According to figures released by the defence ministry (MoD) in parliament today, the Indian Air Force (IAF) loses the equivalent of one fighter squadron (16-18 fighters) in crashes every two years. With the IAF repeatedly expressing concern over the declining number of squadrons - now down to 32-33 squadrons against a minimum operational requirement of 42 squadrons - even the induction of new aircraft like the Rafale fighter will not make up the numbers.
Over the last five financial years, including the current year that ends on March 31, a total of 50 IAF aircraft have crashed, including 37 fighters and 13 helicopters. Breaking this down year-wise, the MoD says 8 fighters and 2 helicopters crashed in 2008-09; 10 fighters and 2 helicopters crashed in 2009-10; 6 fighters and 6 helicopters crashed in 2010-11; 9 fighters and 1 helicopter crashed in 2011-12; and 4 fighters and 2 helicopters have crashed in the current year.
"In the above accidents, a total of 17 pilots and 18 Service personnel were killed. Also, 6 civilians were killed and 25 injured," the MoD statement says.
With no insurance covering military aircraft, the financial loss can be assessed only in terms of replacement cost. With each Sukhoi-30, the cheapest aircraft being currently inducted, costing close to Rs 350 crore, the loss of eight fighters per year to crashes amounts to an annual loss of over Rs 2,800 crore. The Rafale, going by current indications, could cost Rs 450-500 crore per aircraft, which is also the anticipated price of the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft that will only be operational at the end of this decade.
For the IAF, crashes are a serious issue. On November 05, 2012, Defence Minister A K Antony had spoken to the Parliamentary Consultative Committee for Defence about the high number of crashes. Antony said the IAF was focusing on "the training standards of young fighter aircrew," by "strengthening of training procedures."
This innocuous statement is shorthand for one of the IAF's most critical problems today: the compromise in basic training after the grounding of the entire basic trainer fleet of HPT-32 aircraft in 2009 in response to a series of accidents involving this aircraft. While a new basic trainer was being selected and the contract finalised, rookie IAF pilots underwent makeshift training, learning basic flying on the relatively advanced Kiran trainer.
Currently, the first batch of Pilatus PC-7 Mark-II basic trainers, bought from Switzerland, are being inducted and the first batch of pilots will begin training in July. This, say senior IAF officers, is expected to bring down accident rates significantly.
In the second half of the last decade, the induction of the Hawk advanced jet trainer, bought from BAE Systems of the UK, had significantly reduced the IAF's accident rate.
Also in the development pipeline is the Intermediate Jet Trainer, which Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd is developing as a Stage-2 trainer. Rookie pilots who have completed Stage-1 training on the Pilatus, would do Stage-2 training on the IJT before graduating to the Hawk AJT for Stage-3 training.
"Only after undergoing these three stages of training can a pilot get into the cockpit of a frontline combat fighter. Any shortcuts would lead to high accident rates during operational flying," says Pushpinder Singh, the publisher of Vayu magazine and an expert on combat aviation.
"A decade or so back, the IAF was losing almost a squadron of fighters every year to crashes. The current rate is actually good by comparison. As the IAF fleet becomes more modern and the old MiG-21s and MiG-27s retire, we will see a further decline in accidents," says Air Marshal Pranab K Barbora, a former IAF vice chief.
To reduce helicopter accident rates, Antony told parliament that "an unusually high number of accidents and incidents on helicopters occur, when they are operating away from their parent base", and so all helicopter units had undergone a special inspection. Some "shortcomings" had been found and they were being rectified.