The Indian Air Force has lost its fifth Antonov AN-32 military transport aircraft. The twin-engine plane went missing on June 3 after taking off from Jorhat in Assam with 13 air force personnel on board. It was flying to an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in Arunachal Pradesh near the China border. Eerily, on three occasions, including this time, the aircraft has disappeared without a trace.
In 1986, an AN-32 disappeared over the Arabian Sea on a delivery flight from the Soviet Union via Oman. No trace was found of the aircraft or the people on board. In 2016, another AN-32 flying from Chennai to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands went missing above the Bay of Bengal. It had 29 people on board. The aircraft was never found. In between these two incidents, there were two crashes, in 1989 and 2009, resulting in the deaths of the crews and passengers.
The IAF has over 100 AN-32s which play a critical role in equipping India's frontline forces. India was the launch customer for the AN-32, which was bought from the former Soviet Union and built in Ukraine. And there lies the rub.
Following the 2009 crash, India inked a $400-million deal with Ukraine to upgrade the AN-32 fleet. The upgrade of the over 30-year-old fleet was supposed to extend the aircraft's life by 40 years with improved avionics, modernised cockpit and an increase in payload from 6.7 to 7.5 tonnes.
A batch of 40 AN-32s was sent to Ukraine's state-owned Ukrspetsexport for upgrades and refurbishment. However, a major crisis erupted in April 2015 when the Ukrainians, believe it or not, 'lost' five of these planes. While there were sniggers in aviation circles at the sheer incompetence of the Ukrainians, the IAF brass didn't find it funny. They raised an almighty fuss and gave Ukraine an ultimatum: Find our planes. The AN-32s were finally traced to a civil aviation plant and flown back to India.
But in step with the implosion of society and economy in Ukraine, following the US-sponsored coup, things only got worse for India. The remaining 64 AN-32s were to be upgraded at the IAF's Kanpur air force base, under a technology transfer from Ukraine, but the planned upgrade was halted as Ukrainian workers walked out of the job and supplies of spare parts stopped.
A diplomat from Ukraine's embassy in New Delhi told the Indian side that the IAF must resolve this issue with Ukrspetsexport, and that the Ukrainian government "cannot help". Did this helplessness have anything to do with the dysfunctional nature of the Ukrainian government or was it something more sinister? Financial portal Zero Hedge commented: "We wonder if that rather unhelpful attitude has anything to do with India not imposing sanctions on Russia."
So basically, the Ukrainian workers walked out of a $400 million contract because India refused to sanction Russia in a matter which New Delhi had nothing to do with.
Crisis at hand
After the shockingly unprofessional departure of the Ukrainian crew came another crisis. In 2016, in a fit of pique, Ukraine ordered the liquidation of the legendary Antonov aircraft bureau and distributed its plants and other assets to three separate companies. The idea was to cut Antonov's ties with Russia.
The twin blows halted progress in key areas including the AN-32's air collision avoidance system, ground proximity warning system, satellite navigation system, distance-measuring equipment, radio altimeters and radar. According to Reuben F. Johnson of Aviation New International, the local upgrade in India ground to a halt due to the departure of the Ukrainian engineers assigned to oversee the process, and the unavailability of spare parts. "None of the AN-32's Russian-built components are available to Antonov, due to embargoes on any military trade between the two nations," he writes.
The AN-32's obsolescence has reached such alarming levels that the IAF has cannibalised more than 40 aircraft. This means less than 60 per cent of the AN-32 fleet is available for missions. This has not only limited Indian military operations but also placed a great deal of strain on those aircraft that are being kept airborne through cannibalisation.
Faced with an ageing and crash-prone fleet, the IAF has decided to go ahead with the minimum work needed to ensure the airworthiness of the AN-32s. It sent a request for information (RFI) - a standard procedure aimed at collecting information about the capabilities of various Indian suppliers - to Air India Engineering Services, Air Works India, Taneja Aerospace and GMR Aero Technic.
The work would be in 11 areas, including ultrasonic inspection, wing structure modification and repainting. The IAF is already working with private manufacturers for indigenisation of components such as nuts, bolts, washers, pipelines, rubber seals unions, joints, harnesses, filters and electronic items. This would ensure that the aircraft would not fall out of the sky.
Unfortunately, the AN-32 that went missing this week was not among the upgraded ones. It is highly likely that the obsolescent search and rescue beacon installed on the aircraft failed to emit a distress signal to modern satellites.
The Russia-Ukraine fratricide has clearly played a major role in delaying the AN-32 upgrade, but at the same time, India's defence procurement bureaucracy must cop a large part of the blame. Manned mostly by civilian bureaucrats with little to zero understanding of military matters, the Defence Ministry is responsible for excessive delays in ordering, purchasing and manufacturing weapons systems until soldiers start dying, submarines start sinking and planes begin to tumble out of the sky.
The AN-32 was meant to be gradually replaced by the Indo-Russian Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MTA) project - a twinjet, high-wing, T-tail design. The IAF had agreed to acquire 45 of these medium-range aircraft for starters, with another 100 going to the Russian air force. However, in 2012 after the MoUs were signed by public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and Russia's United Aircraft Corporation, the aircraft failed to take off because of disagreements between the two sides over the choice of engines.
A minor issue that could have been amicably settled was allowed to scuttle a multi-billion dollar programme with the potential to become a second BrahMos.
Ukraine has also attempted to play spoilsport in another major defence deal involving Russia. New Delhi and Moscow are circling around a $3 billion contract for new Talwar class frigates. In line with the Narendra Modi government's Make in India push, the Russians have selected Pipavav Shipyard owned by the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group for the production of these warships.
A potentially problematic issue with the Talwar deal is the ship's engine, which will be sourced from Ukraine. Initially, the Ukrainians refused to work with Russia, but subsequently agreed to supply the engines if they were meant for use by the Indian Navy.
Ukrainian involvement could be a tricky affair. The engines will need to be serviced at some point in time and if Ukraine is flat broke or simply decides to play spoiler, the Indian Navy could be staring down the abyss.
In parallel with the steady defence ties between India and Russia, their rivals Pakistan and Ukraine have been carrying on a chummy defence trade. In 1996, Ukraine announced the sale of more than 300 T-80 tanks to Pakistan. It also decided to manufacture medium guns for the Pakistani tanks. In June 2002, the two countries signed a $100 million contract for producing transmission equipment for Pakistan's Al-Khalid tank.
Ukraine is participating in the implementation of over a dozen projects in the military-industrial sphere in Pakistan. Contracts have been signed for establishing repair test bases for T-80s in Pakistan. Kiev may also supply air defence weapons which have been tested in Pakistan.
Kiev's proximity to Islamabad should, therefore, be viewed with caution. Any large-scale supplier of defence equipment to Pakistan will be beholden to its buyers. Such a country could either pass on information involving India to the generals in Rawalpindi or go slow on Indian weapons acquisitions.
Considering the chaotic state of Ukraine's economy and its close ties with a leading exporter of terror, India should review its defence ties with Kiev and quickly find an in-house replacement for the AN-32 aircraft. A number of Indian companies are currently capable of joint production of an MTA type military transport aircraft.
These include Mahindra which has acquired an Australian light aircraft maker and Anil Ambani's Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited which is on course to roll out the Falcon business jet in 2022. These aircraft can be scaled up to the level of the AN-32 and within a decade India could be exporting them to friendly nations.
(The author is a New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst)