Why IAF’s MiG-21 Grounding Points to a Serious Impediment to India’s Defence Ambitions

Earlier this month, the IAF grounded three of its MiG-21 ’Bison’ ground attack fighter squadrons for safety checks, after one of them crashed into a house in Rajasthan, killing three people.

Chandigarh: The Indian Air Force’s move to ground three of its MiG-21’Bison’ ground attack fighter squadrons for safety checks, after one of them crashed into a house in Rajasthan earlier this month, killing three people, bodes ill for the force that already faces a steady drawdown of its combat units.

These 60-odd upgraded Soviet-origin MiG-21‘Fishbed’ fighters based at Nal, Suratgarh and Uttarlai bases in Rajasthan would be cleared for operations, after technical checks are done and the investigations into the May 8 crash are concluded. But note that they were all nearing the end of their already extended total technical life and were collectively scheduled for retirement by 2025.

This would leave the IAF, which currently operates some 29 of a sanctioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons, with merely 26 combat units, further posing it a major operational challenge at a time when it faces standoffs with nuclear rivals and close strategic collaborators, China and Pakistan.

The IAF, however, aims to make good use of its imminent fighter deficit with indigenously designed and manufactured and licence-built foreign platforms, but both such procurement options were continually deferred because of domestic industrial shortcomings and an overall  financial crunch.

In the latter instance, for example, there had been little or no progress in the IAF acquiring 114 multi-role fighters (MRF), of which 18 were to be imported, shortlisted from among a clutch of potential foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). The remaining 96 aircraft – likely to increase exponentially to possibly twice that number – would be built indigenously via a transfer of technology, under the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) questionable strategic partnership model involving a local vendor.

A request for information or an RfI for these fighters was dispatched in 2018. Responses were filed by seven to eight OEMs the following year. But thereafter, the project remained static.

For decades, the single-engine, single-seat MiG-21 variants – beginning with the MiG-21FL – constituted the IAF’s fighter backbone after joining service in 1963. From then on, some 870 MiG-21 models, with the bulk having been licence-built by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), were inducted into the IAF till the mid-1980s.

However, over the years, some 500 MiG-21s had crashed, killing around 170-200 pilots and many others on the ground, according to official statistics, and resulted in the fighter being variously dubbed by the media as ‘flying coffins’ and ‘widow makers’.

The latest May 8 accident occurred after a MiG-21 ’Bis’ took off from Suratgarh on a routine sortie, and crashed soon after into a nearby house in Hanumangarh, killing three women and injuring three others. The pilot managed to bail out safely, and an inquiry into the accident is underway, but preliminary analysis of the flight data recorder suggests ‘engine trouble’ aboard the fighter, official sources indicated.

Meanwhile, incessant delays in the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) programme, which began in 1983, as a replacement option for the MiG-21, forced the IAF to keep the latter in service well beyond its use by date. And, in the late 1990s, the IAF opted to upgrade some 125 MiG-21’Bis’ with Russian assistance to MiG-21 ‘Bison’ levels with Russian, French and Israeli equipment.

And though the fighters R-25 engines were not changed, they were ‘modified’ with ‘enhanced’ ancillary systems and accessory drives to power the heavier retrofitted fighters. The aircraft’s avionics were enhanced by fitting the platform with a lightweight Russian Super Kopyo multi-mode radar and a Totem 221 G ring-laser gyro inertial navigation system supplied by Sextant of France. These were merged with a locally developed navigation and attack computer, with the weapon solution displayed to the pilot in a heads-up display (HUD).

The upgrade package also equipped the fighters with EWS-21 radar warning receivers from Thales of France, Israeli flare dispensing systems, video recording systems and locally developed electronic counter measures (ECMs).

And though the fighter’s endurance and payload restrictions remained the same as earlier, it now deployed a wider and varied range of ordnance like the Russian R-73 and R-77 air-to-air missiles with ranges between 40-100 kilometre and Kh-31 medium range air-to-surface missiles.

Four such MiG-21 ‘Bis’ were scrambled on February 27, 2019 by the IAF over Kashmir in response to the Pakistan Air Force’s attack over the disputed region, a day after Indian fighters had bombed an alleged terrorist training camp at Balakot in Pakistan’s north-western Pakhtunkhwa province. In the dogfight that ensued between the two Air Forces, IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s MiG-21 was shot down, but he bailed out safely, was taken captive by Pakistan and returned home soon after.

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IAF’s ‘jugaad’ or abilities in optimising its assets

Earlier in 2013, delays by the MoD in clinching the long-pending procurement of 126 Dassault Rafale fighters – later scrapped in 2015 – compelled the IAF to extend the operational life of several of its ageing platforms, including MiG-21’Bis’, beyond their retirement date, to keep them operational till around 2024-25.

This was well beyond the MiG-21’s phasing out deadline of 2019 announced by then Air Chief Marshal N.A.K Browne in April 2013, with a view to maintain the rapidly depleting force levels at 32-34 fighter squadrons. “At the time, the IAF was left with no choice but to extend the service life of its older fighters like MiG-21s (and MiG-27s), as there were no immediate alternatives available on the horizon,” said military analyst Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia (retired). It needed these fighters to maintain ‘numerical’ platform parity with the PAF and also with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, he added.

Meanwhile, Wing Commander Amit Giri, a veteran MIG-21 pilot, said that the fighter needed retiring as it was old, OEM support was ‘drying up’, and above all, the technology it employed had been ‘superseded’. He wrote in the Financial Express, in December 2021, saying that though designed as a short-range interceptor, the IAF had ‘upped the game by using the MiG-21 in almost every role imaginable’.

This had included bombing, interception, reconnaissance, providing escort to bombers over enemy territory and in training rookie pilots. The MiG-21 had even comprised part of large force engagements (LFEs), executed to deceive the enemy and conceal the real intent regarding intended targets, thereby forcing the opposing side to deploy a large defending package to its operational disadvantage.

“Let alone Western Air Forces, even the Russians could never have imagined the role of a MiG-21 in LFE,” Wing Commander Giri said in a silent tribute to the IAF’s ‘jugaad’ or innovative abilities in optimising its assets for its novel war-fighting manoeuvres.

The IAFs decision to stick with the MiG-21s was more out of necessity than tactical, said Wing Commander Giri. With a humongous amount of sky to protect and few machines trickling in from overseas, coupled with India’s own delayed fighter development, the IAF, he said, had little choice but to build its strategy and tactics around what platforms like MiG-21s were available.

“The IAF”, the fighter pilot argued “deserved credit for making use of what it had, albeit at a huge cost of constantly losing pilots”.

In conclusion, the sanctioning of the three MiG-21 squadrons, follows the recent grounding by the armed forces of their fleet of over 200-odd locally designed Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALHs) variants for the second time in as many months. This, too, follows a series of recent advanced light helicopter crashes and accidents, in what is not only a major operational setback to the services, but also a serious impediment to India’s ambitions as an exporter of indigenous rotary platforms.