now, been negotiating with Britain's Hawk manufacturers for the acquisition of their AJTs. The main bottlenecks in the negotiation were the price and the possible impact of any future American sanctions on the supply of the required spare parts.

But the negotiations, which were drawing to a close, seem to have yet again been thrown into a turmoil.

Some backroom operations and a media blitzkrieg that included advertisements and paid trips for journalists to Prague, has ensured the L-159B, a US-Czech collaboration (a majority of its components, including the engine, are of US manufacture), has entered the competition despite its appearance on the scene only about a year ago.

Sources say its manufacturers have convinced US Secretary of State Colin Powell to write to his Indian counterpart, assuring future Americans sanctions, if any, won't hurt the maintenance of the L-159B fleet.

They add that it was a note on the L-159B by a key Indian Air Force officer, who is crucially involved in the AJT acquisition and has strong political connections, which ensured Hawk doesn't pocket the huge deal so easily.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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