MIG-21 Fighter Jets
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MIG-21 Fighter Jets
The Trouble With India’s MIG-21 Fighter Jets
By KABIR TANEJA
The New York TimesAugust 8, 2013
On July 15, 2013, a Russian-made MIG-21 Bison fighter jet, operated by the Indian Air Force, crashed while attempting to land at the Uttarlai air base in the Barmer district of Rajasthan. This was the second MIG-21 crash, at the very same air base, in two months. However, unlike in the previous accident, which had no casualties, this time the pilot was killed. The crash has been attributed to pilot error.
Only a day after the second accident in Rajasthan, a serving officer of the Indian Air Force, Wing Commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila, who himself is a MIG-21 crash survivor, petitioned the courts for the scrapping of the entire fleet. Wing Commander Kaila has contended that flying the aircraft has violated his right to work in a safe environment. The wing commander was involved in a crash during a flight exercise in 2005 after his aircraft caught fire. He delayed in ejecting to safety from his burning aircraft because he was flying over a populated region. His accident also took place in Rajasthan.
The MIG-21, which marked 50 years of service with the Indian Air Force in April this year, has been the backbone of the air force’s fleet. The aircraft has participated in every major conflict involving India since 1963, and still forms the bedrock for most of the air force’s operations.
Safety record since 1970
Even as the MIG-21 stands tall in its performance for the Indian armed forces, its safety record, specifically in the past decade, has come under harsh criticism. A few months back, India’s defense minister, A.K. Antony, said that out of 29 crashes over the past three years in the Indian Air Force, 12 have been MIG-21 airframes. Two more MIG-21s have crashed since Mr. Antony put out those numbers.
Because of the MIG’s poor safety record, the aircraft has been given grim tags in the public sphere like the “Flying Coffin” and the “Widow Maker.” More than 170 Indian Air Force pilots have been killed in MIG-21 accidents since 1970. These accidents have also resulted in the deaths of 40 civilians.
Over 400 of the 872 MiG-21s progressively inducted since the 1960s have been lost in accidents since 1971-72, killing over 200 pilots and 50 civilians on the ground, as first reported by TOI. In July 2022 Wing Commander M Rana (38) and Flight Lieutenant Advitiya Bal (26) were killed when their MiG-21 Type 69 trainer crashed during a night sortie in Barmer, Rajasthan. At least six MiG-21s have crashed since January last year, and five pilots have been killed.
Number of MIGs
The Indian Air Force currently operates 34 fighter squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42. The MIG-21 will be required to continue to fill in the gaps over the next few years, as India’s military modernization crawls forward at a negligible pace.
The Indian Air Force has inducted more than 1,200 MIG variants in its fleet since 1963, when it was first used by the military. Currently, at least 252 MIG-21s are known to be operational in the air force, according to the Indian military enthusiast site Bharat Rakshak, including the latest upgraded version, the Bison.
The aircraft is the most-produced combat jet in aviation history since World War II. Over 11,000 air frames of the original MIG variant and its copies, like the Chinese-made Chengdu J-7, have been built since 1959.
Eve n before  the IAF had drawn up the phase-out plan for the around 70 MiG-21 ‘Bisons’ and trainers still in its fleet. It was as part of this plan that the Srinagar-based ‘51 Sword Arms’ Squadron will be “numberplated” in September 2022. The four existing squadrons of the old single-engine MiG-21s, which were the first truly supersonic fighters to be inducted by the IAF in 1963 but have been plagued by an alarmingly high crash rate in later years, will finally be retired by 2025. The Srinagar-based ‘51 Sword Arms’ Squadron, which helped thwart Pakistan’s retaliation to the Balakot strike, will be the first to be decommissioned in September 2022
The other three MiG-21 squadrons at Uttarlai, Suratgarh and Nal in Rajasthan will subsequently be r etired over the next three years. The 51 Squadron had played a major role in thwarting Pakistan Air Force’s retaliation a day after the IAF’s pre-dawn air strikes on the Jaish facility at Balakot on February 26, 2019.
The IAF is grappling with just 32-33 fighter squadrons (each with 16-18 jets) a t prese nt when at least 42 are needed to face the threat from China and Pakistan.
Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman, then a Wing Commander, was awarded a Vir Chakra for shooting down a F-16, while his MiG-21 also went down during the aerial skirmish on that day. “The Soviet-era MiG-21s played a stellar role in air operations as high-altitude supersonic interceptors, especially during the 1965 and 1971 wars. But they are long past their retirement date.” a senior officer said.
High accident rates outside India--and within
When the MIG-21, given the reporting name “Fishbed” by NATO, reigned supreme in the 1960s and 1970s, many Western bloc fighters like the American F-104 Starfighter and the English Electric Lightning were also plagued by high accident rates. According to James J. Halley, author of “Broken Wings: Post War R.A.F. Accidents,” more than 100 Lightning jets crashed out of the 345 in service with Britain between 1959 and 1988.
India has depended a lot on the MIG-21 for maintaining air superiority in and around its neighborhood. The success of the aircraft has been recognized globally. According to the authors David Nicolle and Tom Cooper in “Arab MIG 19 and MIG 21 Units in Combat,” India even provided MIG pilot training to countries like Iraq. Mr. Nicolle and Mr. Cooper say, contrary to popular beliefs, Iraqi pilots in the 1970s were trained more on the MIG-21s by India than by Pakistan or the Soviet Union.
Having served with over 45 air forces worldwide, the MIG-21’s low operational and maintenance cost has earned it the nickname “The People’s Fighter.” India, which produced the aircraft domestically after a transfer agreement with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, was manufacturing a single unit at a cost of just a little over 30 million rupees. This achievement was seen as a boon for the Air Force in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Indian economy was very small compared to what it is today.
Critics of the MIG-21 question the quality of the fleet’s maintenance. Wing Commander Kaila has alleged in his petition that poor maintenance work executed by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which manufactured all the domestically made MIG jets, had contributed to the failure of his aircraft. HAL has maintained a steely silence.
Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik, the former chief of the Indian Air Force, fiercely defended air force’s use of the jet fighter. “I have flown more than 2,000 hours in various variants of the MIG-21, from the earliest Type 77, the updated Type 96 and the Bison.
“Whenever an aircraft leaves, it is 100 percent serviceable,” he said. “An unserviceable aircraft never gets out. Component failures may occur within three minutes into a flight or not occur for many sorties. Any issue with the MIG-21 gets magnified because much of the fleet comprises of this type.”
The availability of spare parts has also been an area of concern for India’s aging fleet, and the country has looked at various cheaper options in countries like Israel and former Soviet states like Ukraine. Defense authorities in Moscow have previously warned India not to cut corners in purchasing authentic parts. The Russian ambassador in New Delhi, Alexander Kadakin, has said that India should not be surprised if aircrafts meet with accidents if it continues to use spares from outside Russia.
During the earlier part of this decade, the sudden jump for junior pilots from trainer aircrafts like the HAL Kiran, an indigenous jet trainer built in 1964 by Hindustan Aeronautics, to the MIG-21 was seen as too big a change for pilots to cope with. The Kiran, which was a subsonic jet with a maximum speed of 201 miles per hour, was unable to prepare young and inexperienced pilots for the raw power of the supersonic MIG, which has a maximum speed of 1,468 miles per hour.
This jump between the two air frames was seen at the time as taxing, and the treatment of the MIG doubling as an advanced jet trainer was neither “optimal” nor “cost effective,” according to experts such as retired wing commander K S Suresh. In 2004, India ordered 66 BAE Hawk advanced jet trainers from Britain, with a follow-up order of 57 more aircraft in 2010 to plug the gaps in pilot training. The decision for these purchases was fast tracked because of rising public dissent over frequent MIG-21 crashes.
The modernization of the Indian Air Force has been excruciatingly slow because of the long process of approving procurements and irregularities in deals, thanks to red tape and corruption. Controversies like the recent bribery scandal on a deal for helicopters worth $750 million have constantly plagued the Indian armed forces.
Other than bureaucratic and financial irregularities, India’s indigenous defense programs, such as the Light Combat Aircraft, which is slated to replace the MIG-21 fleet, are running decades behind schedule. Meanwhile new deals like the Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft program, won by Dassault Aviation Group of France, are still on the negotiation table, adding to unending delays in modernization efforts.
Kabir Taneja is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.
There is no gainsaying that any life lost is one too many. But attempts to ascribe causation often oversimplifies the issue. The argument that IAF is responsible for not hastening the induction of the LCA and is thus responsible for fatal accidents on the MiG-21 misses the wood for the trees.
IAF’s backbone to “Flying Coffin”
IAF’s tryst with the MiG-21 began in 1963 when the Type-74 was inducted in limited numbers. Over the next six decades, subsequent versions bought or modified have included the Type-76, Type-77, Type-96, Type-75 (Bis) and the latest Bison. Apart from these, IAF had to shop across the Eastern Bloc for MiG-21 Trainers, in all a whopping 900 odd aircraft. For a major part of the last six decades, the largely HAL-manufactured MiG-21 formed the backbone of IAF, and made a mark in the 1971 war even as other newer aircraft gradually began complementing the fleet. All along the venerable MiG-21 kept being adapted to fill in capability gaps. A misnomer that the aircraft is of the 1950s vintage ignores its evolution to its most recent, the sixth form, in 2004. Over these decades, the MiG-21 evolved from a purely air defence fighter, to a strike aircraft, multi-role fighter and even as a lead-in trainer for young pilots transitioning from basic jet trainers to fighters.
To a very large extent, this reallocation of roles was necessitated by an air force that was either cash-strapped or was awaiting the purchase of an Intermediate Jet Trainer and Light Combat Aircraft. It is this ad-hoc jet trainer role between 1985 and 2005 that earned the MiG-21 the sobriquet of the “Flying Coffin” when rookie pilots were having to take a bigger-thanideal leap and the country saw a spate of young pilots cremated in sobering ceremonies.
Phasing out the old war horse
Prodded by the IAF chief in 1992, the MoD in 1995 impressed upon the PMO that the lack of a jet trainer was the main reason for human error accidents on MiG-21s. Once the Hawk Jet Trainer was inducted in 2007, the accidents notably reduced, but the sobriquet agonisingly persisted.
That the MiG-21 needed to be replaced was realised by IAF in the late 1970s, followed by an Air Staff Target 201 that was issued in 1982 – 40 years ago. The very next year, the LCA project was approved by the government. The approach adopted at the time foresaw the development of various capabilities, including the Indian Kaveri engine, and bringing together all the pieces in a jigsaw-type endeavour. Once the technologies involved were demonstrated to IAF (about 20 years later), it committed itself to the project in 2005.
LCA’s slow take off
Over LCA’s subsequent development most of its flying was done by IAF test pilots who developed personal stakes in the project, as did Air Headquarters. IAF’s interest in the type can be seen from the fact that the contract for 20 aircraft in the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) was signed in March 2006 – within five years of the aircraft’s first flight and while still undergoing trials. An IOC version implies that a capability has been established “in its minimum deployable form” and this is the form in which IAF inducted the aircraft in 2016. As per a CAG report, IAF went on to waive 53 shortfalls from the specifications to accommodate the LCA into service and has committed to purchase 83 more aircraft, to be delivered over eight years. To IAF’s credit, it foresaw the LCA delays and upgraded the MiG-21, keeping the squadron numbers from plummeting over the last two decades.
Why the MiG-21 soldiers on
Despite the unfortunate reputation it has come to acquire, the MiG-21 continues to be in service for the following reasons:
● Any modern-day air force attempts to develop a Hi-Lo mix in its fighter inventory. While the US has the F-22/F-16, the Chinese have developed the J-20/ J-10 and Pakistan is working on the J-10/JF-17 mix.
● The ‘Hi’ component of this mix refers to expensive and more capable aircraft, while the low end is the opposite and largely used to acquire the quality that lies embedded in quantity.
● In the context of modern-day combat, arguably only the Rafale fulfils the hi-end of the spectrum for IAF. Therefore, even when the LCA is inducted in large numbers, there would remain a capability that would need heavier fighter aircraft to fulfil.
● The MiG-21’s continued role needs to be seen in the context of the two-front scenario that necessitates larger numbers. These are the same larger numbers, the absence of which prevent IAF from committing to theatre commands. Policymakers must fix the procurement process and bring an intellectual honesty in the procurementproduction chain, much of which resides outside IAF control. Neither the MiG-21, nor the “Rang De Basanti” pilot is to be blamed. The coffins are a result of India’s broken procurement process. Thus, the MiG-21 must soldier on till 2025, 43 years after IAF formally approved a replacement. The writer is an aviation historian.