The Indian armed forces have lost as many as 35 aircraft, including 11 helicopters, and 14 pilots in crashes just since 2014-2015, the government told Parliament on Wednesday.
If figures from 2011 onwards are taken into account, the IAF, Army and Navy have recorded accidents of around 70 aircraft and helicopters, which have killed over 80 people, reinforcing the unusually high crash rate. These include over 30 fighters, including at least five twin-engine Sukhoi-30MKIs, the country’s latest and the most potent jets.
“Various preventive measures are being taken, including invigoration of the Aviation Safety Organization, streamlining of the accident reporting procedure, analytical studies and quality audits of the aircraft fleets to identify vulnerable areas to avoid accidents,” said minister of state for defence Subhash Bhamre, in a written reply to Lok Sabha on Wednesday.
“Accident prevention programmes have been given an added thrust to identify risk prone or hazardous areas specific to the aircraft fleets and operational environment to ensure safe practices and procedures,” he added.
The two major reasons identified for the different crashes are “technical defects” and “human error”. In other words, ageing aircraft and poor maintenance, coupled with inadequate pilot training, contribute to the high crash rate.
Though training of pilots is also regularly reviewed to stay abreast of the latest teaching techniques and utilization of state-of-art training aids, the lack of a concerted modernization drive to replace ageing aircraft remains a major problem.
The armed forces, for instance, desperately require 484 light helicopters to replace their obsolete single-engine Cheetah/Chetak fleets, which were first inducted in the early-1970s and have been dogged by a high crash rate and serviceability problems for the last several years. Such helicopters are used for reconnaissance and servicing forward areas like the Siachen Glacier-Saltoro Ridge region.
But the long-pending joint production of 200 Kamov-226T light-utility helicopters for around $1 billion (over Rs 6,500 crore) between India and Russia is yet to kick off. This much-delayed project for the light utility helicopters is considered crucial because India’s endeavour to buy 197 such choppers from abroad has been scrapped three times over the last decade due to corruption allegations and technical deviations.
Defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics is also yet to begin delivering the 187 similar light helicopters it was supposed to make “within 60 months” when the project was sanctioned by the Cabinet Committee on Security in February 2009.
HAL says this indigenous three-tonne helicopter with a glass cockpit, whose design configuration is in the process of being frozen, will be capable of flying at 220 Kmph, with a service ceiling of 6.5 Km and a range of 350 Km with 400 kg payload. It will be deployed for reconnaissance and surveillance roles as well as serve as a light transport helicopter.