When will the AJTs come?

NEW DELHI OCT. 3. Although the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, is confident that the Indian Air Force's quest for an advanced jet trainer (AJT) is coming to an end, there is no confirmation whether British Aerospace will win the coveted multi-million dollar order.

The IAF chief, S. Krishnaswamy, too has not spelt out which of the two — the British Aerospace's Hawk or the Czech-U.S. offering L-159 — will bag the order although it appears that the former has an edge. "We will be happy to get any aircraft. All we need is a plane. Whichever comes, we will be a satisfied customer,'' he noted.

AJTs are sorely required by the IAF to cut down on the crashes that take place while training rookie pilots. In the absence of AJTs, the IAF is forced to train pilots on jet fighters which are unforgiving machines in case of errors. All that the IAF chief is willing to say is that his force wants a product with a 30-year unstinted support from the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for spares. He has ruled out the Italian AJT `A-50' because it fails to meet the IAF's needs.

Speaking on the L-159, which was considered out of the race till a short while ago, Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy called it a developing aircraft with an impressive past. As many as 6,000 variants of this trainer have served with air forces of various countries. But this particular variant is still being improved upon.

"If the Czechs and the Americans achieve what they have set out to achieve, it will be a promising aircraft,'' observes the IAF chief.

Recently, a team from the IAF had visited the Czech Republic to take a closer look at the prototype and a report is understood to have been submitted to the Government. Why then is L-159 still being considered when price negotiations for the Hawk have been completed ? "We were asked to take a look at the L-159 and why not? It is always better to have options,'' offers the IAF chief.

The wait for AJTs has continued for an eternity even as numerous young pilots have died training on the faster fighter jets.

The Defence Minister as well as the IAF chief are confident that a decision is around the corner. But if one goes back to the nineties, similar and equally optimistic statements were aired by those at the helm at IAF headquarters and South Block.

Will the confidence expressed by the IAF chief and the Defence Minister translate into orders within this fiscal year?

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