Critical Skies – anyone bothered?


Photo Credit: SP Guide Pubns

Close on the warning last year by the BJP MP Maj Gen BC Khanduri led Parliamentary Committee for Defence that the situation of the equipping of the IAF was very grim and national security was being compromised with IAF down to just 25 fighter squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42, now comes the admonishing through the CAG report tabled in Parliament pointing out several criticalities in operational capabilities not only of the IAF but also the Army Aviation Corps (AAC), focus being on the poor serviceability of the Sukhoi-30MKIs and AWACS, plus the obsolete Cheetah / Chetak helicopter fleets. 3 x AWACS inducted during 2009-2011 at a cost of US$1.1 billion were having 43% shortfall against established annual task of 1,500 flying hours due to poor planning and serviceability. Similarly, serviceability of over 210 x Sukhoi-30MKIs of 272 jets contracted from Russia for over $12 billion is just around 55-60% against minimum 75% despite the first such fighter 19 years ago back.

The high unserviceability rate is due to lack of spares, non-availability of adequate repair facilities and frequent snags in fly-by-wire systems and deficient radar warning receivers, among others. As for AAC, the fact that 30 military helicopters have crashed claiming 50 lives since 2010 alone is proof of the grave situation. A group of Army wives complained to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in March 2015 about the high crash rate of these helicopters. Ironically over the last decade, import of 197 x light-utility helicopters (LUH) has been scrapped thrice because of allegations of corruption and technical deviations. With 129 of 182 Cheetah/Chetak helicopters of AAC over 30 years old and 32% deficiency in authorized strength further reducing effective operational availability to 40% of authorization, CAG has rightfully slammed MoD albeit this is hardly the first time.

As reported by media, IAFs 14 x MiG squadrons are to be progressively retired while serviceability of 10 x Sukhoi squadrons is down to 55-60% and four more Sukhoi squadrons are to be induced by 2020. Induction of 36 x Rafale is to commence in 2-3 years but considering that the deal has still not been inked, when actual induction will begin is anybody’s guess. According to media, the first 20 x Tejas are to be inducted by 2018 and another 100 by 2018-26 which again is raising false hopes. The Tejas Mk I still has to undergo 43 improvements out of the 57 weaknesses detected in its maintainability to ensure it can land and take off again within an hour, which will take another three years at the very least. So the first Tejas at best can only induct earliest in 2019-2020 and with the current HAL capacity at eight per year, induction of 120 x Tejas should perhaps be looked at in period 2020-2035 given the track record of HAL that commenced development of Tejas in 1983. The military needs 1200 helicopters in next 10-15 years as replacements including 147 LUH to replace the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters (259 for IA, 125 for IAF and 100 for IN). IN also requires 147 x multi-role and anti-submarine helicopters.

Presently what is in the pipeline are 22 x Apache helicopters and 15 x heavy lift helicopters for IAF under a $3.i billion deal signed in September 2015 with induction possibly commencing 2018-2019. India and Russia are reportedly going in for a $1 billion deal to manufacture 200 x Kamov Ka LUH under Make in India, but what happens in the interim period to the helicopter fleet in this category already gone very critical? As per an article in the media, CAG’s stinging indictment should serve as a much-needed wake-up call for the politico-bureaucratic combine as well as armed forces to undertake long-term strategic planning to build military capabilities in a systematic and cost-effective manner, with timely decision-making and proper follow-through. Link this with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent address to the Combined Commanders Conference onboard INS Vikramaditya wherein the PM amongst other things said that Armed Forces and the Government need to do more to reform beliefs, doctrines, objectives and strategies, defining aims and instruments for the changing world. But the fact is that military can only do so much when it has little say in security policy formulation and all the cards are held by the MoD that is devoid of required military expertise? If import of 197 x light-utility helicopters (LUH) was scrapped thrice over the last decade without alternatives, should MoD not take the blame? Did not the Military need these replacements critically even then – which has now gone up exponentially? On whose hands is the blood of 50 pilots killed in 30 helicopter crashes since 2010? Isn’t the situation akin to the sinking of INS Sindurakshak and Sindhuratna due to gross intransigence at MoD level, which was conveniently glossed over by Anthony quickly accepting the resignation of the then CNS, Admiral DK Joshi, while the MoD that sat on the file for 15 months to sanction submarine batteries available within the country went scot free. Shouldn’t the Prime Minister and the CAG hold MoD directly responsible for successively bringing down the operational capabilities of the Indian Military? The bottom-line is that unless MoD is manned by military professionals, not much improvement should be expected – we will continue to drift.


The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author.