The crash of the multirole fighter Mirage 2000 as it was taking off in Bengaluru and the death of two intrepid test pilots has dealt a heavy blow to the Indian Air Force and the ambitious Make in India initiative. It has also knocked the wind out of the sails of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). What adds to the worries is the fact that the Mirage was freshly upgraded and serviced by HAL under a 2015 contract and was being test-flown by young ace pilots before its re-induction into the Air Force.
The horrendous crash rate of MiG-21 — dubbed ‘flying coffins’ — is still fresh in public memory. In recent months, there have been a slew of crashes, including a Jaguar aircraft, a MiG-29 and Sukhoi 30 MKI. Though the overall annual crash rate has come down after the induction of the British Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT), it hovers close to the red line, as the bulk of our air frames are, alarmingly, over two decades old. Some Sukhoi-30 squadrons are the exceptions.
Mirage 2000 was first inducted into the force in 1984 and proved its worth during the Kargil War with its accurate bombing runs that snapped the Pakistani supply line to intruders on mountain-top fortifications. The Friday crash was the 11th such, bringing down the three-squadron fleet of the IAF to 48. In 2011, India had inked a $2.4-billion contract with the original manufacturers to upgrade the fleet. While two aircraft were upgraded in France, it fell upon HAL to pick up the baton for the rest.
The probe will establish the actual cause, but prima facie HAL stands humbled in public perception. The spotlight is back on its technical capabilities. Several of its projects, including the Mirage upgrade, are trailing behind schedule. As imports often lead to political fracas which delays replacements, India must pump in funds to reduce foreign dependence. It speaks of our national security commitment when the IAF is expected to fix-and-fly refurbished planes. The ‘make do’ approach comes at an exorbitant cost, of both man and machine.