By Bharat Karnad
February 21st saw a C-130J Super Hercules while taxi-ing for a night sortie at the Thoisie ALG in Ladakh instead of taking-off, run smack into a solid structure, nearly shearing off part of a wing and an outer turboprop engine and, for all intents and purposes, totaling the aircraft. That this plane had the CO of the Hindon-based 77 Squadron, a presumably experienced transport pilot, one Grp Capt. Jasveen Singh Chathrath, at the controls only makes it worse. Three years back on March 28, 2014, another of this type of airlifter on a low level Special Forces’ drop training sortie proved that in IAF hands, it is neither super nor Hercules, leave alone ‘super Hercules’, when it dove into the ground killing the entire crew. This record of IAF’s trouble with sophisticated transporters lit up again when a couple of years ago a C-17 Globe master flew straight into a hill, again with the CO of that Unit commanding that flight.
After the 2014 C-130 accident, the statement by the air chief at the time Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha said the service had picked the best pilots to take charge of these American planes. If this is the level of aircraft handling ability of the best IAF transport pilots, then speculating about the averagely competent pilot’s ability (or lack of it) beggars the imagination. But let’s tally the cost of the mishaps. The first lot of six C-130s were bought from Lockheed for Rs 6,000 crores, or a cool Rs 1,000 crore per plane. With two of these aircraft already lost, IAF has already had to write off Rs 2,000 crores.
Not to be deterred, IAF means to buy a second lot of eight Super Hercules and, after a decent interval to give the Exchequer time to recover, a third lot of 6 aircraft for a fleet strength, minus the two lost C-130s, of 18 aircraft in all. Ten C-17s were purchased for Rs 18,645 crores from Boeing, so the loss of one Globe master cost the country, just for the hardware, the unit price of some Rs. 1,865 crores. Fortunately, Boeing has closed down the C-17 production line. So IAF-cum-Govt of India’s apparent default option of buying C-17s and C-130Js more to keep Washington happy and the two US aviation majors in a happy state of anticipating richer deals in the offing, than because acquiring more and more of such aircraft makes any military, economic, or even political sense a line I have taken in previous writings.
Especially, as the IAF chiefs have time and again disavowed any expeditionary role for the Indian military, which is what these planes do best. In the event, if all that was required of these aircraft was to lift troops from one sector to another, the IAF could, surely, have made do with the workhorses to-date, the An-12s and An-32s.The CAG in its 2014 Report was harsh on the parties involved, slamming Boeing for not fulfilling its offsets commitments no simulators and ground equipment, such as fork lifts, were set up on Indian air bases, the IAF for not preparing Hindon tarmac and the potential landing grounds elsewhere to the level of the required Pavement Classification Number, and implicitly both the GOI and IAF for not making any fuss whatsoever about the US Company not delivering on its contract obligations.
The CAG also pointed out that owing to the absence of special forklifts on all the potential bases and LGs, the Super Hercules was compelled to carry one in its belly wherever it landed or took off from, but it took so much internal aircraft space fully 35% of the cargo hold, that usually instead of just one sortie to carry a full load, two C-130s were needed to do the job. And that cost money. The CAG calculated that it costs India Rs 43.19 lakh for every hour a C-130 is in the air. Post-CAG Report, whatever was done or not done, Lockheed hurriedly setup a C-130 simulator. It is not known if just one simulator is all that has been paid for, and whether the C-17 buy too mandated a Globe master simulator in India which, perhaps, is not considering there were originally six and now only 5 of the C-17s remain, which number does not justify a simulator.
Like in the adventure “Silver Blaze”, where Sherlock Holmes solved the mystery of the missing horse by referring to the fact of the non-barking dog in the stable (who recognized the miscreant as his master and didn’t raise hell), the mystery about why the Indian government did not cry foul and penalize Lockheed, is also easily solved. New Delhi (previously run by Manmohan Singh and now by Narendra Modi) as mentioned wants to be on the right side of the US because America is viewed as the vehicle for India to ride to economic prosperity and technological Valhalla! Remember too that the Lockheed F-16 and Boeing F-18 are on the short list of the proposed buy of 200 single-engined combat aircraft.
The IAF, on its part, would have been pleased to carry on doing what it had been done prior to the installation of the simulator near Delhi post-CAG Report: Send pilot crews in relays to train on Boeing simulators in Seattle at additional expense (if nothing else in terms of extra pilot hard currency allowances and stipends for stays in the US). Why is lacing the selected transport pilots’ careers with nice little holidays in the American Northwest to uplift their spirits, not a good thing, is IAF’s thinking, given that the poor chaps cannot strut around back home like the fighter-jocks do and who also hog all the plum posts in the service.