December 4, 2022

Vintage Aircraft – Precious Lives Ignored

A serious review is required to overcome obsolescence of military platforms and a strategy chalked out to combat this in the required timeframe

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

The recent induction of the indigenous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) ‘Prachand’ into the Indian Army at Bangalore, followed by its induction into the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) 143 Helicopter Unit at Jodhpur were historic landmarks. According to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), ‘Prachand’ is the only attack helicopter in the world which can land and take off at an altitude of 5,000m with considerable load of weapons and fuel.

In March 2022, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved procurement of 15 LCH Limited Series Production (LSP), 10 for IAF and five for Army, at the cost of Rs 3,887 crore along with infrastructure sanctions worth Rs 377 crore. According to HAL, there is a projected requirement of 160 LCHs; 65 for IAF and 95 for the Indian Army.

Powered by two French-origin Shakti engines manufactured by HAL, takeoff weight of 5.8 tonnes, maximum speed of 268 km/h, range of 550 km, over three-hour endurance, service ceiling of 6.5 km, countermeasure dispensing system to protect it from enemy radars or infrared seekers of enemy missiles, the LCH is a deadly machine with a 20 mm turret gun, 70 mm rockets and air-to-air missile systems onboard.

However, in sharp contrast to the euphoria over the indigenous Prachand was the tragic crash of the Cheetah helicopter on October 5 at Nyamjang Chu near BTK area of Jemeithang circle, Tawang. The pilot Lieutenant Colonel Sourav Yadav from the Indian Army lost his life and the co-pilot Major Mriddhul Agarwal received serious injuries for which he is being treated in the Military Hospital at Lungla.

However, in sharp contrast to the euphoria over the indigenous Prachand was the tragic crash of the Cheetah helicopter on October 5 at Nyamjang Chu near BTK area of Jemeithang circle, Tawang. The pilot Lieutenant Colonel Sourav Yadav from the Indian Army lost his life and the co-pilot Major Mriddhul Agarwal received serious injuries for which he is being treated in the Military Hospital at Lungla

The Army Aviation currently operates around 190 Cheetah, Chetak and Cheetal (re-engineered version of Cheetah) helicopters. Five of these are over 50 years old and bulk of the fleet, around 130 of the 190, are between 30 to 50 years old. The Navy and the Air Force also operate these helicopters. The IAF has around 120 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. The Indian Navy’s Aviation Squadron ‘INAS 561’ also operates Chetak helicopters.

Following the Cheetah crash on October 5, the Indian Army Wives Agitation Group (AWAG) wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing anguish over using outdated Cheetah and Chetak Light Utility Helicopters (LUH), which have claimed many lives of experienced and young officers. The letter stated that 31 military pilots have died, not by fighting the enemy, but in accidents involving both types of helicopters since 2017, for no fault of theirs. The letter questioned, “Can the PM possibly safeguard the nation’s soldiers by making them operate these two six-decade-old helicopter types that first joined service in the early 1960s and had now become “flying coffins“, but still comprised the rotary-wing backbone of the three services.”

Similar has been the story of the MiG-21 aircraft of the IAF who are also dubbed “flying coffins” every time a MiG aircraft crashes. Currently, IAF has four squadrons of MiG-21 Bison aircraft, each comprising 16-18 aircraft; taking the total strength of these fighter aircraft to about 64-72. According to media reports, more than 400 x MiG-21 aircraft have crashed in India since 1971-1972 killing over 200 pilots and another 50 people on ground. The general practice in the IAF is that after a crash, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) flies a MiG-21 to assure everyone though this does not change the vintage of the aircraft. 

Similar has been the story of the MiG-21 aircraft of the IAF who are also dubbed “flying coffins” every time a MiG aircraft crashes. Currently, IAF has four squadrons of MiG-21 Bison aircraft, each comprising 16-18 aircraft; taking the total strength of these fighter aircraft to about 64-72. According to media reports, more than 400 x MiG-21 aircraft have crashed in India since 1971-1972 killing over 200 pilots and another 50 people on ground. The general practice in the IAF is that after a crash, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) flies a MiG-21 to assure everyone though this does not change the vintage of the aircraft

The IAF celebrated the diamond jubilee of the Chetak helicopter at Hakimpet Air Force Station near Secunderabad on April 23 this year, the helicopter having completed 60 years of service. According to the ‘IAF, IA and IN Aircraft Losses Database’ on the website of ‘Bharat Rakshak’, between November 22, 1963 to April 10, 2019, the military suffered 46 Chetak helicopter crashes alone. This database mentions names of the pilots but without giving out how many were killed or injured. Incidentally, Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major is the only helicopter pilot promoted to Chief of the Air Staff of the IAF; who served as the CAS from March 31, 2007 to May 31, 2009.

Meenal Wagh Bhosale, founder of AWAG had filed a petition in 2014 questioning the continuous use of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters employed on disaster management missions and Siachen. She now laments, “75 years of Independence and India still continues to use helicopters that are around 60 years old, thus, in turn, sacrificing its precious soldiers.”

In 2015, the AWAG representatives had met the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to express concern that 191 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters had crashed, many of them in the Himalayas, killing 294 pilots over three previous decades. Parrikar assured them that steps will be taken but nothing has happened.

How have we come to this state of paralysis where the lives of pilots do not matter anymore beyond statistics? This lackadaisical approach is also because wards of politicians and bureaucrats do not serve in forces. Therefore, no thought is given to obsolescence of fighter jets and helicopters in planning capital procurements, whereas, planning must have sufficient overlaps to rid the forces of obsolete equipment. One just has to look around to realise there is no dearth of money in India if it is not allowed to be misused.   

How have we come to this state of paralysis where the lives of pilots do not matter anymore beyond statistics? This lackadaisical approach is also because wards of politicians and bureaucrats do not serve in forces. Therefore, no thought is given to obsolescence of fighter jets and helicopters in planning capital procurements, whereas, planning must have sufficient overlaps to rid the forces of obsolete equipment. One just has to look around to realise there is no dearth of money in India if it is not allowed to be misused

The MiG-21 squadrons of the IAF are to be replaced by the indigenous Tejas. While the IAF is looking for at least 220 Tejas fighters in various configurations, the Tejas Mk2 is likely to get airborne only in 2026 and the first operationally capable Tejas Mk2 is likely to be available not before 2036. Similarly, the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) developed by the HAL has no doubt come up well but it will likely take many years before meeting the requirements of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Have we weighed in the annual production rates? In what time-frame do we expect the over 330 Cheetah/Chetak helicopters held by the services would be replaced?

In the name of indigenisation, the deal with Russia for induction of the Ka-226T helicopters has been lingering on for several years, and is apparently being cancelled. Could we have not gone into joint production of the Ka-226T with Russia under the ‘Make in India’ initiative right from the beginning and exported these helicopters also? Can we not do so now looking at the gaping void of light utility helicopters? 

The focus of the administration is unambiguously on money and votes, which is no different from many countries. However, it would be good to ponder over the following:

  • The Defence Minister has said that the government has set itself a target of achieving defence exports of US$5 billion by 2025. Such targets would naturally go up progressively. However, there is a need to complete own voids before going for freewheeling exports, especially in products like where lives of pilots are involved. KPMG or another firm could perhaps work out the financial losses on account of experienced pilots and young officers killed in crashes.
  • As of now the HAL is to build 126 light helicopters for the Army and 61 for the IAF but is facing huge delays. The first six such helicopters are slated for induction only by December 2022 now. A third ‘Make in India’ project for 111 naval utility helicopters is yet to take off. It requires no intelligence to decipher that HAL is taking on, or rather being made to take on, more than it can chew.
  • It is high time private corporations and conglomerates commence manufacturing fighter aircraft and helicopters commercially in India – as is the case in foreign countries. A post stating that the GST on aircraft maintenance has been reduced from 18 per cent to five per cent because the Adani Group is entering the aircraft maintenance business is scratching the surface only. 
  • A serious review is required to overcome obsolescence of military platforms and a strategy chalked out to combat this in the required timeframe. The cliché of “there will be no war” needs to be set aside because conflict will depend on how militarily strong the adversaries view us.

Finally, it is time that the administration takes the lives of military personnel and pilots a little more seriously. Try and visualise a Cheetah/Chetak helicopter bringing down the body of a soldier from the icy height of the Saltoro Range in Siachen Glacier area; a soldier who died two days earlier but could not be brought down because of adverse weather conditions and his buddies shared the same hut/bunker with the body for past two days

Finally, it is time that the administration takes the lives of military personnel and pilots a little more seriously. Try and visualise a Cheetah/Chetak helicopter bringing down the body of a soldier from the icy height of the Saltoro Range in Siachen Glacier area; a soldier who died two days earlier but could not be brought down because of adverse weather conditions and his buddies shared the same hut/bunker with the body for past two days. 

The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

1 thought on “Vintage Aircraft – Precious Lives Ignored

  1. Such frequent crashes of MIG-21 fighters and helicopters indicates that there is a maintenance flaw or that the aircraft need to be scrapped. First of all the Court of Inquiry must do a proper job and fix responsibility and also mention clearly the action needed to be taken to avoid such occurrences in future. The present system has probably led to serious flaws in maintenance being swept under the carpet to save the career of concerned staff. That needs to be avoided and maintenance drills modified or rectified to avoid crashes.
    If the aircraft is unfit for service, it is better to scrap it instead of just branding it as a flying coffin and let it continue in service sacrificing the precious lives of highly trained pilots.

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