At least 400 MiG-21s, dubbed as flying coffins, have crashed in the last 60 years. So why does the Indian Air Force still rely on MiGs to boost its squadron strength? Read on to find out. 400 MiGs have crashed in last 60 years. Over 200 pilots and 60 civilians have been killed in these crashes. MiG-21 is India’s longest-serving fighter plane

Over 400 MiG-21 aircraft of the Indian Air Force have crashed in the last 60 years, claiming the lives of over 200 pilots and 60 civilians. On Thursday, two pilots were killed when a MiG-21 trainer aircraft crashed during a training sortie in Rajasthan's Barmer, putting the infamous aircraft in the spotlight once again.

The MiG-21 has been dubbed grim nicknames, such as the widow-maker or the flying coffin, owing to numerous crashes since its induction into the Indian Air Force in the 1960s.

But why are MiG-21s still in the skies? Despite crashes, why do they remain a backbone of the Air Force? First, we take a look at the long history of MiG-21 fighter jets and the Indian Air Force.

MiGs: Longest Serving Fighter Jet

The MiG-21 is India’s longest-serving fighter plane. India got its first single-engine MiG-21 in 1963, and since then it has inducted 874 variants of the Soviet-origin supersonic fighters to bolster its combat potential.

Over 60 per cent of them have been built in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). However, half of the Made-in-India MiG-21s have crashed, killing over 200 pilots.

In 2000, Indian MiG-21s were upgraded with new censors and weapons. It was in this modified MiG-21, that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthamanam shot down a F-16 fighter of Pakistan in 2019, a day after India had carried out air strikes in Balakot.

Why Do MiG-21 Fighter Jets Crash So Much?

According to experts, MiG-21s form the bulk of the Indian Air Force's inventory and that explains why so many of them have crashed over the years. More numbers, more use and more years in service translate into a higher number of crashes.

Why Are They Still In Service?

The Indian Air Force had to keep MiGs longer in service due to delays in induction of new fighter aircraft. Due to delays, the IAF is facing a crunch to maintain a certain squadron strength to guard India's skies.

Delays in the indigenous TEJAS program, political controversy surrounding the Rafael deal and slow-paced procurement procedure meant that MiGs had to be kept in service longer than usual. According to reports, the MiG-21 had completed its retirement period in the mid-1990s.

Why Young Pilots Fly MiG-21?

Until the government speeds up acquisition of new fighter jets, to replace the ageing MiGs, the Indian Air Force does not have the option than to use MiG-21s, piloted by young men, to bolster its squadron strength.

Will Govt Take Hard Call On MiG?

So far, the government has focused on acquiring TEJAS fighter jets but a stop-gap programme to buy 100 foreign jets has drifted for years without forward movement.

As of now, the IAF has 32 squadrons against the 42 mandated by the government to tackle threats. The number could go down to 28 squadrons by 2024-25 when all the MiG-21s are phased out.