“Should I blame the weather or the machine,” asked an inconsolable Neeraj Kumar, minutes after the BSF aircraft crash on December 22 that claimed the life of his brother, BSF Deputy Commandant Dhirendra Kumar. He wasn’t the only one who had raised doubts about the health of the BSF’s aircraft — the families of others on board the ill-fated plane and experts had asked similar questions. How good or bad really are the BSF’s planes and choppers, regularly used by VIPs and for operations in Naxal areas? And should the BSF have had its own fleet at all when the Indian Air Force can fulfill its operational needs?
Why a BSF Air Wing?
The BSF Air Wing came into existence in 1969, four years after the force was raised, for quick movement of small units of troops along the western and eastern border of the country. It started with a single Queen Air C-80 aircraft. In 1974, the fleet was expanded and made to serve the needs of other paramilitary forces as well. Since then, the fleet has expanded to 22 aircraft (down to 21 after Tuesday’s crash).
Besides VIP movement and operations in Maoist zones, over the last few years, BSF choppers have been employed for disaster relief, special heliborne operations for the National Security Guards, counter insurgency operations, air-maintenance of remote border outposts etc.
The home ministry has argued that the BSF Air Wing is not only necessary but also needs to be expanded as IAF has been unable to fulfill the operational demands of internal security. It has argued that paramilitary forces need air support at their disposal given the ever-increasing challenges of internal security. This year, the government sanctioned wet-leasing of choppers, over and above BSF and IAF support, for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) which had been demanding dedicated air support for maintenance of border outposts.
An expanding but ageing fleet
Before Tuesday’s crash, BSF had two HS 748 Avro, one Embraer 135 BJ and one Super King B-200 aircraft in the fixed-wing category. In the rotary category, the force has 18 choppers. These include five MI 17 V5 (inducted only this year), six MI17 1V, six ALH (Dhruv) and one Cheetah helicopter.
While the Super King B-200 aircraft that crashed was 20 years old and was overhauled six months ago, the HS 748 Avro, commissioned in 1991, is the oldest aircraft in the BSF’s fleet. The latest acquisition is of Embraer, commissioned in 2005. It is preferred by VVIPs. The home minister generally uses it for official visits.
Though questions have been raised about the health of the Avro, BSF maintains that all its aircraft are fit to fly. “MoS Home Rijiju has flown Super King B-200 several times. The Avro recently ferried senior home ministry bureaucrats from Bhuj to Delhi after the DGs conference,” said a home ministry official.
A proposal to buy new aircraft for the Air Wing has been pending with the home ministry for a few years now.
The rotary wing
The chopper fleet is not said to be in very good health. The MI17 1V choppers, commissioned in 2003 as part of the J&K action plan, are already past their prime and barely one of the choppers has been used in the past couple of years. During the J&K floods of 2014, they could provide only 35 minutes of service. Sources say, until recently, the BSF choppers were able to serve only 3 per cent of paramilitary needs.
Part of the problem was also that most choppers were earlier stationed in Delhi with operational requirements being in far-off Kashmir and Chhattisgarh. Since choppers such as MI17 require servicing after every 50 hours of flying, they were able to spare little time for operations.
However, recently, choppers have been stationed at new bases. Now BSF choppers operate from Ranchi, Raipur, Agartala, Srinagar, Safdarjung Airport and Guwahati. The induction of the state-of-the-art MI17 V5 choppers is expected to boost operations.
The fleet has been plagued by manpower problems for the past several years. There is a severe shortage of trained pilots and technical staff to service the entire fleet. BSF still borrows pilots from IAF which has led to human resource trouble within the Air Wing. The higher pay and rank given to IAF pilots has caused a lot of heartburn to pilots from paramilitary forces who feel short-changed for performing similar duties.
The plan to fully hand over operation of the fleet in the hands of paramilitary men has not worked because of poor implementation. In the past 10 years, the home ministry had attached several paramilitary personnel with the Air Wing’s rotary division as co-pilots after training. They were supposed to hone their skills under IAF pilots’ guidance. However, only one chopper, the Dhruv stationed at Ranchi, has come under BSF’s operational control. The process failed to produce pilots as paramilitary men never got the requisite flying hours. This was because home ministry did not allow non-operational practice flying until recently.