Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, the new Chief of Air Staff, recently announced that the Indian Air Force's now defunct aerobatic team, the Surya Kirans, will be resurrected with 9 Hawk 132 aircraft. At a price tag of Rs. 123 Crore each, the tag for resurrecting the squadron, in capital cost alone, will be Rs. 1,250 Crore.
Let's pause to ask ourselves, why?
An aerobatic squadron exists to showcase the Air Force's prowess to the citizen on the street, the taxpayer. It also exists to motivate young men and women to join the service. When the Surya Kirans were in operation, did they fulfill this mission? Is Rs. 1,250 Crore worth it, or can we achieve these objectives in other, more cost-effective ways?
In addition to the capital cost, there is the cost of operating the squadron - fuel and other consumables, pilots, technicians, civil infrastructure, spares, etc. The Hawk was procured from the British to serve as the frontline trainer that our young fighter pilots would use to learn how to fly high performance aircraft. It was intended to bridge the gap between the slow propeller-driven HPT-32 and subsonic HJT-16 (Kiran) to the high-performance MiGs, Sukhois, Mirages and Jaguars that pilots were transitioning to. By serving as an intermediate trainer, the Hawk was supposed to reduce the number of accidents involving inexperienced pilots on high-performance aircraft. So why would you divert 9 (or more) aircraft from this important task?
The pilots that staff the aerobatic squadron have to be among the best in the air force. Flying a modern fighter jet in close formation with 8 other aircraft is demanding even in straight and level flight. To hold formation where your wingtip is not more than 5-10 feet away from another aircraft while doing a loop or a roll demands flying proficiency of the highest order. Pilots with the Surya Kirans are therefore carefully selected, painstakingly trained, and they stay on a tour of duty with the squadron for 2-3 years. During that tour of duty, the sorties they fly are of little relevance to the real world in which their fellow course-mates operate; while a frontline squadron pilot is participating in mock dogfights, ground attack missions and deep penetration cross-country sorties at low level, the aerobatic squadron's elite carefully practices perfect loops and rolls in close formation. Nothing that they're going to use in actual combat. At a time when most frontline fighter squadrons are short staffed (they typically have a strength of 10-12 pilots against the sanctioned strength of 20), why would you divert some of your best and brightest to the Surya Kirans?
All this may be justified if the Surya Kirans fulfill the objective most Air Forces set for their aerobatic squadrons -- reassuring the taxpaying public and attracting applicants to the service. I believe the Surya Kirans did neither when they were in operation. Most events where they flew were closed to the man-on-the-street. The audience was typically the brass of the three services and other senior government officials. The basic flypast on republic day, where they fly in a straight line down Rajpath in Delhi could be done by a regular squadron pilots with a little bit of practice. That's typically all the taxpaying public sees of the Surya Kirans. The same can be said of their effect on recruiting.
I believe that all the Surya Kirans do today is give the Air Force's top brass bragging rights. I can imagine an Air Marshal nudging the Air Attache of the United States and saying "See? 9-aircraft formation. Don't the USAF Thunderbirds only fly 4-aircraft formations?"
The Air Force needs to attract the best and brightest talent, especially as it upgrades its inventory of aircraft with the most modern aircraft in the world. But to do that it needs to open its doors up to the public, the way Air Forces around the world do. They have a published calendar of events where a base is opened up to the local public, and there is a static and flying display of aircraft. The Surya Kirans could go around the country, giving performances in places where the man on the street, and potential recruits, can see them strut their stuff.
That's when Rs. 1,250 Crore will be worth it.
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