MIG 21: A good fighter in bad light

Subhasish Mitra (Wide Angle)

The recent crash of a MiG-21 jet in Rajasthan's Hanumangarh has once again put the spotlight on the Indian Air Force's aging fleet of Soviet-origin aircraft, reinforcing the disturbingly high crash rate in military aviation in the country.

Old highly-demanding flying machines that lack modern avionics and inherent safety features, inadequate training and supervision of pilots as well as technicians, poor maintenance and overhaul practices, and lack of quality control on spares, all lead to the unacceptable high crash rate.

The MiG-21s used to be the mainstay of the IAF for a long period of time. After its induction in the early 1960s, the Indian Air Force procured over 870 MiG-21 fighters to boost its overall combat prowess. However, the aircraft has a very poor safety record. 

According to official data, the MiG-21s were involved in 400 crashes in the last six decades. Both MiG-21s and Cheetah/Chetak helicopters, which are single-engine machines of the design vintage of the 1960s, have long outlived their operational utility.

At present, the IAF has three MiG-21 squadrons with a total of around 50 aircraft, according to officials. The IAF last year finalised a timeline of three years to phase out the remaining Mig-21 fighter squadrons. 

The IAF also plans to start the phasing out of the three squadrons of Mig-29 fighter jets in the next five years. The plan to phase out the Soviet-origin aircraft fleet is part of the IAF's modernisation drive and not linked to the recent accidents involving the platforms.

As part of the IAF's modernisation plan, the defence ministry in February 2021, sealed a Rs 48,000 crore deal with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the procurement of 83 Tejas jets. The IAF has already procured 36 Rafale jets to enhance its combat capabilities.

The IAF is also in the process of acquiring 114 Medium Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA). 

Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhat has said in Rajya Sabha that 42 defence personnel were killed in accidents involving aircraft and helicopters of the three services in the last five years. The total number of air accidents in the last five years was 45 out of which 29 involved IAF's platforms, according to official data. 

Two pilots of the IAF were killed in July last year when their twin-seater Mig-21 trainer aircraft crashed during a training sortie near Barmer in Rajasthan. An ALH Dhruv crashed recently following a "hard landing" in Kishtwar in Jammu and Kashmir.

In a rare accident in January, a Russian-designed Sukhoi-30MKI jet and a French Mirage-2000 had a mid-air collision. In October last year, a weapon system integrated version of an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) of the Indian Army crashed near Tuting in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Another ALH-WSI had crashed into the massive Ranjit Sagar reservoir near Pathankot on August 3, 2021 in which two Army pilots were killed. Between March 2017 and December 2021, at least 31 people lost their lives in accidents involving 15 military helicopters that included four ALH, four Cheetah, two ALH (WSI), three Mi-17V5, an Mi-17 and a Chetak, according to official details.

In December 2021, Gen Bipin Rawat, India's first Chief of Defence Staff, his wife Madhulika and 11 other armed forces personnel died when an Mi-17VH helicopter crashed near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu.

Around 55 military personnel have lost their lives in over 50 aircraft and helicopter accidents in just over five years. The old MiG-21 jets as well as the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters have recorded an alarming crash record over the years.

The armed forces have been demanding 498 new light utility helicopters for over two decades to replace their obsolete Cheetah and Chetak fleets. But their replacements are still to emerge out of the doldrums.

The IAF is forced to fly the Soviet-origin MiG-21s, which were the first truly supersonic fighters to be inducted by IAF in 1963 and underwent upgrades in later years, because of the huge delays in new inductions, especially the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft.

The force is down to just 31 fighter squadrons (each squadron has 16-18 jets) when its “authorised strength” is 42.5 squadrons to deal with China and Pakistan. The existing three MiG-21 squadrons currently based Uttarlai, Suratgarh and Nal in Rajasthan are slated to be phased out by 2025.

At least seven MiG-21s have crashed in the last couple of years, killing five pilots. Of the 872 MiG-21s progressively inducted by IAF, over 400 have been lost in accidents since 1971-72. Crashes of MiG variants, the bulk of them being MiG-21s, have killed well over 200 pilots and 50 civilians on the ground.



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