Flight safety reigns supreme in any aviation enterprise
With Aero India 2023, Asia’s biggest air show, to be-gin at the Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bengaluru on February 13, a brief focus on flight safety in the Indian Air Force is necessary. A few major flight safety failures, resulting in fatal accidents, need to be revisited with all seriousness as each mishap is a tragedy and colossal loss to the nation: men, material and monetary.
March 2014 saw the crash of a brand-new Lockheed Hercules C-130J between Agra and Gwalior, killing all aboard. In July 2016, an AN-32 flying from Chennai to Port Blair fell into the Bay of Bengal, with no survivors. In June 2019, another AN-32 crashed in Arunachal Pradesh, killing all on board. In December 2021 a Mi-17V5 helicopter crashed in Coonoor on its way to Wellington, killing India’s highest-ranked serving general along with his entire entourage. And now, on January 28, 2023, a mid-air collision of a Sukhoi-30 MKI and a Mirage-2000 killed one pilot and critically injured two others. Much more surely needs to be done on the safety aspects as global manufacturers and merchants of flying machines showcase products for sale and export to India at the Aero India show.
As flight safety reigns supreme in any aviation enterprise, one needs to tread with caution and care to examine the offers of traders and techies.
Thus, the profile of all combat aviation comes to the fore through the full spectrum of the US-made Boeing F-15 and F-18; Lockheed Martin F-16 and F-35 fighters and the B-1B Rockwell bomber.
Do we get a glimpse of the machines? The original manufactured General Dynamics (later Lockheed) F-16 multi-role fighter reportedly is being offered to India with full tech transfer for local production, use and export. Though this sounds good in theory, India may do better to avoid this single-engine fighter of 1972 vintage despite its 4,600-plus worldwide sales. It’s too late in the day. Regarding the twin-engine Boeing F-15, there’s little India can do because of the sheer high unit cost of the 1980s’ craft being $100 million-plus, as noted by Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. That brings us to yet another two-engine F-18 naval version, which was offered to India. The point is: when India is on the cusp of making its own indigenous craft for the Navy’s home-made aircraft-carrier, will it be prudent to abort the take off of a local make operating from the deck?
Lockheed Martin’s latest, state-of-the-art US fighter, the F-35, however, faces rough times. Being supremely sophisticated, this single-engine craft costs between $90 million and 125 million apiece. Its teething problems also appear endless. Apart from several mishaps in the recent past, what became extremely serious is the December 2022 crash-landing of an F-35 at Fort Worth, Texas, resulting in grounding of the entire fleet. The consequences of the crash turned dramatic because Pratt and Whitney too stopped delivery of the engines “until further information from the investigation is known and safety of flights can be ensured”.
Ironically, earlier too, the F-35 faced turbulence just before its July 2014 Farnborough, UK, international debut. The proposed programme “had to be cancelled owing to a catastrophic engine failure at Eglin Air Force Base (US) on June 23, followed in early July by imposition of a fleet-wide grounding order”.
However, these mishaps haven’t stopped the F-35 from being used and ordered, as Canada has just finalised an agreement to purchase 88 F-35 fighters for $85 million apiece. Thus, the F-35 today is used by Japan, South Korea, Australia, Norway, Britain, Italy, Denmark, Netherlands, Canada and the US. For India, though, one sees no possibility of going for it even if it’s offered owing to intrinsically complicated and complex technical, financial, operational, maintenance, logistics and spares in the South Asian ambience.
Another interesting Aero India entry is that of Rockwell International’s B-1B Lancer strategic bomber, famously ordered by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Though no longer on production line, this four-engine bomber has acquired a maritime role for “long range anti-ship missile” being worked out by the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency, akin to India’s DRDO. The US Air Force being its solitary user, can any of these old/used 64 operational aircraft fit India’s requirement? No. That said, India’s choices and options today aren’t as wide as one might wish. Every air show is about trade and commerce. It’s the conventional way to impress the host nation and other participants, nudging them to explore the possibility of acquiring ready-made craft off the shelf. For India, that is a constant challenge. To import the “best and the latest” or try to indigenise as much as possible?
True, no country (even the US, which has extensive aircraft design and development tie-ups with Communist China) today can claim 100 per cent self-sufficiency due to globalised outsourcing, yet for New Delhi, the reality is that the IAF has never had a US fighter in its inventory. It’s always been a European product (British or French), Russian or the multi-national SEPECAT Jaguar.
Therefore, simply put, India must today demand technology transfer and not import of ready-made machines. The latest technology is required for fighter engines, landing gear, systems, avionics and controls. The interfacing of tech with the fuselage must be done by India, in India. Any agreement or contract must be on manufacture of the systems which are absolutely essential for making an Indian enterprise state of the art. Anyone who comes here must be told in clear terms that this is non-negotiable. Else, India will continue to remain import-dependent.
Contextually, a bizarre situation of 1986 still rankles in the mind. Media reports suggested that the US was persuading India to import the Northrop Corporation’s new F-20 Tiger-shark fighter through “Foreign Military Sales”. Those were the days of archaic info systems, so little was known. Fortunately, someone in the Indian government alerted a bright IFS officer in the PMO that the F-20 was a failed machine as two of three prototypes had crashed — first in South Korea and then in Paris. Even the US Air Force had not gone for it, and had in fact severely criticised both the machine and its maker.
Times, however, have changed. Nonetheless, the propensity to jump for the glittering fighters and reluctance to look beyond the shining brochure and handbook produced for an air show must be avoided. Aviation is a multi-billion-dollar business, and every life matters. Flight safety must come first. The recent crash of a civil aircraft in Nepal and the loss of two IAF fighters on the same day in Gwalior should not be forgotten and any bid to make a deal or contract in a hurry must be avoided.
The writer is a life member of the Aeronautical Society of India and an alumnus of the National Defence College. He is also an advocate practising in the Supreme Court.