Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Sun Sets on the IAF's Rakshak

I was looking up some old stuff the other day and came upon the rare Sept-Oct 1984 edition of Air University Review journal. A particular piece about the IAF's then impending modernisation struck me. I quote from the article by First Lieutenant Jerrold F. Elkin, then a Political Science Instructor at the US Air Force Academy (Photo ©Rahul Devnath/www.warbirds.in):

"The IAF is aware that, among air forces in the region, it enjoys an overwhelming superiority (both qualitative and quantitative) in virtually all categories of air weaponry and equipment. Indeed, this marked power asymmetry allowed the IAF to advocate conclusion of the Mirage-2000 agreement (while the aircraft still was under development) in the face of a late 1982-early 1983 F-16 delivery date. If F-16 deployment had been perceived as affecting Indo-Pakistani power relationships significantly in the near term, then the IAF probably would have supported one or more of the following policy alternatives: prompt off-the-shelf acquisition of an existing interceptor capable of carrying long-range AAMs and guns with a high rate of fire, significant expansion of the MiG-23MF procurement program, immediate purchase of advanced AAMS, and/or greatly accelerated upgrading of ground-based air defense systems."

It's always easy to forget that it was the Flogger-B (the just retired MFs) that was New Delhi's original counter to the Pakistani Gabbar Singh of the early 1980s -- Ronald Reagan's present, the F-16A/B Fighting Falcons -- the Mirages came later, and the Fulcrums even later.

In mid-2005, I spent a few days at AFS Halwara with the Valiants squadron (well nigh numberplated now) which at the time was operating a handful of ground-attack MiG-23BNs. The base also had a dilapidated Pechora flight or two. It was the first time I had seen blast pens close up. An interesting thing happened there -- airfield personnel were having a tough time evicting a huge colony of parakeets which had nested inside the blast pens, and were wreaking their "havoc" on the parked fighters every day. The base commander at the time was a kind-hearted man. It was a moral dilemma over which birds to protect. Finally of course the parakeets were asked politely to find other accomodation.

The IAF's official history makes no bones about describing the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-23MF's induction thus:

"Induction of the new generation F-16 fighter by the PAF in 1981-82 was a "deja vu" type situation for India and in order to counter such a challenge, the Government contracted for the MiG-23MF air superiority version of the swing-wing fighter, equipped with beyond-visual range missiles, and two new squadrons (Nos. 223 and 224) were formed on the type in 1982. However, these were considered only an interim solution and, in the absence of suitable, known, Soviet equivalents. Not too long afterwards, the Indian Air Force was, to be pleasantly surprised when its test pilots were invited to evaluate the Soviet Union's latest, still-under-wraps, air superiority fighter, vaguely known to the public as the Fulcrum. Officially designated the MiG-29, the IAF team was obviously delighted by the new generation fighter's performance and handling qualities, described as "truly outstanding". (Photo on right shows two Flogger-Bs and a MiG-21 at Uttarlai).

The deja vu is easy to understand. Like the Gnat purchase as a ditch effort against Pakistan's shining F-104s and F86s in 1965 -- something documented excellently in the history of the 1965 air war by PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra.

From the early-mid 90s -- long after superb service at high altitudes during Op Meghdoot and the securing of Saltoro -- until their retirement on March 20 this year, the Flogger-Bs at Adampur first, then Halwara (from 1996-97, actively participating in providing air defence cover of Punjab sector in peace time and the northern area since its inception) and then bases under SWAC, including Jamnagar served critically in beyond visual range (BVR) combat training to pilots.

Sadly, it's spares again that's put paid to any future for the Flogger-Bs. It may be remembered that the Foxbats at Bareilly could also have been used for longer, though the Russians plainly claimed that they had mothballed all blue prints and spares manuals and no longer stocked any for the fleet. Ditto for the MFs. Requests for a total transfer of spares know-how for the MiGs has always been received with a sense of contempt and resignation -- don't obsess with the MiGs, look at our other aircraft now, we have stopped making these, the Russians seemed to be saying.

Air Chief SP Tyagi put it nicely. At the phase-out ceremony, he said, "This is a very emotional moment for us as these aircraft, in which our men have worked for several years, will now become a part of aviation history. It is not easy to say goodbye. It is too costly to maintain them because of non-availability of spare parts."

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