Attrition: The Pain And Iron Rain In India

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April 4, 2013: The Indian Air Force is fading fast because of an exceptionally high accident rate. In the last five years the air force has lost (on average) ten aircraft a year to accidents. That means every two years a squadron worth of aircraft are lost. The Indian Air Force is authorized to have 42 fighter squadrons, each with about twenty aircraft. But with the crashes and so many of the older MiG (21, 23, and 27) fighters wearing out so quickly (and being retired), India has only 32 squadrons available. Half of those squadrons are modern aircraft (Mig-29, Su-30, and Mirage 2000), the rest are the older MiGs that are still flyable. India is refurbishing its MiG-29s and shopping for 126 modern fighters from whoever will give them the best deal for about $7 billion. Meanwhile, there is no immediate threat. Pakistan is the only real enemy in the region, and their smaller fighter fleet is also aging.

A quarter of the Indian losses have been helicopters, which are being increasingly replaced with Indian made choppers. India has been trying to produce locally designed and made fighters but have not managed to get these local designs into production. So the air force remains dependent on foreign fighters.

One unfortunate side effect of the rapid loss or retirement of so many older aircraft is that there are now no flying jobs for hundreds of Indian fighter pilots. Most are now sitting at desks, and many would like to leave the service and make a lot more money flying civilian transports. Like all air forces, the Indian pilots joined up so they could fly. But the older Russian aircraft were designed for doctrine developed in the defunct Soviet Union. Back then, the Soviets sought to save money by not flying their warplanes nearly as much as Western air forces. The Soviets did not depend on skilled pilots but a lot of aircraft. That strategy has since been discarded and everyone is trying to improve the training of their pilots.

It’s not just the older aircraft that are crashing but the modern ones as well. In the last four years four of India's Russian made Su-30MKI jet fighters have crashed. Two years ago the commander of the Indian Air Force took an hour-long flight in one of India's Su-30MKI to reassure Indian pilots that the Su-30MKI was safe. Two had crashed in 2009, due to mechanical failures, and there were widely publicized reliability problems with the engines and many of the other Russian designed and built components of the aircraft.

Indian pilots are understandably nervous about the safety of the many Russian warplanes they fly. The MiG fighters are the most dangerous but the more recent Su-30 models were believed to be a lot safer. Recent problems indicate this may not be the case, thus the 2011 flight by the head of the air force. Air force leaders are under tremendous pressure to cut the loss rate. Pilot training has increased, as have efforts to increase maintenance and safety standards. 

The MiGs are still crashing, with a MiG-27 going down on February 12th. India has lost so many MiG-21 fighters that it is trying to retire this type of aircraft as quickly as possible. Over the last half century, India has bought 976 MiG-21s and over half are gone, mostly because of accidents. While India was something of an extreme case in this area (other users don't fly their MiG-21s as much), it's been typical of MiG aircraft. All this is part of the decline of the once feared, and admired, MiG reputation. Starting in World War II (the MiG-1 entered service in 1940), through the Korean War (the MiG-15 jet fighter), and the Cold War (the MiG-17/19/21/23/27/29), MiGs comprised the bulk of the jet fighters in communist, and Indian, air forces. But after the Cold War ended in 1991, the flaws of the MiG aircraft (poor quality control and reliability, difficult to fly) caught up with it's users, in a big way. In the last few years most of the bad news about military aircraft reliability, accidents, and crashes has involved MiG products. For example, all Indian MiG-27s have been grounded several times in the last few years because of suspected mechanical problems. These fears are not new. The MiG-27 and Cold War era Russian warplanes in general do not age well.

Last year India went public with yet another complaint about the Russian made Su-30 fighters. That was about an unspecified "design flaw" in the electronic flight control system for the aircraft. This bit of information was made public because India found that more discreet communications about these matters results in little or no action from the Russians. For example, India has been pressuring Russia for several years to do something about component failures in the Russian designed AL-31 engines that power the Indian Su-30MKI jet fighters. There have been several AL-31 failures because of this in both Indian and Russian Su-30s. The latest accidents indicate that the problems remain.

The Indian Air Force has been struggling with this attrition problem for a decade now, with some success. The authorized number of squadrons has been reduced from 45 to 42 but the air force refuses to reduce that further, even though not enough aircraft can be kept flying to equip more than 33 squadrons.

 


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