December 5, 2022

Dents on Delta

Despite a bright career, its charisma has been blemished by large number of crashes and accidents involving the platform. Since induction, according to reports, more than 400 MiG-21s have lost taking lives of over 200 pilots and another 60 civilians

By Sankalan Chattopadhyay

The nation mourns for the heart-wrenching demise of two sky warriors in a fatal MiG-21 crash in Barmer, Rajasthan on July 28. As Ministry of Defence (MoD) assures a Court of Inquiry to assert the cause of the accident, huge outcry echoes in every corner for the immediate replacement of the decade old bird with a newer and safer platform. Once mainstay of the IAF and a proud witness of an astonishing combat record in services now has plunged into dwindling reputation earning the misnomer “Flying Coffin” plagued by an alarmingly high crash rate in past several decades.

The MiG-21 was envisioned as a delta wing light fighter aircraft in early 50s mainly to intercept long range American bombers as the Cold War just started to erect its fangs. Initially mired in limitations, it gradually proved itself as one of the most successful designs of its time. It bears the legacy of being the most produced supersonic jet fighter and longest serving fighter jet with a history of more than 60 years! “Out of total production of around 12,000, 874 has seen services with IAF of which 657 are license produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).”

In India it entered into services in 1963, just four years after induction by the Soviets when F-13 (Type-74) equipped the newly raised No 28 Squadrons “First Supersonics”. It quickly followed by Type-76, however had little contribution in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Post war saw induction of newer models on a war footing paving the way for HAL to start manufacture on Indian soil in 1971. The 1971 war saw extensive action by Fishbed with at least eight air victories with just one loss (two more victories and one loss in later years). The magnificent performance of MiG-21FL (Type-77) against U.S made F-104A Starfighter made a special place in the heart of IAF pilots which are still undented. In fact, many other nations sought help from India to train their pilots in MiG-21. Post the war, gradually Type-96, Type-88 and ultimately ‘Bis’ succeed the production line. Though a large no of two seat trainer version Mongol (Type-66 and 69) also has seen services.

The MiG-21 was envisioned as a delta wing light fighter aircraft in early 50s mainly to intercept long range American bombers as the Cold War just started to erect its fangs. Initially mired in limitations, it gradually proved itself as one of the most successful designs of its time

In early eighties, as India took initiative for an indigenous light combat aircraft (then future Tejas) also indoctrinated for extensive modernisation of MiG-21 fleet to face rapidly changing combat environment. The ‘Bis’ fleet was exclusively new at that time. So, this version was selected for the extension of the Total Technical Life (TTL) under MiG-21-93 programme. An award of contract at a total cost of US$626 million was given to MiG-MAPO in 1996 for modernisation of avionics, much capable armaments and incorporation of indigenous components.

Finally in 2001, HAL built upgraded platform conducted the first flight providing the much-needed oxygen to the old birds. They got better cockpit view, conformal ECM dispensing system, new RWR, Kopyo multi-mode radar system, Totem 221G ring-laser gyro aiming-navigation system and new helmet mounted sighting system. Initially known as UPG, the upgraded model became popular as BUG (Bis Up Grade) by the pilots and ultimately in 2002 officially it was designated as “Bison”. The No. 3 Squadron (Cobras) became the first to be equipped with Bisons. A total of 125 Bis were upgraded to Bison variant.

Despite such a bright career, its charisma has been blemished by large number of crashes and accidents involving the platform. Since induction, according to reports, more than 400 MiG-21s have lost taking lives of over 200 pilots and another 60 civilians. In last 10 years, the MiG-21 has faced more than 20 unfortunate incidents! The continuous mishaps with this platform in 90s led public and media something of a misnomer to refer MiGs as “The flying coffin” and “Widow maker”.

In last 10 years, the MiG-21 has faced more than 20 unfortunate incidents! The continuous mishaps with this platform in 90s led public and media something of a misnomer to refer MiGs as “The flying coffin” and “Widow maker”

For decades there has been a vehement demand for quick replacement with a better and safer platform, particularly with the LCA Tejas. But despite of all enthusiasm no immediate replacement could be arranged due to continuous delay in the LCA programme. Finally, the remaining MiG-21 squadrons are to bid adieu with the retirement starting this September which will be concluded only in 2025.

While retired sky warriors and some aviation experts alike agree on the replacement of MiG-21, vehemently discards obloquy as mere mis-interpretation. They have pointed out that MiG-21 being the backbone of the IAF for several decades for obvious reasons faced mishaps in larger number than others. As days past and electronic media witnessed rapid rise in terms of mass appeal, public become much aware on the subjects than ever. Besides in the past, many different types of aircraft of MiG family (ex: MiG-23) were erroneously reported as MiG-21 after crash to the chagrin of IAF personnel, veterans and aviation experts. All of these together besmirched the reputation of the aircraft.

The reasons behind the accidents and crashes have been ascribed to various reasons ranging from human error to technical defects, bird strike and even lack of a supersonic jet trainer! But most of these are common reasons behind crashes of any air platform around the world, it always has been. Unfortunately, in future too we will witness contretemps, it’s inevitable. But simultaneously it also can’t be denied that all those birds should have gone by now. In fact, it was the late 70s when the IAF projected a need for the MiG-21 replacement. In 1982, the Air Staff Target (AST) 201 was issued for such and a team was formed under Dr. Valluri. Prolonged usage of these is stultifying IAF to explore the full potential. The planned retirement of MiG-21 has been delayed on several occasions. One can be surprised to know that the induction of new replacement was once planned for 1995! But Tejas achieved initial operational clearance (IOC) only in 2011. The decommissioning of MiG-21 was planned by 2017, delayed later to 2019 and now 2025.

At the end, it cannot be denied that the entire MiG-21 fleet should have been retired long time ago. Whatever be the reasons, the lack of a viable replacement in time has forced the IAF to continue with the old warrior to keep the squadron strength from plummeting. But now as the LCA Tejas Mk. 1 is a reality and Mk. 1A too already has conducted the first flight, the much-needed relief is on sight

There has been argument that without a proper replacement these platforms couldn’t be retired especially when many of the airframes had considerable TTL left. In last several decades, from Defence Minister to Chief of the Air Staff have taken sorties to dispel apprehensions about its safety.

At the end, it cannot be denied that the entire MiG-21 fleet should have been retired long time ago. Whatever be the reasons, the lack of a viable replacement in time has forced the IAF to continue with the old warrior to keep the squadron strength from plummeting. But now as the LCA Tejas Mk. 1 is a reality and Mk. 1A too already has conducted the first flight, the much-needed relief is on sight. One thing should not be forgotten that all existing squadrons operating MiG-21 not necessarily will be replaced by only Tejas as IAF will deploy platforms according to the needs. Needs will keep changing amid rapidly evolving multi-domain combat environment. So not by the role but as a platform Tejas will replace MiG-21 in the air force. One thing is certain, the indigenous LCA Tejas will rule the sky as an accredited successor to Fishbed.

Sankalan Chattopadhyay is a defence and strategic affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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