The collision of two Pakistan Air Force (PAF) aircraft in Nowshera that killed all four pilots on board raises serious questions about the safety of the PAF’s fleet. Not only was this the second incident in a week, it was also the sixth in the last seven months where PAF aircraft have suffered serious accidents. After all this unnecessary loss of life, now may be the time to seriously address safety concerns about our ageing fleet. Due to sanctions placed by the US for much of the 1990s, the PAF fleet is mostly made up of local and Chinese aircraft. Some of the aircraft that precede the 1990s, such as the Mirage, are more than 30 years old. In the case of the Mirage, the PAF has to keep the aircraft operational even though production of some components ceased many years ago because it is now part of our nuclear deterrent. And indeed, it was a Mirage that crashed near Karachi earlier this week while on a routine mission.
In 2004, Pakistan bought 50 Mirage planes and a huge quantity of spare parts from the Libyan government, making it the world’s largest operator of Mirage aircraft. However, the Libyan military had been in considerable disarray when sanctions were imposed after the Lockerbie bombing and so it is unclear just how well-maintained and safe these aircraft are. In recent years, thanks to the resumption of sales from the US, the PAF has been able to update its fleet with the C-130E Hercules and F-16 fighter jets but many of the older aircraft are still in use and safety will continue to be a major issue.
It is not enough that the PAF be operationally-ready; it owes it to its pilots and other servicemen that the aircraft be as safe as possible. This means regular checks and an assurance that no shortcuts will be taken in maintaining the aircraft. With such a patchy safety record at present, servicemen will be filled with doubts when they use aircraft in PAF’s fleet. This fear and doubt is likely to impact their performance in the skies. Therefore, for purely tactical reasons, ensuring safety should become the number one priority for the PAF.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2012.
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