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Despite Poor Track Record, Why MiG-21 Is Used as a Fighter Jet

A report suggests that from 2022, the Indian Air Force will start pulling the MiG-21 out of use.

Updated
India
4 min read
Despite Poor Track Record, Why MiG-21 Is Used as a Fighter Jet
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The Indian Air Force MiG-21 aircraft is often in the limelight for the wrong reasons of accidents or crashes, the latest being the crash in Punjab’s Moga where pilot Abhinav Choudhary died on Thursday, 20 May.

This is the third crash in 2021 involving a MiG-21:

  • On 20 May, Abhinav Choudhary died in a clash in Moga.
  • On 17 March, a MiG-21 Bison crashed in Madhya Pradesh’s Gwalior where Group Captain Ashish Gupta died.
  • On 5 January, due to technical issues, a Mig-21 aircraft crashed in Rajasthan, but no one died in the incident.
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Background on MiG-21

In 1963, the Air Force first inducted a fleet of 874 MiG-21 fighter jets of Soviet origin to increase its combat ability during the Cold War. However, more than 400 of these jets have crashed since 1971-72, killing over 200 pilots and another 50 people on the ground, The Times of India reported.

Although the aircraft is the backbone of the force in some ways, it is also accident-prone, thus assuming grim names such as the “widow-maker” or the “flying coffin”.

Following the decision of buying the MiG planes from Russia in 1961, the process of upgrading them continued. Thereafter, the MiG-21 was upgraded and inducted into the MiG-Bison Army.

In 2012, former Defense Minister AK Antony had said in Parliament that more than half of the 872 MiG aircraft purchased from Russia had crashed. Due to which, more than 200 persons, including 171 pilots, 39 civilians, and eight other services’ people, had lost their lives.

Ones Who Built Aircraft Do Not Use It Anymore

The credit for making MiG aircraft goes to the Soviet Air Force, ie Russia. Aircrafts of this series from America to Vietnam were included in many countries in their air force. Most of these countries have retired these aircrafts, but they are still included in the Indian Air Force.

In 1985, Russia removed the aircraft from service, after which Bangladesh and Afghanistan have also removed it from service.

Why Is MiG-21 Still in the Sky?

Despite the deaths, the Army and the government continue to use the controversial fighter jets in the garb of upgrades.

Some important things to consider here are:

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  • According to an IndiaSpend report, the MiG aircraft, which joined the Indian Air Force in the 1960s, completed their retirement period in the mid-1990s. Despite this, it is being upgraded in India.
  • Experts believe that the absence of any more fighter jets in the Indian Air Force for a long time is also one of the reasons for the accident. For a long time, with the inclusion of no new fighter jets in the Air Force, the entire weight is on the MiG-21 .
  • In October 2014, the Air Force chief said that India's security is threatened by the delay in removing the old aircraft, because some part of the fleet is out of date.
  • According to a BBC report, pilots have been complaining that some models of the MiG aircraft land very fast and the design of the cockpit windows is such that the pilot cannot see the runway properly.
  • Being a single-engine aircraft means it is always under threat. The chance of a plane crash increases when a bird collides or the engine fails.
  • Senior defense journalist Rahul Bedi had said that there was no accountability for these deaths.

In the Absense of a Replacement, MiG-21 Best Bet

Former Air Force Retired Air Vice Marshal Sunil Nanodkar says, "Was there any other option other than this (MiG aircraft)? To protect your skies, you must have a certain number of combat aircrafts, but there was a lot of delay in the induction of other fighter jets into the Air Force over the years.”

He said that currently 36 Rafale have been included in the Air Force, but their number is still less compared to the requirement. The programme for induction of Light Combat Aircraft into the fleet has also been delayed.

  • Supersonic MiG-21 fighter jets were used for training pilots in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s due to delays in the induction of advanced jet fighters into the Air Force.

Upgrades Exist, But Problems Continue

In March 2021, retired Air Marshal Anil Chopra, the team leader in the upgrade programme of the MiG-21, said that the most advanced technology of the MiG-21 fighter aircraft is the bison aircraft. Bison is a highly capable platform, which the Air Force will serve till 2024.

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According to The Print, there have been around a dozen versions of the MiG-21 since 1950, many of which have been included in the contingents of the Indian Air Force. These include Type-77, Type-96, and BIS. The Bison is its most upgraded version. More than 100 MiG-21s of the IAF have been upgraded to Bison.

A report by IndiaSpend states that from 2022, the Air Force will start pulling it out.

According to The Print, an Air Force official has said that the engine performance could not be improved despite the upgrade.

The officer said:

  • It is not possible to upgrade the capacity that the jet can carry. The reason for this is the airframe.
  • In the last few decades, the image of MiG-21 fighter jets has received a lot of shock due to its accidents and the casualties of pilots. This is the reason why it is being called "Flying Coffin", ie a coffin floating in the air.
  • In the coming years, the Indian Air Force needs to include state-of-the-art and upgraded aircrafts in its fleet.

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