Keeping MiG-21s Flying to Maintain Squadron Strength is a Dangerous Proposition

Every time a MiG-21 fighter jet crashes and kills pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF), the questions haunting the service for over a decade resurface.

Should the IAF have phased out MiG-21s by now at the cost of further depleting the number of its fighter squadrons? Or should the fighter jets continue flying—till they are replaced by the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas — for the sake of maintaining the squadron strength?

The latest crash of a MiG-21 trainer Type 69 aircraft last week that killed Wing Commander M Rana and Flight Lieutenant Adivitiya Bal has brought back the same questions to the military discourse.

Like always, there would be no answers to them in black and white. Even as the IAF awaits a report from the Court of Inquiry on the latest crash, the accident does, once again, spotlight the pressing need to phase out the Soviet-era fighter jets.

Yes, even at the cost of cutting down IAF’s fighter squadron strength to less than 32.

The reasons for this for this are several.

But first a bit of history on the aircraft, which had been the backbone of the IAF.

Why MiG-21s are IAF’s Backbone

The MiG-21s are among the six fighter jets which India has at present. The single engine, single-seater multi-role fighter/ ground attack aircraft were first inducted in 1963 after the 1962 India-China war as an inceptor aircraft. India procured over 700 variants of the aircraft since then.

The IAF had flown the Type-77, Type-96 and the BIS variants of the MiG-21s and the latest of these variants are the MiG-21 Bisons.

The IAF’s initial plans were to phase out its remaining MiG-21 squadrons—around 70 jets—by the end of this year. The IAF has now drawn up a three-year plan to phase out all the four remaining squadrons of MiG-21s by 2025.

One of the four squadrons—the No 51 squadron based in Srinagar—will be number plated by the end of next month.

Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman — who had downed an enemy aircraft post India’s Balakot air strike in 2019 — was from this squadron.

The MiG-21s had, over the years, proved their mettle multiple times in several wars which India fought.

In the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, the MiG-21s (Type 77 variant) had played a critical role in tilting the war’s result in India’s favour. The fighter jet went on to be among the IAF’s mainstay in the 1965 war with Pakistan and also in the Kargil conflict in 1999.

Keeping the Aircraft Smacks of Tokenism

Despite its illustrious service in critical air operations of the IAF, keeping the vintage aircraft going—just for the sake of maintaining the required squadron strength—smacks of tokenism.

Data shows that the flight safety record of the aircraft has been abysmal with over 400 crashes and 170 pilot deaths in the last 60 years, lending the aircraft controversial names such as “flying coffin”. In its first year of induction in 1963, the aircraft saw two accidents.

While most MiG-21 pilots swear by the aircraft, others say that keeping the ageing MiG-21s operational may not be useful from the point of view of them having the capability to fight a war—with modern fighters having better avionics, navigational aids and electronic warfare capabilities. According to IAF officers, the aircraft can play a bigger role in training pilots.

A senior IAF officer, who has been a test pilot, told me that they can now be compared to empty pistols.

He said the Court of Inquiry report will ascertain the exact cause of the latest crash, which could range from technical issues and bird hits to spatial disorientation during a night sortie or a human error. But keeping the MiG-21s flying at this point to maintain squadron strength is a dangerous proposition.

Even for pilot errors, there are more chances of them taking place in a MiG-21 fighter jet than in other aircraft in the IAF’s inventory, because of its primitive navigational and flying aids, the officer told me, adding that no amount of upgrades can help beyond a point.

“This could affect the pilot’s morale by creating an atmosphere of fear. In a squadron, the prevailing environment matters a lot. Keeping the MiG-21s flying to keep the number of squadrons up serves no purpose in such a situation,” he emphasised.

Banking on Delayed Projects

While the IAF has been banking on the LCA Tejas to replace the MiG-21 squadrons, one cannot lose sight of the fact that the project had seen massive delays since the 1980s.

In February last year, the defence ministry had inked a Rs 48,000 crore deal with the HAL to procure 83 Tejas fighter aircraft. But prior to that, the IAF has placed an order for 40 Tejas Mark 1, including twin-seater trainers. IAF is yet to receive the trainer variant of the aircraft.

The first LCA Tejas squadron started with just three aircraft and the serviceability rate of the aircraft has not been encouraging. HAL is currently carrying out flight trials of the Mark 1A variant of the aircraft, and production of the aircraft will only begin after that.

Additionally, the IAF is also in the process of procuring 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), the procurement process of which has seen little progress since India inked a deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France in 2016.

Since the IAF issued a Request for Information to acquire 114 jets at a cost of around $18 billion in 2019, the plan is still to receive the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) from the government—the first stage of the long-drawn complex defence procurement process.

India is also developing a fifth-generation medium-weight fighter jet but that is still at the drawing board.

India has a sanctioned squadron strength of 42, a target which Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari had said the IAF won’t be able to meet even in a decade despite all its planned acquisitions.

When HAL’s HPT 32 trainer aircraft began crashing in large numbers—with nearly 18 accidents in 10 years—the IAF had to take the tough decision on pulling the plug on it.

It’s time that the IAF pulls the plug on the vintage fighter jets too. Crashes are killing pilots and their morale is the other casualty.

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