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:
- a) First Crash on 30th April 2009: The first ever Su-30 MK I crashed in the Pokhran, Rajasthan during a Joint Army Air Force Exercise. The Court of Inquiry established that the Pilot had mistakenly switched off the warplane’s ‘Fly-by-Wire System’.
- b) Second Crash on 30th November 2009: A Sukhoi crashed near Jaisalmer Rajasthan, after a fire warning. An IAF investigation attributes it to ‘Accidental Ingestion of a Foreign Object’ in the engine intake.
- c) Third Crash on 13th December 2011: Aircraft crashed 20 km from Pune. IAF said that the crash was due to a malfunction in the ‘Fly-by-Wire System’ of the A/C.
d). Fourth Crash on 19th February 2013: Aircraft’s right wing exploded over Pokhran Field Firing Ranges, shortly after completing a Training Mission.
- e) Fifth Crash on 14th October 2013: ‘Fly-by-Wire System’ malfunctions yet again and the Sukhoi goes down near Pune. Russian experts blame pilot error but the IAF says the Court of Inquiry could not pinpoint exact reason.
- f) Sixth Crash on 19th May 2015: Su-30 MK I flying from Tezpur in Assam develops a ‘Technical Snag’ and the pilot is forced to abandon the aircraft. Cause is yet to be established by the Court of Inquiry which is in progress.
- g) And lastly, the Seventh Crash on 23rd May 2017.
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:
- a) Harsh Environment: Harsh weather in Tropical India is an unforgiving environment for any A/C. The hot air means aircraft engines produce less thrust and the wing produce less lift compared to similar aircraft flying in European skies. Sun baked runways are also known to impact landing safety. These are factors IAF pilots have to live with. Bird collisions are another huge factor in aircraft accidents over India. The IAF attributes around 10 per cent of accidents to bird hits. Most IAF bases are located near populated areas, where birds are a constant menace.
- b) Intense Training: IAF follows ‘Round the Year Intensive Training Schedule’, come what may, as it trains for a “High Intensity, High Stakes Conflict” and put its Pilots and aircraft through the wringer for a “Two-Front War”. Mock Air Combat involves aircraft flying thousands of kilometres with mid-air refuelling. In fact, IAF pilots are known to lead missions over 10 hours a day in their Sukhois. Such training places a great deal of stress on Aircraft, Pilots and Air Crews. But that’s the way we all train for War. IAF, like other Sister Services, conducts training for a wide range of missions – Troop Support; Air Combat; Deep Penetration Strikes; Para Dropping behind Enemy Lines; Feints to draw enemy fighters away from the actual target; Bombing and Reconnaissance. IAF values superior training of its Pilots and encourages innovativeness in them. IAF pilots have “A love of hunting, a great desire to be the top dog”.
- c) Missing Trainers: According to figures released by the Ministry of Defence in March 2014, the IAF was losing the equivalent of one fighter squadron (approximately 18 fighters) in accidents every two years. This was primarily because of the lack of adequate number of Trainers. Fighter pilots begin on basic trainers; then move on to Intermediate Jet Trainers (IJTs) before finally graduating to Advanced Jet Trainers (AJTs). These three stages are critical elements of Fighter Pilot Training. But due absence of an AJT, Pilots were moving straight from the IJT to frontline warplanes such as the MiG-21. The upshot; young pilots died at an alarming rate. Latest induction of the Swiss Pilatus Basic Trainer and Hawk AJT from Britain has improved the situation to a great extent, in that the crashes have come down but not stopped.
- d) Poor Quality of Maintenance: Poor Maintenance could well be a factor for such crashes as most of them were due to failure of ‘Fly-by-Wire System’ and “Technical Snags”. IAF insists on high standards its Pilots but Maintenance Crews may not share that quality. To overcome that, an elite division of Ground Crews to service its High-End Aircraft should be insisted on.
- e) Depleted Air Force: The IAF’s fleet strength is currently down to 34 squadrons or around 600 warplanes. The sanctioned number is 46 squadrons. In a country as vast as India with multiple threats, such depletion in fighter aircraft means fewer aircraft have to perform more missions to get the same job done. It also means less down time for maintenance. This is where India quickly needs to induct more locally built Tejas Interceptors, locally assembled Su-30s, newly inducted Dassult Rafael and SAAB Gripen under licensed production at HAL.
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.