Delivering a blow to the Indian Air Force’s dwindling combat fleet, a MiG-27 ground attack fighter crashed within minutes of takeoff from the West Bengal’s Hashimara air base on Thursday. While Wing Commander J Singh, the pilot, ejected safely, the aircraft crashed near a school and injured five children.
The latest crash comes at a time when the air force was patting itself on the back for a remarkable turnaround in its crash record, which is currently pegged at an all-time low of 0.36 accidents per 10,000 flying hours compared to 1.84 accidents in 1972-73. While engine fire after take-off is said to be the reason behind the crash, the IAF has ordered a probe to pinpoint the cause.
The MiG 27, an important element of the IAF’s combat fleet, is undergoing an upgrade programme at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s MiG complex in Ozhar. The aircraft is getting an avionics upgrade, superior navigation systems and improved targetting accuracy with the integration of Israeli and Russian technology.
Inducted into the IAF in 1984, the number of MiG-27s in IAF’s fighter fleet is second only to the MiG-21s, which form more than half of the air force fleet.
The IAF, which has over 120 MiG-27s, has lost nine such MiG variants since January 2001. The swing-wing MiG-27 that crashed on Thursday in Jalpaiguri district belonged to the 222 Squadron of the 16 Wing at Hashimara. To replenish its combat capabilities, the government had last March inked a $1.6 billion deal with Russia for the supply of 40 Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters, using the fast track procedure in defence procurement rules.
The latest crash has further blunted the combat edge of the air force, which is battling a severe shortage of fighters. Tiding over depleting force levels is crucial for the IAF — its existing 32 fighter squadrons are way below the sanctioned 39-and-a-half.
Worse, the squadron strength is projected to plunge to a lowly 27 during the 12th Plan (2012-2017) period. Pakistan has been striving to attain parity with the IAF with China supplying it the JF-17 fighters and the Americans, the F-16s. The PAF is projected to operate 26 fighter squadrons by 2011-12.