The missing Indian Air Force AN-32 aircraft on Friday over the Bay of Bengal on its way from Chennai to Port Blair brings back into focus one of the perennial issues that constantly plague the Indian defence establishment — slow up-gradation of military equipment.
Although directly linking the missing aircraft with the slow up-gradation programme immediately would be premature, a simple fact that an aircraft with advanced capabilities would have better safety features can also not be overlooked. From financial issues to bureaucratic tangles, the reasons for delay in defence up-gradation schedules are often many. However, the delay in getting the IAF AN-32 fleet has been for external causes, largely geopolitical, due to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
News18, last year, reported that the IAF is overhauling its entire transport fleet with a vision of becoming more powerful in out-of-area operations besides supporting the Army's logistical requirements.
A DefenseNews report dated 28 March, 2015, details that India will have to look for other options, perhaps direct purchase as well, to support the fleet as the Ukraine conflict has "stymied the upgrade" of the AN-32 aircraft.
The last batch of five of the AN-32 aircraft that were to be completed by March 2014, according to an Economic Times report, have been in limbo, said Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. However, due to the border conflict between Ukraine and Russia the project is going on forever.
Parrikar said that the last batch that was sent to Ukraine, as part of a $400 million deal to modernise the fleet and extend its life, were stuck because of the conflict and that officials were working on getting the aircraft back, according to the ET report.
It was also speculated that the planes sent for upgrade were missing in Ukraine. However, the IAF in a statement rubbished the report and called it "baseless", according to a News18 report.
Instead, it attributed the delay in upgrade due to the non-availability of components thanks to the the ongoing geopolitical stand-off. As per a 2009 contract with Ukraine's state-owned Ukrspetsexport Corp, India was to send 40 aircraft for upgrade over four years, starting 2011, the website added.
The AN-32 forms the backbone of the IAF's medium lift capabilities, according to Bharat Rakshak, the consortium of Indian military websites.
The Telegraph writes that the IAF was the first purchaser of the Antonov-32 aircraft in 1976, a result of the strategy between then USSR (headed by Leonid Brezhnev) and India (headed by Indira Gandhi).
The AN-32 is technically a Cold War product, which then eventually became the on-call aircraft for IAF that used it in search, disaster-relief and rescue operations, The Telegraph said. As late as December 2015, the AN-32 aircraft was involved in recce missions during the Chennai floods. The aircraft was also used to distribute food supplies in Visakhapatnam after the Hudhud cyclone hit the city.
The Indian Air Force website describes the aircraft as a "twin-engine turboprop, medium tactical transport aircraft of Russian origin with a crew of five and capacity to carry 39 paratroopers or max load of 6.7 tonnes". The website notes that the aircraft has a maximum cruise speed of 530 km/hr.
The AN-32, also known as the 'Sutlej' in the IAF, is reportedly the workhorse of the transport fleet that travels to far off bases such as Leh, to deliver much-needed supplies to the Army outposts in the area. An estimated 100 aircraft are in service with the IAF.
The missing aircraft had 29 people on-board with the IAF, Navy and Coast Guard jointly mounting a massive search operation on the Bay of Bengal.
The Antonov AN-32 aircraft took off at 8.30 am from Tambaram in Chennai, and the last contact made was 16 minutes later, according to defence sources.