After a series of crashes, the IAF plans to retire its ageing fleet of the MiG fighter jets by 2025

The Russian-origin MiG-21 Bison had hit the headlines in 2019 when Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthamanam scripted history when he downed the Pakistan air force’s most advanced F-16 fighter, a day after the Balakot strike. Flying the fighter jet, Wg Cdr Varthamanam first locked on to the target at a 60-degree angle and then launched the R-73 air-to-air missile, which hit the enemy aircraft. Military observers believe that in the over 60 years of the MiG’s existence, this was the first time it had shot down an F-16. However, Wg Cdr Varthamanam’s own MiG-21 Bison was shortly hit by a missile launched by the PAF, forcing him to eject.

Now, the spotlight has returned to the MiG-21 Bison. On July 28, two pilots--Wg Cdr Mohit Rana and Flight Lieutenant Advitiya Bal—lost their lives after their jet crashed in the Bhimra village of Barmer district in Rajasthan, while the duo was on a night training sortie.

This was the sixth crash in the past 18 months. The IAF has ended up losing six of its experienced pilots.

Wreckage of the Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison fighter jet lies in a field after the crash in Gwalior, on March 17, 2021. Group Captain A Gupta lost his life in the tragic accident

Now, the IAF plans to retire all four squadrons of the MiG-21 by 2025. Among these will be the squadron the fighter jet Wg Cdr Varthamanam (since promoted to being Group Captain and recipient of the Veer Chakra) flew belonged to--the Srinagar-based No. 51 Squadron, also known as Sword Arms. It is scheduled to be phased out in the next two months.

Of the design vintage of the 1960s, the air force got its first single-engine MiG-21, considered to be a supersonic fighter, in 1963. It went on to induct 874 variants of MiGs. The IAF has lost 400 MiGs in crashes since 1971, losing over 200 pilots and close to 50 civilians. With its high crash rate, MiGs have over the years acquired unflattering sobriquets like the ‘Flying Coffin’ and ‘Widow Maker’ for the maximum number of peace-time killings by any fighter jet in the world.

As per data compiled by the IAF, the accident rate of the MiG-21s in the 1990s was 2.89 per 10,000 flying hours. However, after inducting Hawk advanced jet trainers in 2000, the accident rate has come down to 0.27 per 10,000 hours. Earlier, pilots would complete their initial training on Kiran trainer jets before flying the MiGs, which perhaps led to the large number of crashes.

Military observers claim that more MiG-21s have crashed than any other fighter because they comprise the bulk of the IAF’s inventory. In the absence of an adequate number of required fighter strength, IAF still operates these MiG-21 Bisons that should have been retired long ago. The MiG -21 Bison is an upgraded variant of the fighter jet (upgraded in 2000 in India).

IAF is now banking on the faster delivery of the TEJAS LCA (light combat aircraft) that will replace the ageing MiG-21 fleet. But the TEJAS program is running way behind schedule. A new contract for buying additional MiG-29s and Sukhoi- 30s is has made no headway amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

As a result, IAF’s combat strength has come down to 30 squadrons as against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. While the induction of 126 MMRCA (multi-medium role combat aircraft) was scrapped, IAF got only 36 Rafale jets from France. The Su-30, which is considered to be India’s frontline fighter jet, is facing serviceability issues.

A few years back, the then IAF vice chief, B.S. Dhanoa (who subsequently became the IAF chief) had claimed that the air force did not have sufficient fighter jets to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan. That is a worrying proposition.