The consequences of an inordinate delay in building hardened shelters, called blast pens for the Su-30 fighter jets of the Indian Air Force in forward areas were felt during the recent aerial combat between India and Pakistan. The project was sanctioned only at the end of 2017, two decades after the jets were bought, a defence source said.
“Owing to the bureaucratic delays, we could not develop blast pens for Su-30 MKIs near the Line of Control [LoC]. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) sanctioned the project only at the end of 2017,” the source said. Hence, the jets could not be forward deployed along the LoC, and they were scrambled from behind to intercept the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets that tried to bomb Indian military installations, the official said, explaining why the MiG-21 jets were the first responders during the aerial combat a day after the Balakot air strike.
“The project will take three or four years to complete,” the official said, but declined to spell out the number of pens to be built or their cost.
On the morning of February 27, over 20 PAF jets, including F-16s, JF-17s and a few older Mirages, briefly crossed the LoC and attempted to drop H4 glide-bombs, but were intercepted by eight MiG-21 Bison jets. Mirage-2000s and Su-30MKIs were scrambled from bases around but MiG-21s were the closest and reached the location immediately and engaged the PAF jets. While an F-16 was shot down, the IAF lost a MiG-21.
Not factored in
The IAF got the first batch of Su-30s from Russia in 1996 and has since contracted 272 aircraft, of which 240 have been inducted. But the construction of blast pens was not included in the original deal with Russia. So the IAF put up a proposal when Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne was the IAF chief. He served as the Chief of Air Staff from August 2011 to December 2013.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence pointed to the delay in building these shelters in a 2016 report. “Hardened shelters are not available for even the limited numbers of aircraft available with the service,” it noted.
The blast pens protect the aircraft from strikes by enemy jets or missiles. In the 1965 war with Pakistan, the IAF lost several aircraft in the open. A repeat of this was avoided during the 1971 war.