Both squadrons operate the MiG-21 Bison, the last variant of the single-engine workhorse. A fighter squadron usually consists of 16 to 18 fighter jets

Some of the Indian Air Force’s last Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 fighter jets have silently bid adieu to their home base at Suratgarh in Rajasthan and been relocated by IAF to the sprawling NAL desert fighter base near Bikaner, where the only other remaining Indian MiG-21s are based, as the world’s fourth largest air force prepares the ground to pull these iconic planes out of service and begins raising its new TEJAS light combat aircraft (TEJAS MK-1A) fleet in July, senior officials aware of the matter said on Thursday.

IAF has completed the relocation of the Suratgarh-based No 23 Squadron, better known as “Panthers”, to NAL, which is home to the MiG-21s belonging to the No 3 Squadron or “Cobras”, and the last of the air force’s MiG-21s are now operating from the same airbase, said one of the officials cited above on the condition of anonymity.

Both squadrons operate the MiG-21 Bison, the last variant of the single-engine workhorse. A fighter squadron usually consists of 16 to 18 fighter jets.

“The MiG-21 Bisons have been moved from Suratgarh to NAL as IAF wants to optimise their maintenance, service and spares to keep the fleet flying till the conversion of the two squadrons to TEJAS MK-1A is completed during 2024-25,” said a second official who also asked not to be named.

The conversion of the first of the two MiG-21 squadrons to the locally made TEJAS MK-1A will begin after the state-run plane maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) delivers the first aircraft to IAF, he said. The air force is likely to get delivery of the first TEJAS MK-1A in July 2024. It ordered 83 TEJAS MK-1As for ₹48,000 crore in February 2021.

The first MK-1A was to be delivered to IAF by March 31, 2024, but HAL missed the deadline as key certifications were still pending. It made its maiden sortie from an HAL facility in Bangalore on March 28.

HAL now plans to deliver 16 of these fighters to IAF in the financial year 2024-25. It has set up a new production line in Nashik for TEJAS MK-1As to meet IAF’s growing requirements. It can build 16 TEJAS MK-1As every year in Bangalore, and the Nashik line will help HAL ramp up production to 24 jets.

The delivery of the 87 jets on order is expected to be completed by 2028.

The induction of the MiG-21, India’s first supersonic fighter, began in 1963. IAF has operated a raft of MiG-21 variants over the last six decades --- Type 74 or MiG-21F, Type 76 or MiG-21PF, Type 77 or MiG-21FL, Type 96 or MiG-21M, Type 75 or MiG-21 Bis (upgraded Type 96) and the MiG-21 Bison.

The MiG-21’s 60-year history in IAF has been punctuated by accidents that have put the Soviet-origin aircraft’s safety record under running scrutiny and led to an understandable chorus of concern and calls for its early replacement. With upgrades, IAF has managed to keep them flying for so long.

In April, the defence ministry issued a tender to HAL for the proposed acquisition of 97 more TEJAS MK-1As to strengthen the air force’s capabilities at a time it is grappling with a shortage of fighter squadrons. The new fighter planes are expected to cost around ₹67,000 crore.

TEJAS MK-1A is an advanced variant of the TEJAS MK-1, which is already in active service. TEJAS is set to emerge as the cornerstone of IAF’s combat power in the coming decade and beyond as it is expected to operate around 350 TEJASs (a mix of MK-1, MK-1A and Mk-2 versions).

Forty MK-1 jets operated by IAF are in the initial operational clearance (IOC) and the more advanced final operational clearance (FOC) configurations --- the first variants of TEJAS.

More than 400 MiG-21s have been involved in accidents that have killed around 200 pilots, earning the fighter jets unfortunate epithets such as “Flying Coffin” and “Widow Maker”. To be sure, more MiG-21s have crashed than any other fighter because they formed the bulk of the aircraft in IAF for the longest time.

In the 1980s and 1990s, these planes accounted for more than 60% of the air force’s fighting strength. The maiden batch of six MiG-21Fs entered service in March-April 1963 and IAF progressively inducted 874 MiG-21s.

IAF will deploy the MK-1As at forward air bases in the western sector to bolster its combat readiness against Pakistan and fill voids left by the gradual phasing out of the MiG-21s. It phased out the MiG-21 Bisons belonging to the No 4 Squadron (“Oorials”) based at Uttarlai in Rajasthan and the Srinagar-based No 51 Squadron, which is also known as “Sword Arms,” during 2022-23.

The TEJAS project was sanctioned in 1983 as a replacement for MiG-21s. IAF raised its first TEJAS MK-1 squadron in Sulur with two aircraft in July 2016. While the existing MK-1 and MK-1A variants will replace MiG-21 fighters, the Mk-2 aircraft is planned as a replacement for the MiG-29s, Mirage-2000s and Jaguar fighters that will start retiring in the coming decade.

(With Agency Inputs)