The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal has been engaging with the government of Japan for the modernisation of aviation facilities since 1992 when Pakistan International Airlines and Thai Airways jets crashed in Nepal leading to mass casualties. The Japanese government stepped up to help instal terminal radar facilities at Tribhuvan International Airport under grant, which were formally commissioned in 1998 by the then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala.

The radar facilities provided were of genuine Japanese origin, though they lacked automatic safety nets -- called minimum safe altitude warning -- to timely warn air traffic controllers when a flight nears terrain in an unsafe manner. Subsequently, the radar system could not prevent the avoidable crashes that occurred around the rim of the Kathmandu valley -- Lufthansa Cargo flight 8533 in 1999, Necon Air flight 128 in 1999, and the Buddha Air flight 103 in 2011. Clearly, the system was not robust enough to be tailored to Nepal's challenging terrain, though it did allow significant enhancement of TIA's air traffic capacity, a senior air traffic controller said.

"This was followed by another Japan's Official Development Assistant grant worth one billion rupees in 2014, whereby two radars were gifted to Nepal -- one to replace the ageing terminal radar facility and the other enroute on top of Bhattedanda, where the PIA flight had crashed," he added.

According to him, the enroute radar facility, commissioned in 2017 with a published range of 200 nautical miles, was meant to enhance air safety in over 60 per cent of Nepali airspace, and yet it failed to prevent crashes in the en-route phase, including the fatal Arghakhanchi crash of NAC in 2014 and several helicopter crashes.

Interestingly, the air traffic management (ATM) system that processes the radar data supplied by NEC, Japan, is actually sourced from a little-known Czech company called ALES that has a track record of supplying systems for military usage in Eastern Europe. "Why the Japanese taxpayer's money was spent in foisting a non-Japanese solution is anybody's guess, as the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau - the Japanese ATC services provider - only deploys made-incountry ATM systems that are better and therefore expensive.

Clearly, the NEC tried to carve a bigger profit out of the contract amount, while air safety in Nepal went for a toss," a senior director at the CAAN commented.

According to CAAN officials, the ATM system was touted to be future-ready with promised capabilities of integrating with the satellite-based surveillance systems being deployed worldwide and known technically as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast.

The deployment of ADS-B has been allowing ATC service providers to forgo expensive radar installations, yet provide equivalent level of safety. However, when CAAN went ahead with deploying ADS-B systems in western Nepal to enhance air surveillance coverage beyond that of en-route radar, it ran into technical issues where the safety certification of the ADS-B system remains stuck due to non-cooperation by NEC, CAAN officials add. "Interestingly, when even Japan itself has been unable to deploy ADS-B based system in its airspace, the act of NEC palming-off a non-proven system to an unsuspecting customer -- Nepal -- clearly reeks of exploitation as well as defalcation of taxpayer's money."

A version of this article appears in the print on September 22 2021, of The Himalayan Times.