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Defence

The MiG-21 saga

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

The MiG-21 saga

A  MiG-21 participating in AERO India 2019 at Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bengaluru.

A MiG-21 participating in AERO India 2019 at Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH

Consigning MiG-21s to display platforms is easier said than done.

The recent targeting the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) MiG-21 combat aircraft, with calls for the fighter to be grounded comes at a time when the number of India’s strike element squadrons has dipped to a dangerous low. Against an authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons, the IAF currently finds it difficult to even fit-out 31 combat aircraft squadrons.

The pandemonium over the flight worthiness of the MiG-21s comes in the wake of a two-seater MiG-21 trainer crashing in Rajasthan while on a routine night training sortie, killing both the pilots. The fatality was the sixth accident involving a MiG-21 during the last 18 months. Several armchair analysts viewed the aircraft that has been the mainstay of the IAF for six decades as a bauble that needs to be mothballed immediately. The Pilibhit Member of Parliament, Varun Gandhi, voiced what many feel when he termed the MiG-21 an “udta taboot” (flying coffin).

The history

Since its initial induction in 1963, India has inducted over 900 MiG-21s. The first MiG-21s arrived in October 1963, followed by six MiG-21PFs (Type 76) in 1965. Thereafter, nearly 250 machines of the MiG-21 FL (Type 77) variant, and then, around 220 aircraft of the R-13 powered MiG-21M/MFs (Type 96), were produced under license at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL’s) Nasik facility. Starting 1980, nearly 300 MiG-21 Bis (Type 75) variants were produced again.The last Bis rolled off the production line in 1985.

A MIG-21 takes off from a forward air base on an operational sortie in 1978.
A MIG-21 takes off from a forward air base on an operational sortie in 1978. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

The plan

That the MiG-21s would eventually need to be replaced wasn’t lost on the mandarins in the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD). The government’s “Long Term Re-Equipment Plan 1981” pointed out that by 1995, the IAF would be 40 percent short of the aircraft it needed to be combat-ready. This was followed by an “Air Staff Target” in 1982 that envisaged a replacement for the MiG-21 by 1994.

Keeping this in mind, the government launched the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme in 1983, to indigenously develop a new combat aircraft that would replace the MiG-21 variants. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) was established at Bengaluru in 1984 to oversee its design and development. HAL was designated as the principal contractor. Unfortunately, even today, the LCA–which was later christened as the Tejas–is still powered by an American (General Electric) engine, an Israeli radar, and even has an imported electronics warfare suite.

Slippages galore

Major slippages in the LCA programme resulted in huge time and cost overruns, and the IAF looked for an interim measure. It was then decided that upgrading a select number of MiG-21Bis aircraft with better avionics and armament would be the ideal measure. Under the MiG-21-93 programme, 125 MiG-21 Bis fighters were upgraded with western avionics and indigenously developed components.

The upgradation programme in March 1994 with Moscow Aircraft Production Organisation-MiG (MiG-MAPO) gave the IAF the numbers they needed. Though the plan was to upgrade all 125 aircraft and the additional option for 50 more by March 2003, the IAF only took charge of the aircraft in May 2002. The final upgraded MiG-21 Bis was handed over to the IAF only in 2008.

Tejas’ slow progress

Accompanying the MiG-21’s life extension has been the Tejas’ agonisingly slow progress–it undertook its first flight in January 2001, Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) came a good decade later, and the final operational clearance (FOC) only in late 2018. The IAF, though, has been made to support the LCA and it has placed orders for 40 Tejas Mk1 and 73 Tejas Mk1A and 10 trainer aircraft.

Light combat aircraft Tejas during rehearsals ahead of Aero India 2021 at Yelahanka Air Force base in Bengaluru in 2021.
Light combat aircraft Tejas during rehearsals ahead of Aero India 2021 at Yelahanka Air Force base in Bengaluru in 2021. | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

Notwithstanding HAL’s assurances, pundits aver that the 73 LCAs and 10 trainers ordered in February 2021 at a cost of Rs.43,000 crore will get delivered only by 2030. ADA and HAL are also going ahead with the development of the Tejas Mk2, which is likely to get airborne in early 2026 and the first operationally capable Tejas Mk2 is likely to be available not before 2036. The IAF is looking for at least 220 Tejas fighters in various configurations. But HAL is finding it impossible to produce even 16 to 18 Tejas per year.

The long delay in the LCA programme has necessitated the continuation of the Russian fighter in the IAF. Adding to the IAF’s woes were extraneous reasons including the fact India finally opted to procure just 36 Rafales instead of the projected requirement of 126 fighters. The IAF’s Su-30 MKI fleet has also been plagued with serviceability issues, and so has the two squadrons of LCAs at Air Force Station (AFS) Sulur (Coimbatore). Even today, the Tejas variant flying in the two squadrons is yet to obtain a full FOC.

MiG-21 squadrons

Presently, the IAF operates four squadrons of MiG-21 Bison fighters, each squadron comprising around 16 to18 aircraft, taking the total strength of MiG-21 Bisons to between 64 and 72. And despite reports in the media that the famed 51 Squadron ‘Sword Arms’ in Srinagar that flies the MiG-21 Bison would be number-plated in September, there has been no official word from the IAF or the government. Said a senior officer: “The IAF’s decision to retire a squadron isn’t going to be based on one accident. There is already a plan, formulated a decade ago.”

Said an Air Marshal: “If the IAF were to retire the existing four MiG-21 squadrons tomorrow, the IAF’s combat strength would fall to 27 squadrons. Are we prepared for that, when our adversary the Pakistan Air Force is increasing its squadrons from 22 to 26? The situation is critical. The MoD knows it. The IAF has known about it since 2006. It is only hoped the government also knows it. And understands the urgency for the modernisation of operational assets.”

Technicians preparing a MIG-21 fighter bomber for a test flight after the overhaul at the Base Repair Depot at Ozhar, Maharashtra on July 24, 1982. This is the first MIG-21 to be overhauled by Air Force technicians.
Technicians preparing a MIG-21 fighter bomber for a test flight after the overhaul at the Base Repair Depot at Ozhar, Maharashtra on July 24, 1982. This is the first MIG-21 to be overhauled by Air Force technicians. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

Added former Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy: “Twenty-one years ago when plans were made to acquire 126 MMRCA, the IAF had close to 40 squadrons. But that acquisition didn’t happen and we continue to deplete. The MiG-21s will stay at least till 2026 and maybe even beyond. And the only question should be whether they are still operationally relevant. The Tejas isn’t available in the numbers the IAF wants.”

Said Air Marshal Muthumanickam Matheswaran, a former experimental test pilot and a fighter combat leader who superannuated as the Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (IDS): “The MiG-21 is an excellent aircraft. But failures are bound to be there. And where is the replacement? Whether the IAF continues to use it or not is a decision to be taken after a careful and calculated risk analysis has been done.”

Firepower

The MiG-21 has two hardpoints (a station or weapon station that is located on the airframe and is designed to carry an external or internal load) and a complement of missiles when the requirement is for modern fighters is to have eight hardpoints and more. The F-16 has nine. But as the Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy said: “We need numbers too, not just tonnage.”

Accidents

According to a statement in Parliament in 2012 by the then Defence Minister A.K. Antony, more than half of the 872 MiG-21 aircraft that entered IAF service had crashed, killing more than 200 persons, including 171 pilots, 39 civilians, and eight other services personnel.

The wreckage of a MiG-21 Bison fighter jet after a crash in Gwalior in March 2021.
The wreckage of a MiG-21 Bison fighter jet after a crash in Gwalior in March 2021. | Photo Credit: PTI

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, and the reasons for MiG-21 crashes are myriad. As veteran fighter pilot Group Captain Tej Prakash Srivastava (Retd), who has commanded a MiG-21 squadron and served as chief instructor at the College of Air Warfare, said: “People who call for the MiG-21s to be grounded do not understand the difference between an obsolete/old aircraft and an unsafe aircraft”. He cites the case of the US Air Force’s single engine F-16s fighters which first flew in 1974, but is still operational.

Another reason for mishaps is the obvious: MiG-21s have for decades formed the bulk of the IAF’s fighter aircraft inventory. More numbers, more years in service, more flying and more crashes. But there is no gainsaying the fact that the MiG-21 Bison’s safety record is actually good if one considers the number of flying hours.

Besides its unforgiving nature, the MiG-21s, thanks to a 24-year long procurement delay in the IAF getting an advanced jet trainer (AJT), were utilised to train rookie pilots, catapulting them directly from the Kiran/Iskra cockpits to the MiG-21s. For many young pilots, it was a jump too far. The arrival of the Hawk AJT finally plugged this lacuna and stemmed air accidents to some extent.

Government committee’s report

In 2005, a committee set up by the government to examine the high accident rate in the IAF concluded that technical failures contributed to 39 per cent of the total number of accidents while accidents due to human error accounted for 43 per cent. Several of the accidents in the MiG-21 fleet in the initial years of induction happened because pilots were unfamiliar with the difficult handling characteristics of a delta wing platform especially in the low-speed regime. The committee’s study also uncovered that accidents due to technical failure were largely on account of poor reliability of the engine, especially those that had been overhauled at HAL.

Said an Air Marshal: “When the Narendra Modi government decided to scrap the MMRCA deal and purchase just two Rafale squadrons [36 combat fighters], there must have been some rationale. Why did they not acquire six squadrons? What stopped them? What ‘power’ intervened to stop India acquiring more Rafale squadrons? These are questions that need answers. The government also needs to spell out what role it needs the IAF to play. The IAF is no longer a tactical support arm to the Army. Rather, it is a strategic asset in its true sense.”

Defence pundits exhibit more than a trace of concern when they pose the question: What will the IAF’s strike element look like between now and 2036, by when hopefully the Tejas Mk2 would have been produced in significant numbers and delivered? Will the IAF consist of obsolete strike elements? The IAF’s Jaguars would have completed nearly 60 years, if they are still in service, the MiG-29 UPGs and Mirage-2000s 50 years of service, the Su-30 Variants will be nearing 40 years of service, and the IAF’s latest acquisition, the Rafales, nearly 20 years old. Will the government go ahead with the MMRCA2 deal and acquire 114 aircraft?