Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Navy grounds Sea Harrier fleet after crash

Navy has grounded its Sea Harrier fighters, which operate from the country's solitary aircraft carrier INS Viraat, as a precautionary measure after one of the jump-jets crashed last Friday.

Sources said the Sea Harrier fleet, which is down to just eight single-seat fighters and three twin-seater trainers now, will undergo systematic checks to ascertain whether a "technical defect'' caused the crash off Goa, which killed the pilot, Lt-Commander Saurabh Chandra Saxena.

Apart from the acute shortfall in the number of fighters to operate from the 28,000-tonne INS Viraat, the worry is that the Sea Harrier-IN 622 which crashed was a newly-upgraded one.

Though Navy is conducting a "board of inquiry'' into the mishap, the absence of a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recording system on the ill-fated fighter will make the probe all the more difficult.

From 1983 onwards, Navy had inducted 30 British-origin Sea Harriers, which take off from the angled ski-jump on INS Viraat and land vertically on its deck, but has lost over half of them in accidents.

The remaining underwent "a limited upgrade'' in a Rs 477-crore project, which includes fitting of Israeli Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode fire control radars and Derby beyond visual range air-to-air missiles, at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

So, even as the 50-year-old INS Viraat is finally getting ready to become operational for at least five years more after an 18-month life-extension refit, it is fast running out of jets to operate from its deck.

This clearly spells trouble for Navy, which has been crying hoarse for several years now that it wants at least two aircraft carriers to protect India's strategic interests.

But successive governments have miserably failed to take decisions in time. The 44,570-tonne Admiral Gorshkov, undergoing a refit at the Sevmash Shipyard in North Russia, for instance, will be available only by 2013. The 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC), being built at Cochin Shipyard, will also be ready only by 2015-2016.

Navy, of course, will soon start getting the 16 MiG-29Ks contracted in the original $1.5-billion Gorshkov package deal signed with Russia in January 2004, under which the carrier refit was pegged at $974 million.

India and Russia, however, are still enmeshed in renegotiating Gorshkov's final refit cost, with Moscow demanding as much as $2.9 billion and India keen on shelling out around $2.2 billion.

The acquisition of another 29 MiG-29Ks for around Rs 5,380 crore is also on the cards, especially since both Gorshkov and IAC will require these fighters when they are ready to enter service.


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