It’s a cruel irony hard to miss. A nation that sent its first man to space 35 years ago, now selecting another ten for Mission Gaganyaan, finds the wreckage of a missing military plane after a week. Even if anyone had survived the horrific crash, the delay in reaching them would have killed them.
How many fighters, helicopters and transport aircraft have ended up on the sides of mountains or in Davy Jones’ locker since 1984 is Ministry of Defence’ (MoD) best kept secret. What have we done to prevent repeated ‘needle in a haystack’ situations?
A Fundamental Question But No Answers
It is a fundamental problem that refuses to go away. Not because technology is not available. In fact, there’s an abundance of it. But we baulk at technology when it comes to matters safety; choosing to flaunt our achievements with antiquated equipment instead.
How did India beam down then Sqn Ldr Rakesh Sharma’s epic ‘sare jahan se achha‘ video from outer space in 1984? How are successive space missions of ISRO tracked securely in real-time? How come pictures of ministers and leaders from remote Siachen outposts reach our phones within minutes while we cannot find a busload of air warriors on a routine flight?
Following air-warriors lost their life in the tragic #An32 crash – W/C GM Charles, S/L H Vinod, F/L R Thapa, F/L A Tanwar, F/L S Mohanty, F/L MK Garg, WO KK Mishra, Sgt Anoop Kumar, Cpl Sherin, LAC SK Singh, LAC Pankaj, NC(E) Putali & NC(E) Rajesh Kumar.
— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) June 13, 2019
Strangely, all we seem to be doing is grinding our teeth and taking the same fatalistic perch on ‘inhospitable terrain’, or worse still, lamenting ‘this is how we operate around here’. This is deeply disturbing.
Tough questions must be asked. World Cup fever has already engulfed us. Real heroes will soon be forgotten. The last post will be sounded yet again. We will regale in Dhoni’s helicopter shots and go back to Bollywood drama.
Accept the Reality
If space is the final frontier, large parts of India like the Himalayas, inhospitable glaciers, tropical rainforests, high seas and vast deserts can be equally daunting. Defending such territories is a slow war of attrition our armed forces have to contend with 24/7/365. Technology has many solutions. Yet, time and again, our abject lack of modern equipment stands exposed.
Here’s a small laundry list of ‘choices’ military planners may take note of while we wait for the formal investigation to proceed. I write with the intention of evoking a public debate on our ‘ostrich’ mentality and refusal to adapt.
Decide Your Indiscretion Rate
Submarines are one of the most stealthy weapons of war. In submarine lexicon, the ratio between a sub’s time of vulnerability to detection (through radar or radiated underwater noise) and its total operating time is known as ‘indiscretion rate’. There is a fine balance between safety and ‘exposure’ they must ride at all times. But since they are slow moving vessels, they ‘update’ their status to shore authorities only at longish intervals. Such ‘refresh rates’ are obviously incompatible with fast moving aircraft.
Time & again, enabling technologies for maintaining a live track on aerial assets have been shot down by the military stating security concerns. Perhaps it’s time to lay down what kind of operations require low indiscretion rate and what don’t. A peacetime training mission such as the An-32’s flight of 3rd June 2019 need not have the indiscretion rate of a nuclear submarine. In short, both aircraft and ground station should know the ‘live position’ continuously.
Optionally Piloted Aircraft
Sikorsky recently undertook test flights of an ‘optionally piloted‘ helicopter derived from a legacy UH-60 Black Hawk. This follows an earlier programme based on the S-76 called SARA – Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft.
Humans are most vulnerable to fatigue, spatial disorientation, loss of situational awareness, task saturation, etc. Can some of our high-risk missions be offloaded to autonomous or optionally piloted air vehicles that are agnostic to such failings? We have many legacy aircraft that could be turned into test beds for such experiments. Have we started looking at these options?
Minimum Equipment List
All civil-registered aircraft have a Master Minimum Equipment List (MMEL) from which the operator derives their own MEL with state approval. Such lists describe the minimum equipment required for flying, limitations that apply in case the MEL is invoked, and number of days/sorties, if any, that can be flown before it is fixed. Do we have such a concept for military aircraft? Answer is NO.
For example, an unserviceable weather radar would preclude flight in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) or bad weather. So would an autopilot failure. At a higher level, many such equipment need to be identified and classified as ‘must have’ during the acquisition process itself.
We cannot shoot the breeze about ‘day/night, all-weather, all-terrain’ capability while pushing ancient machines into the mountains without basic Performance-Based Navigation (PBN), Area Navigation (RNAV) or IFR-certified systems. That’s not just boastful, it can be deadly. Don’t we have enough evidence already?
A vast majority of our military fleet operate without flight following. Due to nature of terrain/topography, arcane practices and poor equipment, military aircraft routinely go off radar & radio contact. A simple ‘plug & play’ device called ‘satellite tracker’, powered through an aircraft’s 28V DC power socket, has been around for more than a decade. It requires no permanent modification and works through the Inmarsat M2M satellite service. Use it when you want, unplug it when you wish. Our assets fly over areas where even eagles don’t dare. Have we considered use of such devices even on a case to case basis?
Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B)
ADS-B is the gold standard for air traffic management of the future. It uses satellites, transponder and ground stations to enhance safety manifold through a ‘shared situational awareness’. Even remote areas without radar coverage like the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska now use ADS-B. The navy’s P8I Poseidons have it – not because we asked for it, but because it is standard fit. No aircraft can fly in US airspace without ADS-B after 1st Jan 2020. Sometimes systems upgrade themselves before we wake up and smell the burning avcat.
In fact, Iridium NEXT takes this a step further. With a 66-satellite constellation up in space, this system along with ADS-B will make sure every single plane can be tracked, no matter where on earth they fly.
We have our own satellites in space. Ground stations are easier to install and operate than radars. Why can’t the forces adapt this technology with an in-house solution? People who scoff at such equipment in the name of security, please look at the fitness trackers, Google Maps, GPS-based applications and a whole host of ‘Apps’ that track our soldiers in real time while we continue to fly in the age of dinosaurs.
Automatic Identification System (AIS)
Offshore and shipping industry learnt at great cost the importance of a simple vessel identification and tracking system. It is known as AIS and works through a radar-transponder system. This simple system enables continuous tracking of aircraft through a shore or ship based primary radar. In fact, one of the first indications of the Pawan Hans AS365 Dauphin fatal crash off Bombay High in Jan 2018 came when an alert radio officer from ONGC observed the missing trace of the copter’s AIS on his screen. Within minutes, SAR forces were at the site.
Security can also be factored in. Naval ships today track merchant ships in their vicinity 24/7 while remaining unidentified themselves. It’s a huge force multiplier. Naval Dornier 228s have this system, enabling precise airborne surveillance of the ocean below. Has such a system been thought of by the IAF?
Every sortie flown in civil airspace requires a transponder code. Today, Mode S is the norm. Why have such equipment gone into disuse in our military? A host of equipment bought from around the world needs a common data link. Do we have one? The recent ‘friendly fire’ shoot down of a Mi17V5 where misidentification – possibly because of incorrect / absence of a valid IFF code – should be a rude wake-up call.
Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)
Through a host of V/UHF networks, satellite communication, modems and software defined radios (SDR), naval assets at sea can transfer data, radar pictures and tactical plots over secure data links. This maintains a high level of secrecy while providing continuous track and positional update. If there is an airborne equivalent of this such as Air Domain Awareness (ADA), why haven’t all our military aircraft, old and new, been brought into this grid? Why are transport aircraft and helicopters still playing hide & seek? In 2019, how can an aircraft go off the grid and we land up with a 2000 square kilometer search area in mountainous terrain? Don’t quote the MH370 episode. Because if you do, next question is ‘what did we learn from MH370?’
Emergency Equipment Induction & Upkeep
It is sad that emergency equipment like ELT, PLB, CPI (Emergency Location Transmitter, Personal Locator Beacon, Crash Position Indicator) etc. don’t work. Far worse when we don’t have modern ones and don’t care about it either. A common refrain is that these equipment have low success rate. Well, then why not fix the problem instead of bemoaning their shortfalls. Why haven’t latest versions of such equipment been considered ‘must have’, especially when operating in hostile environment? Our lack of awareness and disdain towards such equipment limits their exploitation. Slowly, they slip into disuse.
Terrain Awareness & Synthetic Vision Systems
Aircraft cannot distinguish between night & day, bright CAVOK (Cloud & Visibility OK) conditions or a dark night. Humans do, and there’s the weak link. In other parts of the developed world, use of synthetic systems that improve situational awareness are the norm. Why should it be an exception in our military? Why should we fly blind as a bat without the instincts of one?
Glass cockpit systems like the one pictured above can integrate digital terrain database with synthetic maps and elevation data to give exceptional situational awareness even in poor visibility. Use of night vision goggles for desert, hill flying, night flights over sea and night deck landings should be the norm, not exception. How far away are we from implementing such systems across the fleet?
Even basic, self-contained GPS systems with terrain and flight path awareness such as the Garmin 1000 found on light singles elsewhere continue to elude our military. Is the main reason lack of autonomy and bureaucratic tangles in choosing obvious solutions for service? Or is it the ‘chalta hai‘ or ‘what my father goes‘ attitude?
Simply put, this phrase means that ‘safety changes are not introduced until enough people have been killed to warrant such changes‘. Andrew Weir, an investigative journalist and author of ‘The Tombstone Imperative: The Truth About Air Safety’ quotes the July 2000 fatal Concorde crash in Paris among other examples to make his point that “indifference thrives on a lack of public interest”.
Add to all of above, the veil of secrecy thrown over matters military, gross unaccountability among decision makers at apex level, a laissez faire attitude and we end up in a grave situation, grappling with fundamental issues while aiming for the moon.
Here’s hoping the unfortunate An-32 crash acts as a catalyst to usher in much required changes. Somebody please do the math of deploying hundreds of air and ground assets, including primitive hunter-gatherers, to look for a downed aircraft in our own backyard (however hostile to man) and compare it with money better invested in enabling technologies.
Nerves of steel or the hide of rhinos. What do we have more of?
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo of An-32 ©Sanjay Simha via VelocityTTL.com. This is the third (& hopefully final) part in a series of articles I wrote after the unfortunate An-32 crash of 3rd June 2019. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.