Waiting for the Hawk

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

British Defence Minister Lord Bach in the cockpit of the Hawk fighter jet at the Aero India show in Bangalore on February 6, 2003. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

British Defence Minister Lord Bach in the cockpit of the Hawk fighter jet at the Aero India show in Bangalore on February 6, 2003. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Further delays in the arrival of the much-awaited Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer aircraft will hinder the efficient Stage-3 training of fighter pilots - a lapse that the Indian Air Force cannot afford, militarily and economically.

THE long-awaited Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) contract was signed between the Ministry of Defence and Messrs BAE Systems of the United Kingdom, in September 2003. This multi-billion pound sterling deal, arguably one of the biggest yet in value, compass and repercussions, has traversed a remarkably tortuous, potholed path. Some 36 months from now, the first Hawk AJT will arrive - more than 20 years from the time it was first asked for by the Indian Air Force (IAF). One can only hope that no "inquiry" or "re-examination" will cause further delay in the arrival of the aircraft, for it will spell disaster for the IAF.

The La Fontaine Committee, set up in 1984, looked into what needed to be done to improve the IAF's safety and training standards. It recommended that an AJT be procured to conduct the Stage-3 training of rookie fighter pilots more effectively than was possible on the old masterpiece then used, the redoubtable British Hawker Siddley Hunter. Over the years, the Air Force trained all its rookie pilots in the first year (Stage-1) on piston engine trainers (the HT-2, the T6G "Texan", the HPT-32). The fighter pilots were then trained for about six months (Stage-2) on jets (Vampire, Iskra, Kiran) and were thereafter awarded their "Wings" and commissioned.

Initially, for quite a few years, these greenhorn Pilot Officers used to be held back at Hakimpet, near Hyderabad, to undergo a six-month Stage-3 ("Applied Stage") training on the Vampire fighter jets before being posted to fighter squadrons. This system worked well in the 1950s and the 1960s with the kind of fighter inventory and "squadron demand" that the IAF had. But, after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, a need was felt to conduct the Stage-3 training of fighter pilots on a more advanced fighter-trainer than the Vampire, in the light of the changing inventory complexion of the IAF and the changes being made in the training pattern. Thus was born the Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Jamnagar in 1967, flying Hunter aircraft.

Increased intake into the expanding MiG 21 and Sukhoi Su-7 force, as well as new inductions such as the MiG 23 and the Jaguar, the Mirage 2000 and the MiG 29, called for an expansion of the Stage-3 training facility. Thus was formed the MiG 21 `Operational Conversion Unit' (OCU) - later renamed the `MiG Operational Flying Training Unit' (MOFTU) - at Tezpur, in 1986. This was in addition to the Hunter OTU, now renamed the "Hunter OCU", based at Kalaikunda. The MOFTU operated the third MiG 21 variant to enter service (after Type 74 and Type 76), the "FL" or Type 77 (the first MiG 21 variant to be bulk produced at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited [HAL], Nashik), and began imparting Stage-3 training to freshly commissioned fighter pilots on their way to frontline squadrons.

THE MiG 21 certainly was not (and is not) the ideal platform for the job since it was not designed as an AJT. It was designed by the Soviets in the mid-1950s, essentially as a high altitude, supersonic interceptor to counter the American U-2 spy plane and the B-58 "Hustler" bomber threats. India acquired it to counter the F-104 Starfighter of the Pakistan Air Force. However, for the training job at hand, it was the best aircraft the Air Force then had in the numbers needed. The MOFTU, quickly getting its act together, began doing an excellent job of Stage-3 training on the aircraft, sub-optimal though it was. It was this "sub optimality" that had led to the La Fontaine Committee's recommendation to acquire a role-dedicated "AJT" to replace the make-do MiG 21 FL for Stage-3 training.

By the mid/late-1980s, the search began for a suitable AJT, with only the Franco-German Alpha Jet and the British Hawk meeting the Air Force specifications. The French pulled out of contention by the mid-1990s. When the latest Price-Negotiation Committee (PNC) was constituted in early 2000, there was no viable alternative to the Hawk on formal offer. There were a few aircraft in various stages of development in Europe and elsewhere that claimed to fit the bill, but they were neither fully developed nor proven; nor were they as specification-compliant as the Hawk.

MANY see the AJT as the long-awaited "messiah" for the Air Force. Media reports have suggested that the MiG 21 "because of its old age and the critical spares supply position from Russia, has become a very unsafe and unreliable aircraft" and a "flying coffin". This is a grossly uninformed view.

The MiG 21 FL variant was inducted in service between 1966 and 1974, about the time the newer, multi-role MiG 21M went into production at HAL, Nashik. The oldestextant among the MiG 21 variants on the Air Force inventory, it was essentially a first generation, supersonic (Mach 2), high-altitude interceptor, which was perforce used for the Stage-3 training of newly inducted fighter pilots. The alternative was to accept very limited Stage-3 training, both in quantity and quality, on the dwindling assets of the older, transonic Hunter. The impact of such a course on the most crucial phase in a fighter pilot's education would have been operationally disastrous.

Old age and shortage of spares adversely affect the fighter aircraft's on-the-flight-line availability in numbers, but not its reliability as a flying machine. To amplify the point further: the spares problem can and does reduce the number of MiG 21 FLs offered for flying in the MOFTU on a given day; there could well be none on a particularly bad day. However, the few aircraft that are ever placed on the flight-line are always airworthy in every respect. This is not mere philosophy, policy or practice in the Air Force; it is an article of faith with the Air Force's Maintenance Wing. It is meticulously overseen, vigilantly monitored and carefully nurtured.

Blaming a proven work-horse like the MiG 21 only for its vintage, or branding it a "flying coffin" is an outright national disservice. For argument's sake, even if one concedes the legitimacy of the demand to scrap the MiG 21 fleet, it is a demand easier made than met. Russia and Britain have no comparable aircraft on sale; the French Mirage 2000-5 costs Rs.140 crore a piece; the French Rafale Rs.160 crores; the Swedish Grippen Rs.130 crores; and the American F-15, F-16 and F-18 are not on offer to India. The Hunter cost India about Rs.37 lakh a piece in 1957 and the MiG 21 about Rs.1 crore in 1965, to draw a comparison.

The most vital question is: with what will the Air Force defend the country in the interim if it suddenly scraps the MiG 21? In the ultimate analysis, is national security negotiable, even if the price is human lives? There have been reports of government plans to buy just such a MiG 21 replacement fighter, but it cannot happen overnight. Other countries have been confronted with similar problems. Despite the calamitous safety record of the F-104 Starfighter in the Luftwaffe in the 1960s and 1970s, the Germans kept flying the aircraft right up to the point when they had a replacement in place. This was because of the Cold War. There was no immediate aircraft replacement option; and, most important, national security was a paramount consideration. They did lose a number of pilots in the process and Germany was extremely concerned but one never heard of individual "dharnas" to have the aircraft scrapped summarily.

At the same time, it is important for the IAF to bear in mind that flying training and maintenance training and practices are dynamic processes. This makes it incumbent on the IAF to be continually and consciously responsive to the changing times, to the changing human resource pattern of its officer and airman intake, to new technologies and to the changing internal and external environment. If the rate of accidents, those involving the MiG 21 in particular, is to be curbed, the IAF must re-examine certain areas more closely and more scientifically, moving substantively away from the traditional paradigms of inquiry and investigation into aircraft accidents. Thankfully, the Air Force is fully aware of this and realises only too well that a mere induction of the Hawk is not going to be a panacea and will not prevent all accidents.

WHAT is an Advanced Jet Trainer? In fact, it is neither advanced, compared to the rest of the fighter inventory, nor is it meant to impart extraordinarily advanced flying training. It is merely a bridge that would form a seamless link between slower, less agile, less avionically endowed, less weaponised, less electronically geared, less powerful Stage-2 jet fighter-trainers (Kiran, Iskra, the upcoming HJT-36) and high-performance, frontline fighters of all categories (Mirage 2000, Su-30 MKI, MiG 29, MiG 27, MiG 21 Bison, Jaguar). The AJTs are expected to enable the transition of young trainee pilots to frontline fighter aircraft. It is for this reason that these aircraft are better known in other Air Forces as "Lead-in Fighter Trainers".

The induction of the Hawk AJT would have four distinct spin-offs for the Air Force:

* The hands-on experience, confidence and skill levels of young pilots entering combat squadrons would be decidedly higher.

* The time taken to make them "Fully Op" on the squadron aircraft that is, their `usability' as war fighters, would be cut down.

* Squadrons can now get down to full-time combat training and battle simulation much faster instead of wasting time and precious aircraft hours on laboriously nursing the new entrants up to the necessary levels of combat skill.

* As a result of these spin-offs, pilot error accidents in the Air Force squadrons should see a positive downward trend.

Any modern AJT, coming as it does with its own type of simulators, modern training philosophy, aids and equipment, would be a big help in some other areas, too. The many state-of-the-art training impedimenta could also help modernise existing training concepts, mindsets, methodologies, aids and accessories. But, it should be borne in mind that any expectation of a dramatic reduction in the accident rate of the Air Force would not be realistic as an accident is the result of the interplay of numerous other factors.

When we talk of withdrawing the MiG 21 from being used as a surrogate AJT, the sole reference is to the Stage-3 training of new pilots. Even after the first Hawk arrives and the single-seat MiG 21 FL fighter is progressively scrapped on expiry of its Total Technical Life, its two-seater version will continue to be used in MiG 21 M, MiG 21 BIS and MiG 21 Bison squadrons, for what is known as "in-squadron training" for the next 15 years or so. This is because single-seat fighter aircraft squadrons the world over always have a few two-seater versions of that fighter on its rolls for periodic check sorties, occasional dual instruction and regular standardisation of all its pilots. Even the seniormost pilots in the squadron have to submit to such check and standardisation sorties in two-seater aircraft to meet the Air Force's exacting aircrew standards, ensured by local bodies and enforced by two roving apex watchdog bodies under Air Headquarters - the "Aircrew Examining Board" and the "Air Staff Inspection" team.

ONE frequently comes across questions about the contemporariness of the Hawk, which in some key senses, is misplaced. There is a basic difference between the Air Force buying a two-seater trainer aircraft for the use of older and experienced combat pilots in fighter squadrons, and another for the use of young and inexperienced trainee pilots. It is always preferable for the latter to be a proven machine with a good track record of service in one or more Air Forces. This is so mainly because of the vast difference in levels of experience of the user pilot population. The fact of the matter is that no other AJT aircraft of comparable performance was either in production or in reasonably long service anywhere in the world at the time of India's Hawk decision in late 2003.

There are two other terms - "old design" and "old aircraft" - which are often tossed about and which need to be clearly understood before passing a value judgment on the contemporariness of the Hawk AJT. The Kiran and the MiG 21 FL today are old designs as well as old aircraft; but, if they were to be substantively modified, upgraded and built anew using the latest technology (that the design of these two particular aircraft may not have inherent scope to do so, is another matter), they could, hypothetically, once again become contemporary aircraft for a specified duration.

Take, for example, the American B-52 "Stratofortress" heavy bomber first built in the early 1950s; the C-130 "Hercules" medium/heavy transport first built in the late 1950s; the F-15 "Eagle" air superiority fighter designed in the late 1960s; the C-47 "Chinook" heavy lift helicopter of the early 1970s and the F-16 "Fighting Falcon" multi-role fighter of the mid-1970s. All these outstanding airplanes are in extensive operational use even today in the United States Air Force and many other Air Forces, albeit in shapes and configurations that are vastly different from the specimens that originally entered service. Closer home, the 1985 Chinese upgrade of the old Type 74, the first version of the original Soviet MiG 21 (that arrived in India in 1963 and since scrapped), called the F-7, is yet another shining example of a country's will and resolve to think and plan on those lines, its technical prowess to undertake the upgrade, and its programme implementation discipline and project management skills to see the upgrade through without lamentable time-and-cost overruns.

Actually, most countries today do not have a choice in the matter of mid-life upgrades, given the staggering costs of modern combat aircraft. Over the past 40 years, the IAF has retired the Toofani, the Mystere, the Canberra, the Sukhoi-7, the Hunter, the Gnat and the HF-24 without these venerable combat aircraft being given any serious mid-life upgrades. The Ajeet (Gnat) project in the early 1980s was a tentative beginning, which never got the deserved support, funding and push, which the MiG 21 BIS upgrade programme of the mid-1990s luckily did. The IAF, HAL, the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Ministry of Defence must share the blame.

There will always be one or two newer jet trainer aircraft entering the AJT arena with improved performance, better features, less price and promise of faster delivery. If this occurs just at the stage when a country is about to take a decision to buy, any weakness, indecision or temptation to consider any of the newer machines will result in the entire process having to start de novo. This cannot be done, unless the country can militarily or economically afford the resultant delay in aircraft induction.

The MiG 21 FL replacement in the AJT role is no more just the desirable thing it was in the 1980s and the 1990s: in 2003 it also became time-critical, with the older among the MiG 21 FL aircraft having already begun to complete their total technical life and progressively getting scrapped. The situation in 1984 was one where the Air Force had suboptimal aircraft but they were present in sufficient numbers for Stage-3 training of fighter pilots. The situation now is one where the Air Force still has suboptimal aircraft but in increasingly insufficient numbers. In fact, there will be none left over the next four years or so to conduct Stage-3 training.

Air Vice Marshal S.G. Inamdar, former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Air Command, is a member of the Union Public Service Commission.

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