Former pilots demand phasing out the old fleet at the earliest. While the vintage MiG 21 will finally be phased out by 2025, including one squadron based in Srinagar retiring in the next few months, the future plans to have a modern fleet are not encouraging
Every time a MiG-21 crashes and results in the deaths of pilots, we hear the term "flying coffins", a rather disturbing way of describing the fighter aircraft that’s served the Indian Air Force for 50 years. When the existing feet retire in 2025, they will be over half a century old.

Ideally, it shouldn’t have happened this way and there is no point glorifying how the MiG-21 has been a workhorse for the Air Force. Yes, it’s had a glorious past, but the fact that the fighter aircraft was way past its prime would be an understatement.

Former Air Force Chief, BS Dhanoa, who himself was a MiG-21 pilot, says, “Do you see a 1963 car on the streets?”

So yes, the old war horse should have been phased out long back, but also referring to it as “flying coffin” and “widow maker” sounds too jarring and even offensive. When the term was coined in a headline many years ago, it was meant to offend those in power. But it made no difference then and makes no difference now to those accountable.

There are many who have flown these jets for decades and pilots continue to do so — yes, they deserve modern aircraft but surely they and their families don’t want to be told what they are operating is a flying coffin.

Widow Maker is even worse, not just because of the insensitivity towards wives of fighter pilots but because there are women fighter pilots now part of the Indian Air Force who could be flying the MiG-21.

The recent crash, in which two fighter pilots were killed, has brought the focus once again on the MiG-21. Wing Commander M Rana and Flight Lieutenant Advitiya Bal died after the Indian Air Force's MiG-21 trainer aircraft crashed during a training sortie in Rajasthan's Barmer on July 28.

The writing was on the wall a decade back, but nothing was done. In 2012, then defence minister A K Antony had given an alarming statistic. He informed Parliament that out of 872 MiG aircraft purchased from Russia more than half were lost in crashes, killing over 200, including 171 pilots. The numbers have only risen since then.

The four squadrons of the MiG-21 Bison that should make up for over 70 fighters are already short of a few lost in crashes. Each squadron has 16-18 aircraft. So, while the vintage MiG-21 will finally be phased out by 2025, including one squadron based in Srinagar retiring in the next few months, the future plans to have a modern fleet are not encouraging.

Fighter aircraft like Jaguar, MiG-29, and Mirage are also ageing, having been inducted in the 1980s. We certainly don’t want them to go the MiG-21 way.

Currently, the IAF is down to 32 squadrons, way below its sanctioned strength of 42.

Roughly the Indian Air Force is down to around 550 fighter jets as some have also been lost to crashes. That’s about 200 fighter aircraft short of what the IAF should ideally have.

No Lessons Learnt, Future Planning Bleak

Becoming a slave to procedures and slow decision-making has led to this shortage of modern aircraft in the IAF’s fleet. The IAF has finally got 36 Rafale jets that are currently the most modern in its fleet and this was possible only when procedures were compromised. This was an emergency procurement against the IAF’s almost 20-year requirement of 114 fighter jets that still stands.

Lack of accountability in speeding up the process has led to half of the Air Force's existing fleet ageing with no replacements still in sight.

As a stop-gap measure, purchasing MiG-29s and Sukhois from Russia has also not made any headway.

The only hope is the TEJAS—India’s Light Combat Aircraft. Getting foreign fighters any time quickly is not in sight due to the slow process.

But even this does not present a rosy picture as manufacturing will take time. By 2030, the IAF is hoping to have 123 TEJAS fighters in its fleet. Even if all timelines are met it still won’t solve the problem. The IAF by then would be looking to start phasing out the Jaguar, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29.

India’s ambitious fight generation fighter Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is expected to make the first test flight only by 2025. There needs to be a plan to step up this process at a war footing and also ensure there are no further delays like in the case of TEJAS.

Talking about the future of TEJAS and the possibility of it being an export item, former Air Force Chief RKS Bhadauria once said, the Indian armed forces must start using India-made platforms only then will others have the confidence to buy from us. The statement made one thing clear — the IAF is happy and ready to extensively use TEJAS.

Bhadauria had also said when in service, that with its strike capabilities the new version of TEJAS will be superior to the Chinese fighter jet JF-17.

With a total fleet of 123 comprising TEJAS by 2030 that includes 73 upgraded versions of the first variant, the IAF is hopeful of filling up its depleting number as these will account for six more squadrons.

In March 2020, the Ministry of Defence gave the go-ahead for the purchase of 83 TEJAS MK-1A aircraft for the Indian Air Force.

Military planners need to look far ahead. Next in line is the TEJAS MK-2 and the IAF has plans to induct 170 of these, which be a better version of the Mark 1 and Mark 1A but for that to happen soon Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has to speed up productivity and get to the next phase that will ensure the IAF has a potent indigenous fleet in years to come.

Tejas’s Snail-Paced Progress

After nearly four decades since the TEJAS program was first envisaged in the early 1980s when the quest for an Indian fighter aircraft started the TEJAS has indeed taken off but it’s been a slow voyage. This needs to change now.

In the mid-1970s, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) completed a study on an indigenous fighter aircraft but the plan could not fructify. It was in 1983, when the IAF felt that an Indian aircraft would be needed in years to come and finally in 1984 there was some hope. The government set up the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and that’s when the idea of a Light Combat Aircraft was born.

After a lot of planning in the initial stages and a series of trials over the next two decades, TEJAS was finally a reality.

After delays, the first LCA prototype took to the skies in 2001, getting the name TEJAS.

The Indian Air Force placed the first order for 20 aircraft in 2005 and another 20 to add to it at a later stage. However, the TEJAS did not meet certain requirements in 2010 and in 2012 security concerns added to the delays.

Overcoming the hurdles, the TEJAS Mark 1 got initial operational clearance in 2013 and the final operational clearance came six years later in 2019.

The first squadron of Light Combat Aircraft, TEJAS, was raised in 2016.

The progress was slow. That needs to change to find replacements for the ageing fleet, else this, too, could go the MiG-21 way.