Friday, Sep 05, 2003
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HOW DOES ONE react to the fact that a vital arms contract has taken two decades to finalise after the first proposal was made for acquisition? Should one despair about the inordinate delay in settling the contract? Or should one feel satisfaction that it has, for all practical purposes, finally been inked? The approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for the acquisition of 66 Hawks (24 of them to be bought in fly-away condition and the rest to be manufactured in India) from British Aerospace Systems may well produce both these conflicting emotions. The excessive delay is inexcusable but the deal is better clinched now than never. At Rs. 8,000 crores, the AJT contract is fairly large; it would have cost much less had the decision been made when it was due. However, what really marks the difference between this military contract and others India has entered into in recent times is the very nature of the acquisition, which is directed at not really augmenting India's offensive or defensive military capabilities but at strengthening air safety. As the Defence Secretary has stated, the clinching of the contract fulfils a longstanding demand of the Indian Air Force, which found itself seriously hampered by inadequate training procedures for pilots.
In the absence of AJTs, the IAF has struggled to improve the training skills of pilots, many of whom are trained on basic subsonic trainer aircraft and then assigned to fly state-of-the-art supersonic fighters. Interim measures to fill the void created by the absence of AJTs have been insufficient. One consequence has been crashes caused by pilot error; in recent times, these have shown an alarming increase. If one takes MiGs, which still constitute the backbone of the Air Force, a staggering 52 of these fighter aircraft have gone down since January 2000. The crash statistics for other aircraft are not exactly reassuring.
Will the substantial induction of AJTs make crashes a thing of the past? Unfortunately, the answer is `no'. A significant number of non-combat crashes result from other factors, principally bird hits and poor maintenance. The latter problem, as aviation experts have pointed out, needs to be addressed quickly. However, there exists a substantial correlation between non-combat crashes and inadequate training procedures something the La Fontaine Committee underlined some years ago. The Committee highlighted the fact that the lack of transitional trainer aircraft required pilots to make a big leap in both skill and judgment when they moved from trainer to operational aircraft.
It is quite astonishing that AJTs were not acquired earlier given the fact that the link between crashes and inadequate training procedures has been underlined time and again. In 1995, the Defence Minister was even provoked into writing to the Prime Minister that the lack of AJTs was responsible for most pilot error-related crashes. There may be arguments for and against buying the British Hawk, which can double up as a fighter and is deployed in as many as 17 countries. Indeed it was only recently that the Centre flirted with the idea of purchasing a cheaper Czech variant, before settling finally for the Hawk. But from the IAF's point of view, the concern was always about acquiring suitable AJTs and quickly. The real price of delay should not be calculated in terms of the financial outlay. In the loss of precious lives of IAF pilots and combat aircraft, the nation has already paid an unconscionable price.
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