(CNS ADM Sunil Lanba at the Tu-142 de-induction at Arrakkonam, March 29, 2017)
The fleet of 8 or so Tu-142 ‘Albatross’ maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft with the Indian Navy based in Arrakkonam (near Chennai) will stand decommissioned as of April 2017. It was inducted in 1988 with the navy issuing a statement hailing this aircraft for “their phenomenal maritime reconnaissance (MR) capabilities” and as “spearheading the Navy’s MR effort ever since”. It further added that it was “among the finest aircraft of their kind in the world in addition to being the fastest turbo-props,”
A lot of frantic sorties have been launched in recent months regularly to as far down as South Africa, in order to rundown the remaining air frame time and wind down the clock on this Tupolev, almost as if the navy wanted to be done with it. But why has the good vibes about this bird turned over the years into antipathy towards it in a service that now finds itself without really long range MR and interdiction assets?
A very senior naval person of impeccable integrity and vast and varied experience with whom I had, a few days back, raked up the topic of the imminent de-induction of the Tu-142, responded that left to him he’d have tried and retained this aircraft and its capability. Russia has been offering 22 Tu-142s, from a huge store of this aircraft, possibly kept as war wastage reserve. He called today to say that as he was not an aviator, he had consulted with his naval aviation colleagues and was now persuaded by their argument that it was a damnably difficult plane to upkeep, and the attention it required after each sortie was just too onerous. In comparison, the Illyushin-38 for like missions in the ‘Sea stallions’ squadron based in Goa, is a dream, easy to service and maintain, and a delight to operate.
The trouble though is the Il-38 has very little combat range compared to the Tu-142, and also a limited lethal payload capacity — the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile, free fall bombs, and a short-range Air-to-air missile for self-protection versus the Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missile and the Kh-15A short range air-to-surface missile carried by the Tu-142.
What many in the navy are getting exercised about is their belief that Russia through their commission agent in India is stirring up a needless controversy about a contingent strategic void being created by the absent Tu-142s, given that the great expanses of the Indian Ocean still need surveillance and armed monitoring, a role the Il-38, optimized for what the Russians call the “coastal ASW” mission, simply cannot pull. Those having anti-Tu 142 views, however, point out that the offer of 22 or howsoever many planes the Indian Navy wants to offtake is because Kremlin has decided that it wants to revive an oceanic anti-submarine warfare capability for itself but lacks the financial resources to set up a factory to produce a new power plant for it. And here’s where an Indian buy of these aircraft was supposed to come in handy. It was expected to generate the funds for the Russian Navy to get a newly re-engined fleet of Tu-142s.
That this is Moscow’s way of modernizing its MR/ASW capability is not in doubt. That Indian agents will make a lot of moolah out of such a deal cannot be doubted either. That the Indian Navy has scarce monies and is in no position to “waste” any is also a fact. The question still looms — how is this strategic MR-ASW void to be filled? And if the Tu-142 is not the answer, what’s the alternative? P-8I? But the synthetic aperture radar on the P-8I, it is said, cannot pick up the Karachi port — which may be apocryphal view. but the fact is it has simply not panned out as the navy expected. Then again, neither did the Tu-142.