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The story of IAF’s tryst with MiG-21 fighter planes

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The March 17 crash of a MiG-21 Bison in Gwalior — the second this year — has turned the spotlight on India’s longest-serving fighter plane, its safety record and the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s plans to replace the ageing jets with newer ones in the coming years.

The air force got its first single-engine MiG-21 in 1963, and it progressively inducted 874 variants of the Soviet-origin supersonic fighters to bolster its combat potential, said officials familiar with the MiG-21 fleet. But more than 400 MiG-21s have been involved in accidents that have claimed the lives of 200 pilots during the last six decades, earning the fighters ominous epithets such as “Flying Coffin” and “Widow Maker”.

The two Bisons that crashed this year — the first accident took place near Suratgarh in Rajasthan on January 5 — are the most advanced variants of the MiG-21 fighter planes. The MiG-21 Bis (an upgraded variant of the plane flown for the first time in 1976) was further upgraded to MiG-21 Bison in India in 2000.

IAF operates four squadrons of MiG-21 Bison aircraft — a squadron has 16 to 18 fighter jets. The last of these upgraded MiG-21s are set to be phased out in the next three to four years. Of the 874 variants inducted by the IAF, more than 60% were licence-produced in India.

IAF’s overwhelming dependence

Experts say that more MiG-21s have crashed than any other fighter because they formed the bulk of the fighter aircraft in the IAF’s inventory for a long time. IAF had to keep its MiG-21 fleet flying longer than it would have liked because of delay in the induction of new fighters.

“Was there a choice? You have to have a certain number of fighter planes to guard your skies. The induction of multi-role fighters was delayed, only 36 Rafales came instead of the projected requirement of 126 jets, the light combat aircraft (LCA) programme is behind schedule and fighters such as Sukhoi-30 have had serviceability issues. IAF had to make do with its MiG-21 fleet,” said Air Vice Marshal Sunil Nanodkar (retired), a former assistant chief of air staff.

Also Read | A woman pilot to join MiG-29 squadron after Bison, Sukhoi, Rafale

Delay in the induction of advanced jet trainers led to supersonic MiG-21 fighters being used for training pilots in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. This period witnessed an increase in the accident rate of these fighters, said one of the officials cited above. The accident rate of the MiG-21s in the 1990s was 2.89 per 10,000 flying hours, which came down to 0.27 per 10,000 hours after the induction of Hawk-132 advanced jet trainers in late 2000s, official data accessed by SNN shows.

Before the induction of the British-origin Hawks, MiG-21s accounted for half of the total flying hours of the IAF. The Hawks were inducted in 2008 to meet a long-standing need of the IAF. The planes are crucial for the training of combat pilots as they serve as a bridge between subsonic trainers and supersonic fighters.

IAF trained its pilots on the MiG-21s for a long time before the Hawks were inducted, Nanodkar said.

“That added to the MiG-21 losses. Pilots went straight from subsonic Kiran trainers to supersonic MiG-21s. The requirement for servicing and spares also went up as the MiG-21s were flying a lot in the training role. Maintenance became a nightmare after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991,” said Nanodkar.

The leap from Kiran trainers to MiG-21 was daunting as the pilots faced a huge variation in aircraft speed, performance and technology. The MiG-21 has a takeoff and landing speed of more than 330 kmph compared to 200 kmph for the Kiran tainers.

An operational asset

The Bison is not the same aircraft as the one inducted in the 1960s and has been modernised to meet the IAF’s requirements, said a senior official.

The Bison was involved in IAF operations after the unprecedented, peacetime, cross-border strike against terror targets in Pakistan’s Balakot two years ago.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman scripted military aviation history by downing a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16, seconds before his own MiG-21 Bison was hit by a missile forcing him to eject on February 27, 2019. He was later awarded the Vir Chakra, India’s third-highest wartime gallantry award. The citation, published in the Gazette of India in December 2019, said his aggressive manoeuvres forced enemy fighters into tactical chaos and he courageously engaged the hostile aircraft package despite its numerical and technological superiority.

The aerial combat with PAF took place a day after IAF’s Mirage-2000s struck targets in Balakot in response to the Pakistan-backed Pulwama suicide attack in Kashmir in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force men were killed on February 14.

Also Read | IAF group captain killed in MiG-21 Bison crash in Gwalior

Experts said the Bison was an extremely capable platform that the IAF will stretch to the end of its service life — 2024.

“The (Bison) upgrade was significant and essentially on avionics, radar, electronic warfare suite and weapons. The aircraft is very safe to fly, has had a good safety record and will see IAF through till 2023-24,” said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), who was the team leader of the MiG-21 upgrade programme, on March 17.

The modernisation plans

IAF will induct different variants of Tejas LCA in the coming years to replace the ageing aircraft. The defence ministry last month awarded a 48,000-crore contract to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for 83 LCA Mk-1A jets for IAF. The first Mk-1A aircraft will be delivered to the air force in three years, with the rest being supplied by 2030. The deal involves the supply of 73 Mk-1A fighter jets and 10 LCA Mk-1 trainer aircraft.

The deal for the 83 Mk-1A jets took the total number of Tejas variants ordered to 123. The 40 LCAs already ordered by IAF are in the initial operational clearance (IOC) and the more advanced final operational clearance (FOC) configurations. The LCA Mk-1A will come with additional improvements over the FOC aircraft, making it the most advanced Tejas variant so far.

IAF is also looking at building 114 fighter jets in the country in partnership with a foreign manufacturer under the government’s Make in India plan. IAF is among the last air forces to be flying the MiG-21 variants and even Jaguars, said Chopra.

Also Read | Second Rafale squadron to be raised in Bengal’s Hasimara in April

“Even smaller air forces retired MiG-21s long ago. Every crash of an old aircraft is a reminder for IAF to replace older fleets. Modernisation of IAF is behind schedule. Two things are needed immediately. Accelerate the development of LCA variants, increase their rates of production and speed up the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) project. Secondly, send out the request for proposal for 114 new fighters,” Chopra said.

The government is likely to approve India’s homegrown fifth-generation fighter programme – the AMCA – by mid-year, with design, development and first prototypes set to cost around 15,000 crore. The IAF’s modernisation map envisages the deployment of around 120 AMCA (six squadrons) 2032 onwards, with the stealth planes forming an important element of future air combat.

Quality and quantity should top the IAF’s modernisation priorities, Nanodkar said.

The count of IAF’s fighter squadrons has shrunk to 31 compared to an optimum strength of 42-plus. Five years ago, IAF’s then vice chief BS Dhanoa (who went on to become the IAF chief) admitted that the air force did not have sufficient number of warplanes to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan.

“Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario,” Dhanoa said in March 2016, drawing attention to the sharp drawdown of India’s fighter fleet. IAF then had 33 fighter squadrons.

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