The unfailing regularity of the IAF aircraft crashes has become an embarrassing reality. During the rehearsal for the Aero India show, currently under way in Bengaluru, two Hawk Mk 132 aircraft collided resulting in the death of one pilot. The tragic news comes close on the heels of a Mirage 2000 crash on February 1, killing two pilots. A Jaguar crashed on January 28 and a Mig-27 crashed on February 12. The number of accidents that IAF has had with MIGs — 482 in 40 years till 2012 — had earned the aircraft the dubious title of ‘flying coffin’. The IAF has too many ageing planes on their last legs. The frequent accidents highlight the problems in defence modernisation. Tardy maintenance and upgrade of some of these planes is a key issue that needs to be addressed urgently. Public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is often blamed for being way behind the schedule in implementing the projects, including the Mirage 2000 upgrade. It is time the internal reports that went into the causes of mishaps were made public and corrective steps taken in terms of correcting the deficiencies in the maintenance. Though bird hits are found to be responsible for 10% of air accidents involving IAF aircraft, no decision has been taken on procuring bird detection and monitoring radars. The IAF continues to fly 10 squadrons of the ageing MiG-21 and the MiG-27s because of delays in the indigenous ‘Tejas’ Light Combat Aircraft programme. Due to this, it had to use the old MiG 21s without proper serviceability.
Advances made in the design and reliability of avionics have reduced technical system failure. Though there has been a significant improvement in the training of the aircrew to prevent accidents, human error continues to be a leading factor in most of the fatal aircraft mishaps. Preventing human error remains the foremost challenge in aviation safety. The phasing out of aircraft and their replacement with new generation ones depends on national security, strategic objectives and operational requirements of the defence forces and is reviewed from time to time. The IAF has a severe shortage of aircraft. It is now down to 31 fighter squadrons whereas the ideal requirement is 42 squadrons to meet the challenges of a potential two-front war from Pakistan and China. In contrast, a smaller country like Pakistan is planning for 25 fighter squadrons by 2021. A plethora of problems, including ageing aircraft, tardy progress on indigenous production and slow pace of induction of foreign imports, is plaguing the IAF. Modernising the military has been an unkept promise of the successive governments.