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Urgency to Restore Op Readiness IAF, Dhruv ALH flagged by Mainstream Media

After recent accident of a MiG 21 fighter jet in Rajasthan in which three civilians were killed and the grounding of the entire Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter and its variants, India’s leading newspaper Times of India has flagged concerns over operational readiness of the Indian Air Force (IAF) with reference to the fighter jets.

The Hindustan Times another leading daily has outlined measures underway to review the safety of the Dhruv ALH and related versions.

MiG 21 Operational Status

In an Editorial on May 11, the Times Editorial Team writes, “The inglorious history of MiG-21 crashes in this country is beginning to look both like a tragedy and a farce. The Russian aircraft, of 1960s vintage, should have been phased out decades ago”.

Raising an alarm over operational readiness the Times Edit states, “The situation also raises serious questions about the country’s defence preparedness at a time when it is locked in a border standoff with China and continues to face traditional and nontraditional threats from Pakistan”.

As per the Times the number of fighter squadrons is down to 31 as against a sanctioned strength of 42 of which three squadrons of MiG 21 seen as unsuitable for safe operational flying may further reduce the numbers available.

The Times has also raised the issue of, “supply of spares as well as the proposed $2. 2 billion deal for the purchase of additional MiG-29s and Su-30 MKIs by India”.

There is an urgent need to “diversify procurement programme, speed up indigenous production and phase out the remaining MiG-21s well before the 2025 deadline – do it on war footing”.

The Options before India for immediate recoupment of spares has been flagged in the article on IAF criticality reiterated as below-

India has to take up with Moscow critical needs of the Indian Air Force and crticicality of supply of spares, for that is what the Special Strategic Partnership between the two countries is all about. India has defied pressure from the West to sustain energy imports from Russia worth $ 35 billion or more and now it is Moscow’s turn to payback.

Options such as line of credit can be exercised with payments offset over a longer term.

In addition Indian MOD will have to ginger up the processes for early commencement of indigenized spares through joint ventures with Russia given the corporatized entities of the erstwhile OFB continue to be operative under the Department of Defence Production.

Dhruv ALH

On the air worthiness of the Dhurv ALH, the Hindustan Times in a report has indicated that CEMILAC, which functions under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) “has red-flagged the drastic reduction in the fatigue life of the rods”, quoting officials and a report accessed by it.

“Though the helicopters are matured from the design point of view, having been exploited for more than 3 lakh hours, still there is scope to review the design/lifting aspects of the safety-critical system by an expert committee as a long-term measure,” said the April 23 letter accessed exclusively by HT the report claims.

Identifying the cause for number of air accidents HT quotes, “The drastic reduction in the fatigue life of the control rod with wrongly assembled serrated washers has been verified experimentally at RWR&DC, HAL as part of the committee’s investigation,” the letter said.

CEMILAC has thus prescribed measures for the resumption of ALH and LCH operations by providing clearance, limited to 100 flight hours each after mandatory inspections and further clearance for up to 500 flight hours or one year after two critical tests by HAL essential related to the testing of the “multi-axis loads on the control rods, and the fatigue testing of the rods with correctly assembled serrated washers to confirm their original capability.”

Given the large number of helicopters of the three services affected action on the recommendations of the CEMILAC will be taken earlier and the deficiencies resolved.

Recent Accidents

A MiG-21 fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) crashed on May 08 as per a Ministry of Defence Press Release, while on a routine operational training sortie from the Air Force Station at Suratgarh. The pilot experienced an onboard emergency, following which he attempted to recover the aircraft as per existing procedures but failed and thus initiated an ejection, sustaining minor injuries in the process. The pilot was recovered from about 25 kilometres North East of Suratgarh's base.

The aircraft wreckage, which fell on a house in Bahlol Nagar in Hanumangarh District, led to the loss of three lives, as per the Ministry of Defence release.

Ironically the accident happened on the day Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh inaugurated the Indian Air Force (IAF) Heritage Centre in Chandigarh on May 08, 2023, which is said to be an embodiment of IAF's rich history and legacy.

The Indian Army grounded the 'Dhruv' advanced light helicopters (ALHs) after a crash on May 04 which, as per the Times of India, is one amongst many in the 300 odd platforms of this helicopter operated by the three services - Army, IAF, Navy as well as the Coast Guard.

The May 04 crash resulted in the death of one technician while the pilots were injured in a precautionary landing. This occurred in a rugged terrain in the Jammu region in Kishtwar.

In October 2022, an army Rudra helicopter, an armed version of ALH Dhruv, crashed in Arunachal Pradesh, killing all five personnel on board.

On March 08, an Indian Navy ALH ditched into the Arabian Sea following unexplained loss of power, which had led to the grounding of the fleet.

Around 55 military personnel have lost their lives in over 50 aircraft and helicopter accidents in over five years as per the Times of India.

The old MiG-21 jets and the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters have recorded an alarming crash record over the years, while the Dhruv ALH is also not far behind.

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