In the third such accident this year, a Sea Harrier fighter aircraft of the Indian Navy crashed at the Dabolim airbase in Goa on Monday morning while coming in to land after a routine sortie. While the pilot, Commander Janak Bevli, managed to bail out safely, the incident once again brought into focus the depleting fighter strength of the Indian Navy.
The loss of the third Sea Harrier has brought down the fighter strength of the Navy to a mere 12 aircrafts, including three dual-seater Harriers that are used for training new pilots. The ageing Sea Harrier — inducted in 1984 — is the only type of fighter aircraft available in the Navy’s inventory.
Initial reports indicate that the aircraft went down after suddenly losing power while the pilot was attempting a vertical landing. A similar crash happened in September during the multi-nation Malabar exercise when a Sea Harrier dunked into the sea while attempting to land on the INS Viraat.
While only 12 fighters from the ageing fleet remain in service — the Navy procured 30 aircrafts in the 1980’s, out of which 18 have crashed over the years — the number of operational aircrafts are believed to be lesser. The fighters are no longer in production anywhere in the world.
The Sea Harrier fleet is currently undergoing a ‘limited upgrade’ to extend its service life for a few more years. This means that fewer fighters are available for operational roles at any given time. Defence Minister A K Antony informed Parliament last month that the upgrade will be complete by September next year.
India’s sole aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, can carry a complement of 30 Sea Harriers besides a few helicopters. However, the depleting fighter strength has the Navy seriously worried about the future of the carrier. At a recent press conference, Navy Chief Sureesh Mehta had said that the Navy is looking at operating the ship into the next decade, but the same could not be said of the ageing Sea Harriers.
While the Navy’s next generation MiG 29 K fighters are expected to arrive next year, the Russian aircraft cannot operate from the Viraat as it lacks vertical landing capability. And the Gorshkov aircraft carrier — which is supposed to take on the 16 fighters — will not arrive before 2010. With the arrival of the MiGs, the Navy will be stuck with a peculiar problem: On one hand, it will have fighters that cannot operate on a flight deck and on the other, an aircraft carrier with barely enough operational fighter aircrafts.