India's Flying Coffins

Earlier this month, yet another Russian-origin MIG-21 fighter crashed in the desert state of Rajasthan, killing a young trainee pilot and once more underlining what is perhaps the worst crash rate of any combat aircraft in operation anywhere in the world.

Not for nothing, the aircraft have been dubbed flying coffins. But in a bigger sense, their continued use is a depressing reflection on India’s slow and torturous defense modernization process to procure new fighter jets.

The elderly MIGs have formed the backbone of the Indian Air Force’s air strike capability for almost five decades, since the days when India led the world’s non-aligned movement and bought most of its military equipment from the Soviet Union, which disintegrated, leaving the Indian air force with a scarcity of spare parts. Technical snags and shoddy servicing also have resulted in many MIGs going down, killing pilots and severely disabling the Indian Air Force’s attack capability.

According to official figures, of the 793 MiG-21s inducted into the India Air Force since 1963, more than 350 have been lost in accidents, killing about 170 pilots. A recent report by the defense ministry has acknowledged that most of the MIG crashes have been attributed to outdated technology that relies on manual judgment rather than computer-driven, automated responses that more modern aircraft feature.

The Air Force, however, has been forced to rely on the outdated and near-obsolete MIGs because of the failure of the government to bring the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft into service and to import a long-awaited multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) as scheduled. The attempt to finalize the US$11 billion multi-role combat aircraft contract has been underway since at least 2001 – 10 years ago. Red tape, bureaucratic infighting and other delays have dogged the contract, however, which is supposed to take until 2013 before it is completed.

The basis of India’s defense modernization has been a perception of the rising threat from neighbors Pakistan and China, both countries against whom India has fought wars in the past. In this context, India’s stockpiling of its arsenal is aimed at building long-term deterrence against both countries.

China’s military capabilities currently far exceed those of India. The problems with Pakistan are more immediate. Apart from threats of state action India also has to guard against rogue and terror elements based in Pakistan launching an attack on Indian cities, possibly using even pilfered nuclear armaments that Islamabad possesses.

Given such a scenario, India has been seeking to build a fighter jet fleet that would be comprised of the MRCAs to replace the crash prone MiG-21 interceptors and fit between the more powerful long-range Sukhoi-30 and the lower-end indigenous Tejas lightweight fighters.

While the Russian Sukhois would build the China deterrence factor and are being deployed along India’s eastern borders, the MRCAs and the Tejas are to counter the Pakistan threat on the western borders.

However, given that India’s defense acquisition processes have long been mired in corruption, red tape, bureaucratic delays and indecision, the Tejas has already been almost three decades in the making and is not scheduled for induction before 2013 -- if matters go well, and after massive cost escalations.

The MRCA deal has been caught in debates about the extent and nature of offsets that the supplier will be obliged to follow. Offsets are investment commitments that a defense contract winner has to commit to before signing a deal with the Indian government.

All of this has meant that IAF pilots have had to operate and train with the ageing MIGs, which feature one of the highest landing and take-off speeds in the world at 340 kilometers per hour, making them extremely crash-prone.

Although the IAF has upgraded the MIG-21s, the IAF has recorded over two dozen fighter crashes over the last three years alone, more than half involving writing off the MIGs altogether. Of 10 air force crashes in 2010, four were MiG-27s and two MiG-21s. In February, an upgraded MiG-21 Bison also crashed in central India.

Yet, in the absence of alternatives, the MIGs are officially slated to be in operation till 2017, even though New Delhi has been growing visibly more urgent in the recent past to get its air power right. There has been some movement in finalizing the purchase of the 126 MRCAs. New Delhi has said that a decision will be made by the end of this year.

The bidders have been trimmed to the French Dassault Rafale or the Eurofighter Typhoon, while the Russian MiG-35, Swedish Saab Gripen, the American Boeing F/A-18 E/F and the Lockheed Martin F-16 combat jets have been rejected. Even though an unhappy Washington has been pushing New Delhi to reconsider its aircraft, it is unlikely that such a process is going to happen due to fear of more delays.

According to the defense ministry, India’s air force should comprise more than 350 fighter jet aircraft by 2020. That would include the 126 MRCAs, more than 160 new Sukhoi-30 MKIs and over 140 indigenously-built Tejas and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) being developed jointly by Russia’s Sukhoi and India’s HAL.

However, until the plans are implemented, India air power will continue to rest far too heavily on the unstable MIG platform, which is continuing to kill both its rookie pilots – thus endangering the air force’s future -- and too many experienced ones as well.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)