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The Rediff Special/Josy Joseph in New Delhi

September 11, 2003

After nearly two decades of thought, discussion and negotiation, the Government of India has finally decided to acquire an advanced jet trainer for the Indian Air Force. Chief Correspondent Josy Joseph explains what an AJT is and why it is so important to a modern air force.

What is an Advanced Jet Trainer?
It is a two-seater aircraft that is used to help rookie pilots graduate to flying supersonic fighter planes after they have been trained on subsonic aircraft. The advanced jet trainer can fly at supersonic speeds, and the pilot can learn the fundamentals of air combat, tactical flying, and weapons delivery from a high-speed fighter.

Till now India did not have an AJT?

How was training being imparted to pilots of the Indian Air Force?
After completion of their basic training -- stage I on the HPT-32 and stage II on the HJT-16 Kiran or Iskra aircraft -- the pilots are put on a MiG-21 FL trainer. It is basically a MiG-21 fighter converted into a trainer and part of the MiG Operational Flying Training Unit. Until the Hunter aircraft were phased out, this third phase of training was imparted on the Hunters, in a unit named Operational Conversion Unit.

Are there any disadvantages in the existing training system?
Yes. The sudden jump to the supersonic MiG-21 is a tough challenge for a pilot who has till then only flown the relatively slower Kiran. The MiG-21 is a tough proposition because it is a single-engined fighter that is unforgiving of mistakes. If the same pilot flies a fighter with two engines and fly-by-wire technology, he has a better chance of getting back to base safely even if he commits a blunder or one of the engines stalls.

There have been several accidents involving trainee pilots flying MiG-21s.

How many?
There is no exact number of trainee pilot errors leading to MiG-21 crashes. But overall, more than 40 per cent of the fighter crashes in the IAF are on account of human error. In the decade 1991-2001 there were 221 IAF plane crashes in which 100 pilots were killed. Most of the crashes involved MiG-21s.

Why did it take India so long to realise the importance of AJT?
The importance was realised long ago. The need for AJTs was first felt soon after the 1971 India-Pakistan war. And it was officially articulated in 1982, when Air Marshal Dennis Anthony La Fontaine, later to be chief of the air force, headed a committee to investigate fighter crashes. Since then nine governments just sat on the demand.

What delayed such an important procurement for so long?
Right at the beginning, British Aerospace Systems offered the Hawks to India. But the negotiation was stuck on the price. In between, several other companies entered the arena. Some later withdrew. Other than the price, if there were any other reasons for the deal being stuck for so long, they remain unknown.

How come the deal has been suddenly struck now?
The government has been under tremendous pressure from the Indian Air Force, members of the public and the political Opposition on the large number of accidents involving the IAF's fighters. Some recent crashes have highlighted the fact that training on the MiG-21 is proving to be too costly for the rookie pilots and the air force. The MiG-21 does not perform at the optimum level in all situations and does not have a high degree of sophistication to pardon even small mistakes, recent investigations have pointed out.

'We're losing pilots now, what'll we do at war?

Is the AJT an integral part of other air forces?
Yes. In fact, most major air forces in the world have modern AJTs. But it must be pointed out that the Chinese use a version of the MiG-21, the MiG-21U, as their trainer while Pakistan is inducting a variant of this version into its air force. The ease of maintenance and low price of the MiG-21 still makes it an option around the world.

How is the Hawk accepted internationally?
It is probably the most used AJT in the world. The US Navy, Royal Air Force, and countries such as Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland and South Africa have opted for the Hawk. More than 800 of the planes are in use in some 17 countries.

How much will the deal cost India?
A total of Rs 8,000 crore [approximately US $1.75 billion]. Of this almost Rs 6,000 crore [US $1.31 billion] will be paid to British Aerospace Systems. The rest will be spent on upgrading Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and buying necessary spare parts for production under licence in India.

How many AJTs will HAL produce and how many will India get from the UK?
The deal covers a total of 66 AJTs. Of these, 24 will be procured from BAe and the remaining 42 will be produced in India.

Is the Hawk only a training aircraft?
No. It can be used in a combat role as well, with bombs and missiles loaded on.

How soon will the trainers join the air force?
Delivery of the aircraft will begin 35 months after the contract is concluded. All 66 AJTs will join service within the next six years.

So for the next 35 months IAF pilots will continue to learn on MiG-21 trainers?
No. Part of the AJT contract is a proposal to send IAF pilots to Britain for training by BAe Systems on Hawks. The risk of training on MiG-21s will thus be reduced. Besides, a generation of pilots with knowledge of the Hawk will be in service when the aircraft is finally inducted into the IAF.

Will the accident rate come down in the IAF after the Hawk is brought in?
It should. The number of fighter crashes caused by human error should come down considerably.


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