On 23rd May, 2017, a Sukhoi -30 MK I Fourth Generation, Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft of Indian Air Force (IAF), with two young pilots on board, was reported to have lost contact after getting airborne from Tezpur (Assam). Wreckage of the A/C was located in jungles near Assam and Arunachal Pradesh Border. IAF, along with Army, carried out extensive ground search for four days and later declared them “Killed in Action”.
Many other nations along with IAF are using Russian Sukhoi-30. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has 150 Flankers of Russian origin and 229 Chinese knockoffs. That’s a total of 379 aircraft as on date, for an eventual figure of 400 Flankers and its derivatives. The Russian Air Force has a total of 438 Flankers. Similarly, Flankers are in service of the Vietnamese and Indonesian Air Forces.
The IAF calls the Su-30 MK I its “Air Dominance” fighter because Sukhoi has decisively tilted the balance of power in favour of the IAF in the region. The Flanker’s super-manoeuvrability, its armoury of Advanced beyond Visual Range missiles and extraordinary range of 3000 km (extendable to 8000 km with aerial refuelling) are aspects that make this deadly fighter the “Wolf of the Skies”. The aircraft is equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Pods which gives it greater Long Range Reconnaissance Capabilities. But for greater effects, its future versions will be equipped with new AESA Radar. Armed with the present SAR pod, the IAF Sukhois are known to operate ‘Aggressive Patrols’ along the China-India and India-Pakistan borders.
In spite of these capabilities of the A/C, IAF has lost seven IAF Flankers in crashes. Probable causes and the theories for these crashes are:
d). Fourth Crash on 19th February 2013: Aircraft’s right wing exploded over Pokhran Field Firing Ranges, shortly after completing a Training Mission.
Blaming enemy’s Cyber Weapon capabilities for these crashes is untenable as IAF does not use IFDL (Inter Flight) or G2A (Ground to Air) Data Links during Routine Training Exercises leaving out any/remote possibility of it being hacked or jammed. On the other hand; area over Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland and Meghalaya is ‘Dangerous to Fly Region’ as the NE with valleys everywhere, heavy jungle rain/fog/lighting becomes an issue for low flying aircraft. IAF undertakes a lot of valley hugging low flying in the NE. Since the reasons of most of these crashes are known, the possibilities leading to these could be as under:
The aircraft crashes of IAF have shown a declining trend over the last three years. From a high of 30 in 2011-12, they declined to six in 2012-13 and an equal number in 2015–16. The IAF is now looking to improve overall fleet serviceability from 60-65 per cent to 77-80 per cent, provided spares were made available. While the IAF is clearly doing its best under the circumstances, it needs to do better. Bringing the crash rate down to US or European air force levels should be the goal. Apart from losing a Pilot, losing Sukhoi or any other A/C any time is akin to burning Rs 289 to 360 crore in cash which we can least afford.