Every few months, a dreadful MiG-21 crash awakens aviation watchers and keyboard warriors in India. Their short-term outrage at the accident fuels catchy headlines in media.
In most such accidents, the pilot(s) manage to pull the handle and eject safely. In few cases, the 'holes in the cheese' align badly and we lose lives. Then, outrage reaches a crescendo: commentators bandy about phrases like 'flying coffin', 'widow-maker', etc. Serving chiefs don g-suits and take to the air in a MiG-21, while retired chiefs and passionate veterans take to TV studios.
Before embers on the pyre of those killed in action have cooled, life in India and its air squadrons return to normal.
Indian Air Force's Dependence on the MiG-21
It's not like the Indian Air Force has a choice. I write this with the greatest respect for bravehearts, who continue to fly machines that were contracted six decades ago—in such large numbers (estimated 872 in all) that it formed the backbone of IAF.
Spine-replacement surgeries are neither easy nor without pain.
Such large numbers can be a double-edged sword. There is strength of numbers and economy of scale. But without a solid plan for upgrade / replacement and sound plan for back-end logistic support, not all pilots who fly such machines will outlive the nebulous Total Technical Life (TTL) of aircraft.
For the IAF, these statistics took another blow on 28 Jul, 2022 when a MiG-21 trainer crashed at Barmer in Rajasthan after taking off on a night training sortie from Air Force Station Uttarlai.
The MiG-21 is the fighter equivalent of Chetaks (Alouette III). Inducted in the same epoch, a key difference is that the supersonic fighter is terribly unforgiving of man or material failure. MiG-21 pilots have to take decisions well-ahead of an ageing fighter with landing/takeoff speeds in excess of commercial airliners equipped with two pilots, full autopilot, flight director, autothrottle, and the fanciest "bells & whistles" one can dream of. Of course there will be accidents.
Does MiG-21's Accident Rate Justify Continuation?
However, accident investigation and safety management should not buck to social media trends or 'outrage factor'. There are definitive cause-group classifications and accident rate (per 10k/million hours) that act like wind vanes for an aircraft's continued exploitation in service.
Simply put, if you have an aeroplane X that flies in vast numbers, logging more flying hours than aeroplane Y with lower numbers (and thus lower flying hours), X's accident rate could seemingly be higher. Over time, the services arrive at a metric: 'rate per Z flying hours'. This is the closest estimate on how the odds weigh for/against an aircraft's continued retention in service.
Of course, nobody wants an 'apples-versus-oranges' comparison. The same metric cannot be used across the board for, say, a Boeing P8I with enormous endurance, and a MiG-21 Bison that flies off runways at 340 kmph. But sadly, this is how we have manage to rationalise any MiG-21 accident.
Official sources quote the convenient downward trend of 'accident rate per ten thousand hours' to whitewash ugly fleet replacement failures. They downplay the fact that MiG-21s have long been swinging to two extreme outcomes—one where a plausible interception in dogfight leads to glorification of the ageing fighter (Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman was decorated with a Vir Chakra for a PAF F-16 shootdown post Balakot)—and, on the other hand, tragedy of the magnitude that was witnessed at Barmer in Rajasthan on 28 Jul, 2022.
Tip Toeing Around MiG-21 Replacement Plan
Since no data of any meaningful value related to flight safety and accident investigation is ever put out by the armed forces for public scrutiny, one cannot expect anyone outside the system to analyse or offer mitigating strategies.
One of MiG-21's foremost exponents in recent times and a former air chief, ACM BS Dhanoa, publicly defended the MiG-21's prowess in a recent interview to India Today, issuing another one in a long list of 'safe to fly' certificates. But this time, the former air chief's sound bytes carried two ominous warnings:
● Why didn't the pilots eject?
● What option does the IAF have in the face of repeated penny-pocket acquisitions except "soldier on?
Unfortunately—indeed terribly inconvenient for the former chief—this is fait accompli admission of "too little, too late". There has hardly been any coherence in thought or policy around the replacement strategy for the MiG-21s.
Successive air chiefs have tiptoed around the MiG-21 replacement plan, singing paeans about the fighter's capability—God knows whether this emanates from Stockholm syndrome—while looking good in LCA's atma nirbharta mirror.
Tilting to windmills at high levels can send mixed signals and bolster false sense of security. ACM Rakesh Bhadauria who managed to drive a crucial order for 83 indigenous LCA Tejas better explain how he managed to balance that boat. But for now, lives have been lost.
Russia-Ukraine War Impact on Indian Military Modernisation
From my limited experience of having flown Russian-origin helicopters, I can certainly attest that their machines are robust and cheaper to buy. The same applied to warships that the Indian navy has been operating for years. But this honeymoon ends when the contract begins.
Russian hardware had their time and place—a low-hanging fruit; yours to choose if you can make politically-correct decisions. But, for the most part, their flying machines couldn't compete on an international stage, except in India where fiscal challenges and 'buy cheap, spend later' temptations fuelled procurement. This filled our squadrons with Russian 'hardware'.
With the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War and its second-order effects on global supply chains, India's Russian dream may have well turned into a veritable Russian Roulette. The 'American dream' is all but over, what with list after list of banned imports being put out by MoD.
This is the perfect time for nixing programs that managed to balance the books but failed to save lives.
The "normal checklist" for MiG-21 is no longer applicable to the unfolding scenario. It's time to flip the cards over to the "abnormal checklist" section. My list of 'recommended actions'—brief and bulleted—is as follows:
Recommendations for Indian Air Force
Stop normalising MiG-21 crashes with a playbook that's so repetitive it doesn't even convince the villagers over which you rain debris.
Eschew the crutch of "air chief flew it, so it's safe". It defies the same logic of "accident rate per XYZ flying hours " you use as a defence each and every time.
You have a great replacement, albeit much-delayed, for the MiG-21 -- as per ACM Bhadauria's own admission. Bring in a modicum of accountability and sensitivity to this project. Today, all of government is puffing winds into the sails of atma nirbhar Bharat, and private sector participation in defence. Against the accident-ridden history of obsolete MiG-21s stands an indigenous Tejas that has had ZERO accident thus far, mostly because such flights were test flights undertaken with great planning. If your belief in this product of indigenous enterprise is so qualitative and bereft of "rates", surely it's time to floor the pedal on this project, at least for immediate replacements that are required in large numbers?
Recommendations for Ministry of Defence
To those of you who have made a successful career out of the decrepit system of 'distributed unaccountability', I ask you—have you no shame? While rushing to grab the microphones for every Kindergarten-level achievement in defence innovation for a nation of 1.4 bn, your highest-level representatives are conspicuous by their absence each time a MiG-21 or equivalent comes down in a fiery flame of metal and debris. Are you actually "integrated" with the forces' decisions you so carefully vet in an operational vacuum? How about grabbing the mic and saying "too many people have died. This is what we're going to do, notwithstanding what Chiefs or former Chiefs feel".
Recommendations for the Average Observer of MiG-21 Crashes
Your outrage is understandable. Air crashes, though deeply tragic, often provoke short-term hysteria. However, policy is informed by deeper metrics, most of which is is couched in secrecy with the armed forces, under the garb of national security. Your energy is better directed raising the right questions through channels open to common citizens. Sloganeering catch phrases like "flying coffin" will only seed mistrust in the bravehearts you celebrate when a MiG goes down. So choose your words carefully.
If anything, the latest MiG-21 crash should remind us that the pace at which fleet replacement programs are progressing is deeply sick and stunted. What's worse is the normalisation and crocodile tears that follow. We all have a little blood on our hands.
(The author is an ex-navy experimental test pilot. He is dual ATP-rated on Bell 412 & AW139 helicopters and a synthetic flight instructor on ALH Dhruv. He can be reached on Twitter @realkaypius. Views are personal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)