The Indian Air Force has finally communicated to families of the 29 personnel on board the IAF Antonov AN-32 aircraft which went missing on 22 July that they are presumed dead. IAF wrote to the kin of the 29 personnel and informed them that the exhaustive search operations have now been called off.
The Ministry of Defence now needs to focus on beefing up its Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) capabilities for ensuring effective sustenance of aircraft fleets and other systems. India is one of the largest importers of defence equipment in the world. A large chunk of our buys are dependent on MRO support from foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). Due to technological obsolescence and unavailability of spares and timely maintenance, it is challenging to keep aircraft fleets in the pink of their health. The ever-rising price of spares coupled with declining support from foreign vendors has raised the need for rapid indigenisation of the MRO services for the armed forces.
The aircraft in question was not in the best condition when it was flying out from Chennai to Port Blair on that fateful evening. All manner of things could’ve gone wrong. Everyone hoped that it survived. According to some reports, the AN-32 aircraft had suffered a string of safety incidents the month it went missing. On July 2, a sluggish throttle movement in the plane had been reported. Five days later, a hydraulic leak from a port wing root was recorded and a week later a pressure leak from the port door. Pressure leaks directly risk compromising the structural integrity of the aircraft, especially the plane’s fuselage. It can even lead to hypoxia for the passengers. A hydraulic leak can lead to the pilot losing control of the aircraft.
Coming to the larger picture, the AN-32 is an old workhorse of the Indian armed forces with over 100 aircraft currently in service. The plane itself is Soviet built and flies at lower altitude ceilings and cruise speeds than what are optimal to avoid risky weather conditions.
A large proportion of the Indian armed forces’ capital and revenue budget, especially of the IAF is used for procurement from foreign OEMs. In 2013-14, out of the 36,900 capital procurement spent on equipment and stores, nearly 21,000 crore was spent on direct imports from foreign OEMs. Likewise, in 2014-15, capital equipment worth Rs Rs.14,655 crore was imported directly. Coming to the revenue budget spent, in 2013-14, IAF spent Rs 1,595 crore and in 2014-15 the spend was Rs 1,678 crore. All the imports on the revenue side were for MRO activities for the aircraft and systems of the IAF.
Till the time participation from the Indian industry remains on the fringes, this proportion is unlikely to dip. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had reiterated early this year that the government is intent on massive indigenisation of the defence sector of which MRO was a significant component. The government will have to carry out the task on three levels—systems, sub-system level and MRO spares. The integrated Defense HQ, Directorate of Indigenisation and the maintenance command need to roll up their sleeves for their further course of action as MRO overhaul in the defence sector is a key requirement and is crucial for ensuring the safety of our personnel and our defence infrastructure.