The death of Squadron Leader Abhinav Chaudhary in the Friday crash of MiG-21 Bison aircraft near the western sector in Punjab has created unprecedented demands for the Soviet-era fighters to be permanently grounded.
The Russian fighter jet which has claimed the lives of more than 350 Indian pilots since its inception continues to be operated well beyond its service life.
Abhinav’s father, Satyendra Chaudhary, who is a farmer in his late 50s, donned his son’s T-shirt as the distraught family received his body in Meerut on Friday.
“I lost everything I had,” he was quoted as saying to the Times of India reporter. However, he could not hide his anger about the young lives continually being lost flying the 1960s-era Soviet jets.
“The government should discontinue the obsolete aircraft. I have lost my son.. I don’t want others to lose theirs. I request the government with folded hands to discontinue them,” he was quoted as saying.
Abhinav is survived by his parents, a sister, and his wife Sonika Chaudhary, who he had married in December 2019.
Abhinav’s family is not alone in calling for retiring the MiG-21 fleets from the Indian Air Force (IAF), in fact, there has been a growing uproar for grounding the obsolete fighters considering the crash rate of the aircraft.
According to records, almost half of IAF’s MiG-21 fleet of more than 800 aircraft has been wiped out due to peace-time crashes. India’s indigenously built LCA Tejas, which was supposed to replace the aging Soviet aircraft, took too late to take off after being in development for almost 40 years.
Failure of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal signed under the Congress government for 126 Rafale aircraft way back in 2007 also delayed the phasing out of old and untrustworthy fleets from the IAF.
Experts say the government may have little choice right now but to keep the four remaining MiG-21 squadrons flying for some time considering the twin threats faced by the country from Pakistan and China since last year, which mandates a sufficient reserve of fighter fleets to be ready at a moment’s notice.
Online Campaign Calls To End MiG-21 Ops
Friend and well-wishers of Abhinav have initiated a social media campaign calling for authorities to ground all the MiG-21 fleet so that more IAF officers are not lost to “faulty and untrustworthy” machines.
The campaign that started across multiple social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. – calls on the government to take serious note of the growing fatalities taking place.
The trend #EndMiG21 started to pick up the pace on Twitter and Facebook where a growing number of leading public voices also joined the chorus to push the government to act.
Yesterday we lost Sqdr.Leader Abhinav Chaudhary, my dear childhood friend in #mig21crash due to technical failure. How many lives we will keep loosing @rajnathsingh @narendramodi. Please bring in new jets at rapid speed and end these flying coffins. #Abbylivesforever #EndMig21 pic.twitter.com/UvsZ6y1rp0
— Priyesh Jain (@j_priyesh) May 22, 2021
Initially started by the close friends of Abhinav, the trend started to proliferate on social media, with more and more users showing solidarity with the young pilot and lots of others who have lost their lives in MiG crashes.
One of Abhinav’s close friends, Priyesh Jain, who also supports the campaign, told EurAsian Times that it was important for the government to come out with truth acknowledge the technical failure that could have resulted in the crash of the MiG-21.
We have lost our best friend, the nation has lost its warrior and his family – their only son. How many more innocent and talented lives will be sacrificed like this in #mig21 crashes? @mygovindia @akhileshya22 @RahulGandhi @INCIndia @BJP4India #Endmig21 #Abbylivesforever pic.twitter.com/EH2mIHprQt
— Supriya Batra (@BatraSupriya) May 22, 2021
“Because losing such brilliant pilots due to technical problems with the aircraft is not acceptable. No country wants to lose their best in peacetime sorties like these,” he adds.
He expressed his dismay at the fact that “not a single leader in both Opposition and the government had acknowledged that India has lost a gem of a pilot and this needs to be corrected.”
We have lost our best friend, the nation has lost its warrior and his family – their only son. How many more innocent and talented lives will be sacrificed like this in #mig21 crashes? @mygovindia @akhileshya22 @RahulGandhi @INCIndia @BJP4India #Endmig21 #Abbylivesforever pic.twitter.com/7kDumNeCFK
— Manika Arora (@ManikaArora12) May 23, 2021
How Vital Is MiG-21 For IAF?
Former IAF pilot Vijainder K Thakur told the EurAsian Times that the MiG-21 squadrons represent a very limited operational capability. “Their existence in the IAF has more to do with securing turf/ establishment rather than securing the skies.”
The MiGs continue to operate beyond their lifespan, although about 112 Indian Bison variants have received newer upgrades in their radars, avionics, and weaponry. But experts describe such improvisations as being ‘cosmetic’, saying the airframes will continue to degrade with age and eventually fall out of the skies.
MiG-21s are faced with immense engine troubles, and reportedly, the machine’s mechanicals, structures, and wings need regular repairs. Russia, where the aircraft were originally imported from, has retired all its MiG-21 fleets, and they can only be found in museums in that country.
“The second-generation fighter has been tasked with intercepting fourth-generation attack jets such as the F-16. This is like taking a knife to a gunfight,” writes defense analyst Raksha Anirveda.
The main shortcoming of this Soviet-era fighter jet is that it has a single-engine, meaning it will have nothing to rely on once it develops a fault in that lone engine. Double-engine aircraft have been found to be five times safer than single-engine aircraft in peace-time operations.
MiG-21 was designed by the USSR as a high-speed (Mach 2) interceptor to confront intruding bombers and shoot them down. It wasn’t designed to be a multi-role aircraft, which contains all the modern features, such as advanced radars, avionics, and weapons. Its job was to confront the incoming aircraft, shoot it down and be back at the base.
Interestingly, in July 2013, a serving wing commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila had moved the court to demand the scrapping of the MiG-21 fighter fleets from the IAF. In a petition filed in the Delhi high court, he had claimed that flying the MiG-21 violated his right to work in a safe environment. He was injured in a MiG-21 crash that occurred in 2005.
This was the first instance of a serving pilot rebelling against the government to force it to look for alternatives. The voices demanding the scrapping of the MiG-21 fleet are growing and the government may find it hard to suppress such anger for long.