An Antonov-32 transporter makes a first-landing of an aircraft of this class at Pakyong, in Sikkim. The upgrade of the IAF's fleet of AN-32s, held up by Russia-Ukraine tensions, is now about to resume
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Jan 18
Demonstrating the versatility of its most rugged and reliable workhorse, an Indian Air Force (IAF) Antonov-32 (AN-32) transport aircraft made a first-ever landing at the challenging, 1,650 metre-long Pakyong airfield near Gangtok, in Sikkim on Wednesday.
With Pakyong now usable by AN-32s, the army can quickly move soldiers, weapons and supplies to this highly sensitive sector, which includes flashpoints like Doklam, Nathu La and the Siliguri Corridor that connects the eight north-eastern states with the rest of India.
Business Standardlearns there is even better news for the IAF’s ageing fleet of 105 AN-32 transporters, which were bought from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Their $400 million upgrade, which was contracted in 2009 with Ukrainian aircraft maker Antonov, is about to resume.
The upgrade programme was halted in 2014, when Antonov had refurbished only 45 out of the IAF’s 105 AN-32s. After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula that year, relations between Kiev and Moscow broke down and Russia refused to supply critical equipment needed for the AN-32 upgrade – including navigation and communications equipment, avionics and on-board oxygen generating equipment.
Consequently, the upgrade of the remaining 60 aircraft, which is to be carried out in the IAF’s base repair depot in Kanpur, has remained in limbo. Ukraine, which has a sophisticated defence industry, undertook to develop domestic substitutes for all Russian sub-systems in the AN-32. Kiev committed to completing the work at the originally contracted price.
That process has now been completed. The IAF has already received the first batch of upgrade kits from Ukraine and more are on the way. Work in Kanpur will soon begin.
Asked how long it will take to complete the fleet upgrade, Ukrainian sources said it would depend upon how quickly the IAF maintenance personnel pick up the job. IAF sources estimated it would take another three-to-four years.
The overhaul, which costs about $4 million per AN-32, involves overhauling its engines, airframe, navigation and communications equipment and avionics. This will increase the aircraft’s service life by at least ten years.
Ironically, the AN-32 grew out of Russia’s friendship with India. After former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev requested then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to buy a new, uprated version of the AN-26, India became the launch customer for the AN-32.
The aircraft, which carries a payload of over 6 tonnes, or up to 50 passengers, is recognisable by its hulking, oversized Ivchenko turboprop engines. It is ideally suited for delivering supplies to the army by operating from small border airfields like Kargil, Mechuka and Pakyong. After delivering supplies, it ferries out local people from several remote locations.
Ukraine is now pitching to sell India a brand new evolution of the AN-32, called the AN-132. Antonov, financed by Saudi Arabia, has already flown a prototype of the AN-132. The aircraft is due to fly in the Aero India 2019 show in Bengaluru next month.
Ukrainian officials hope to convince Indian defence ministry officials to choose the AN-132 as a replacement for the IAF’s 56-aircraft fleet of HS 748 Avro aircraft. This Rs 15,000 crore “strategic partner” (SP) programme involves building the aircraft in India by an Indian private firm with technology provided by a foreign vendor.