AN-32 has served IAF for 35 years. We can’t turn our back on ageing workhorse now
My heart goes out to the families, friends and colleagues of all the 13 Indian Air Force personnel who lost their lives in the recent AN-32 crash in the forested mountainous region of Arunachal Pradesh. Being in the Air Force family for over four decades, I am aware of how challenging it can be for those involved in the search and rescue mission; it is like looking for a needle in that jungle. Determination unified our national effort that did eventually succeed in locating the crash site.
During the eight days of wait since the Russian-origin AN-32 aircraft crashed on 3 June, many reports and media analysis came out in public domain. This accident calls for introspection about the ways in which India views its losses and its responses to such tragedies. The news quickly become stale but the trauma remains. So does the fear: can it happen again? After all, it was not the first time that a military aircraft got lost flying over a jungle or the Himalayas. But will we see any action that actually prevents these accidents from taking place or will there be only statements of intent and expressions of grief over the losses?
The AN-32 has been the workhorse of the Indian Air Force (IAF). Hundreds of crew operate these aircraft and thousands are involved in maintaining this fleet today. We owe it to them. The AN-32 was a brand-new design when it entered the service in 1986, with the IAF as the ‘launch customer’. It proved reliable and its powerful engines gave high safety margins, especially while operating over the Himalayas. However, the aircraft aged quickly in service, requiring repairs and increased maintenance. Cumulatively, these contributed to AN-32’s early ageing.
An ‘upgrade’ was proposed in 2009 to improve the structural integrity, avionics and communication suits. It is reported that some 46 aircraft out of over a hundred in the AN-32 fleet have been upgraded so far. A slow pace indeed! The necessity to upgrade the aircraft arose out of obsolescence and wear and tear. However, considering the delays and further ageing, spares would become more expensive and difficult to acquire. The IAF is the only major operator of the AN-32 in the world today.
Operationally, the powerful engines of the AN-32 have high vibration levels and are ‘noisy’ to fly over long durations, which could get tiring and induce fatigue. While it would be sensible to upgrade to get more mileage out of the fleet, a better utilisation would be to restrict the aircraft’s use only for training and communication purposes. In that case, we could, depending on the contract, cut down on upgrading the remaining aircraft in the fleet. We urgently need a new induction that can carry a better payload, is quieter, and flies longer range with modern avionics, sensors, navigation and related equipment.
While military management and progression of ‘modernisation’ have been routinely criticised, nothing much has come off them. There may have been a few revised Defence Procurement Procedures – the Bible to follow for procurement process – but the complexity and time taken for the process to reach a productive conclusion have not changed. The progress of cases move into various ‘silos’, but the accountability rests on the shoulders of the service headquarters.
Over the last decade, the IAF transport fleet has had significant new inductions. The C-130G and the Boeing C-17 added quality dimensions to the Air Force. However, in no way can these inductions overcome the problems faced by the backbone of our transport fleet – the AN-32. The AN-32 has valiantly served for 35 years or so, just as its predecessor, the DC-3 Dakota, did. However, they lacked the agility, automation, sensors and systems that a more modern design offers. After all, one does not see too many Ambassador cars on the roads these days, even though some upgraded versions of the car are available. We have learnt that the replacement for HS-748 aircraft has been finalised. Possibly, the same aircraft can replace the AN-32.
The Indian Air Force is more ‘operational’ than ever before. Our Su-30MKI are flying and Rafale will fly over long ranges as do the Mirage-2000 and Jaguar. Our airborne early warning/ AWACS/aerial tankers prowl over long distances across oceans and the Himalayas. Cockpit ergonomics, advanced day and night sensors, terrain avoidance systems, and real-time data links that relay weather and traffic information and aircraft location are now essential on all combat fleet, including military transport aircraft. Most of these are on-board our newer transport fleets.
The current Air Sea Rescue (ASR) System in the IAF and related assets require a fresh look. Time and again it has proved inadequate. I recall the difficult search operation when a helicopter with then Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy and four others onboard had crashed in 2009, killing all five of them. The recent perceptible strategic shift of the Indian military calls for secure ASR capability operating across the Himalayas, dense forested areas and oceans.
Establishing a nationwide military/civil integrated ASR could be considered. This would be cost-effective. It would include specially equipped aircraft, helicopters, boats, ships, ground vehicles and trained crew with a centralised structure that could be hooked on to the existing national infrastructure. ‘Combat rescue’ would be separate, which will be the onus of the military. We need to think out-of-the-box and have patience to build this vital national asset diligently.
Source:- The Print