The Hidden Crisis of Indian Military Aviation

Accountability must be established by conducting comprehensive investigations involving all relevant parties to identify and rectify the fault, and assign responsibility to those who are at fault.

5 mins read
Indian Air Force. (Image: IAF)

The spate of unfortunate accidents which are happening regularly Indian military aviation with the loss of highly trained combat pilots appears to have left the national as well as military leadership unmoved.

Accidents do happen, but the regularity with which these are occurring in India’s military aviation sector should have raised alarms and emergency remedial actions.

Yet what is concerning is that the services and the Ministry of Defence are continuing with BUA or business as usual approach.

India lost the seniormost military commander Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, and his wife with staff in a helicopter accident in December 2021, which should have led to a review of the entire aviation procedures from design to maintenance and flying given the high impact incident.

Yet continued occurrence of flying accidents leads to the conclusion that even, this has yet to lead to an improvement in this critical operational readiness criteria of the services.

Military Aviation – Significance

The military aviation sector in India includes flying machines with the Army, Navy, IAF and Coast Guard, combat support, and logistics with fixed and rotary wing components.

Aviation is seen as a sword arm in modern armed forces providing invaluable strategic advantages – both combat and logistics – witness the evacuation of C 17 and C 130 J from Sudan in the last week of April.

While the use of combat air power may be limited during peacetime, readiness for war through training involves regular flying.

On the support front military aviation is active 365 days a year, supporting the armed forces deployed on extremely high altitudes, such as the Bana Post in Siachen or on the high seas.

Despite the deficit in combat fighter aircraft segment India has a large fleet of fighters, transport, reconnaissance and surveillance assets in the fixed-wing and rotary-wing segments.

Regular upgrades, replacements, servicing, maintenance and pre flying checks are thus an important part of ensuring operational readiness of this large fleet.

Recent Accidents

A MiG-21 fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) crashed on May 08 as per a Ministry of Defence Press Release, while on a routine operational training sortie from the Air Force Station at Suratgarh. The pilot experienced an onboard emergency, following which he attempted to recover the aircraft as per existing procedures but failed and thus initiated an ejection, sustaining minor injuries in the process. The pilot was recovered from about 25 kilometres North East of Suratgarh’s base.

The aircraft wreckage, which fell on a house in Bahlol Nagar in Hanumangarh District, led to the loss of three lives, as per the Ministry of Defence release.

Ironically the accident happened on the day Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh inaugurated the Indian Air Force (IAF) Heritage Centre in Chandigarh on May 08, 2023, which is said to be an embodiment of IAF’s rich history and legacy.

The Indian Army grounded the ‘Dhruv’ advanced light helicopters (ALHs) after a crash on May 04 which, as per the Times of India, is one amongst many in the 300 odd platforms of this helicopter operated by the three services – Army, IAF, Navy as well as the Coast Guard. The May 04 crash resulted in the death of one technician while the pilots were injured in a precautionary landing. This occurred in a rugged terrain in the Jammu region in Kishtwar.

Jammu-based defence spokesperson Lt Col Devender Anand said, “At about 1115 hours (11.15am), an Army Aviation ALH Dhruv helicopter on an operational mission made a precautionary landing on the banks of Marua river in the Kishtwar region.” He added: “As per inputs, the pilots had reported a technical fault to the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) and proceeded for a precautionary landing. Due to the undulating ground, undergrowth and unprepared landing area, the helicopter apparently made a hard landing.” Soon after the incident, army rescue teams were rushed to the site. “Two pilots and a technician were on board. All three injured personnel were evacuated to Command Hospital, Udhampur, where the technician Pabballa Anil succumbed to his injuries,” said Col Anand was quoted by multiple media sources.

In October 2022, an army Rudra helicopter, an armed version of ALH Dhruv, crashed in Arunachal Pradesh, killing all five personnel on board.

On March 08, an Indian Navy ALH ditched into the Arabian Sea following unexplained loss of power, which had led to the grounding of the fleet.

Around 55 military personnel have lost their lives in over 50 aircraft and helicopter accidents in over five years as per the Times of India.

The old MiG-21 jets and the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters have recorded an alarming crash record over the years, while the Dhruv ALH is also not far behind.

Common Causes of Accidents

The Indian Air Force is holding five squadrons of the 1960s vintage MiG 21 which have been upgraded several times and are due for discard, but some are continuing for number plating squadrons in the IAF given the drastic fall from the required 42 to 29-31 or so.

As per the Times of India Indian Army holds 181 ALH, including over 60 ‘Rudra’, which are armed, the Indian Air Force 75, Indian Navy 23 and the Indian Coast Guard 18. These have reportedly been grounded twice since October last year.

Vintage of the aircraft in the case of MiG 21, lack of modern avionics and safety features, inadequate training and supervision of pilots as well as technicians, poor maintenance and overhaul practices, and lack of quality control on spares are said to be the cause of a large number of accidents.

In the case of the Dhruv, failure of power to the rotors has been one of the major deficits, while metallurgy is another. However, Hindustan Aeronautics officials have been quoted by Times of India to say that “ALHs have clocked a collective total of over 3.9 lakh flying hours, with the number of accidents per one lakh hours of flying “being lower than international standards”.

The HAL officials ascribe the crashes to poor maintenance.

What Needs to be Done?

In the case of the MiG 21, fleet replacement is an ongoing process. The Tribune has reported that the IAF has called for expediting delivery of LCA Mk 1A and increase the production from 16 to 24 per year. India has an ambition to export the LCA – if that is so, the production rate will have to go up to even 36 or more.

The Light Utility Helicopter programme for the three services numbering over 500 machines is yet to get off the ground. Occasional information drips to suggest that the process is ongoing satisfies the layman, but the industry, as well as the services, have to push the pedal and “bell the cat,” if required, that is, knock at the doors of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Whether this criticality of deficiencies in the military aviation sector were taken up at the Combined Commanders Conference, which was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bhopal from March 20 to April 01, is not clear. The issue is certainly essential to be flagged to the Prime minister by the military leadership.

Quality spares and maintenance procedures with accountability also assume importance given the vintage fleet and possibly some design faults. Spares will be an issue for the vintage Russian aircraft with a deficit that has already come to notice.

Fixing accountability assumes an importance which can occur only if thorough inquiries involving representatives of all agencies are carried out, and the fault is identified and rectified after responsibility is ascribed to the delinquents.

There are multiple vectors that have to be addressed – acceptance for improvement in this critical domain will be the first step for sustained commitment for reforms in the production of combat platforms and spares and ensuring stringent maintenance drills and checks.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia Security-Risks.com, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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