|The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been experiencing significant problems of late. According to the Times of India, the IAF has experienced major crashes, most likely results of serious problems with its equipment, maintenance and personnel.
The setbacks mark a new low in the recent decline in the IAF's standards, and have raised serious concerns among officers and other observers.
Early last week a Mirage 2000 caught fire and crashed outside Gwalior killing the pilot. It was the fourth Mirage 2000 to crash in the last couple of months.
The Mirage crashes set off alarm bells because it is not only IAF's favourite fighter to replace MiG-21s but also remains one of the India's most credible nuclear platform to date.
The news also spelt trouble, for MiG-21s - notorious for frequent crashes and ominously named 'flying coffins' - are old, have trouble with spare parts, while Mirages are considered the safest fighters not just in the IAF but around the world.
Yet, the IAF has been seeking to acquire more Mirages.
The crash also puts a question mark on IAF's plans to acquire more Mirages. The IAF has been actively pushing to buy 126 more Mirage fighters from France.
Even the IAF deal to get new Mirages has been mired in controversy, though not much has come out in the open.
According to sources in the Ministry of Defence, the IAF headquarters initially moved a proposal to acquire the Mirages.
However, the MOD objected to the proposal on the grounds that IAF headquarters could only specify their requirement and not the manufacturer.
The Ministry pointed out that a global tender had to be called and asked the IAF to come back with the specifications required for a multi-role fighter for the future.
The IAF got back with requirements, which according to MOD sources, would "only fit Mirages". The proposal is still caught somewhere in between.
I suspect the IAF wanted Mirages for mainly political reasons. India takes its "neutrality" seriously and considers acquisitions accordingly. In other words, American equipment may be superior or fit better with its needs, but India won't consider it in fear of becoming dependent on the United States.
Of course, there are other nations that fly French equipment without as much trouble, so there are likely other issues that have caused such problems for the IAF.
The Mirage crash brings to light problems related to personnel and maintenance, and it may not be limited to just the Mirage squadron.
The two Mirage squadrons in Gwalior have some of IAF's finest pilots. The IAF is currently raising a third Mirage squadron to inducting 10 more Mirages that are being added.
IAF had removed the commanding officer of one of the squadrons last month after a crash. But such actions do not seem to have stemmed the serious flaws, whatever they are.
The Vice Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal S K Malik said initial indications were that the pilot might have been disoriented during night flying. But that doesn't fully explain the sudden rise in accident rate among Mirage fighters.
If the problem is that of maintenance, then all efforts that went into improving maintenance standards of IAF in the past few years have been a waste to a great extent.
All in all, this is bad news for India's defense, considering the fact that the air force of its most serious rival in the region, China, has been increasing operational capabilities.