The Wednesday’s crash of the Indian Air Force’s MiG-21 Bison fighter has once again provoked angry calls for retiring the country’s once frontline workhorse, which has served India for over 50 years.
There is a growing clamor for replacing the MiG-21s, which have been the backbone of IAF, with the homegrown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas.
The Bison crashed after taking off for a combat training mission from an airbase in central India, according to a statement from the IAF. The force has operated about 872 MiG-21 fighters since the time they were first inducted in the 1960s.
India’s indigenous platform Tejas, which was supposed the replace the Russian vintage fighter as IAF’s mainstay combat aircraft, took decades in development, forcing the government to continue to operate the MiG-21 aircraft.
India is now fast-tracking the procurement process for its homegrown LCA, although the deadline to meet the required squadron strength of 42 is unlikely to be met until 2030.
Although the two French Rafale squadrons are being inducted, with about 21 more MiG-29s and 12 Sukhoi-30MKIs being procured from Russia, IAF still needs the vintage MiG-21 Bisons to hold the fort for now.
A MiG-21 Bison aircraft of IAF was involved in a fatal accident this morning, while taking off for a combat training mission at an airbase in central India.
— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) March 17, 2021
The induction of 83 Tejas fighters scheduled to be delivered between February 2024 and December 2028 is expected to give a boost to the IAF combat fleet. The Indian Air Force has reportedly indicated a requirement for over 320 Tejas aircraft along with its variants – the Mk 1 and Mk 1A, with about 200 variants of the medium-weight fighter.
The Indian military experts are enthusiastically calling for Tejas to replace the Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft, whose attrition rates have been spiking in recent years.
However, the depleting aircraft numbers and squadron strength make it hard for the government to announce the phasing out of old Russian jets. It will take at least a decade for HAL to supply the IAF with the required number of airframes.
Interestingly, the notion of the MiG-21 being a ‘flying coffin’ doesn’t hold water. Surprisingly, after doing a thorough statistical analysis of the IAF’s history, the MiG-21 turns out to be the safest machine in its inventory. In fact, if one looks at the attrition rates of the IAF aircraft since the 1960s, the MiG-21 comes at the bottom.
It turns out that since the aircraft were procured far larger numbers (872) than others, the crash rate also seemed very high. The excessive media coverage of the crashes brought more spotlight on the vintage aircraft, developing a damaging narrative about its safety and combat capabilities.
As per the data compiled by Airpowerasia.com, if one calculates the percentage of the yearly loss of the IAF aircraft, the MiG-21 comes at the bottom with just a .55 percent peacetime attrition rate in 58 years, with other aircraft being far above on the queue.
In other words, MiG-21s have been crashing at a rate of 4.67 aircraft a year (out of total strength 872), while the most unsafe aircraft in IAF’s history, Ouragan, was lost at the rate of 2.71 aircraft per year (total strength 113) during its service time, shows data compiled by the author, Dr. Shiv Sastry, a military aviation enthusiast.
Even the IAF pilots who have flown the Soviet ‘rocket-ship’ vouch for its safety record compared to other aircraft of a similar generation.
Group Captain MJA Vinod terms the epithet “Flying coffin” as unsubstantiated, saying, “It is a single-engine fighter and when it loses that engine, it needs to be re-started (called a ‘relight’). More often than not, it relights, but it takes a finite amount of time to relight any jet engine, so if you are below the minimum height (so with insufficient time to relight) you have to leave the aircraft. I haven’t heard of a single incident where MiG-21 ejection seat quit on someone.”
“I think calling the MiG-21 as ‘flying coffin’ is the biggest myth. Our previous Air Chief, ACM BS Dhanoa proved to everyone that indeed it is the safest of aircraft, by flying it as and when he could. In fact, his last flight was with Wing Commander Abhinandan,” he adds.
He further says that the aircraft has been a formidable asset with the Indian Air Force, and it proved its worth during the February 2019 dogfight with Pakistan’s F-16s.
During the time of its conception, the first MiG-21 was a spectacular machine with enormous capability and performance, outpacing the best jets of the 1960s era. The supersonic aircraft with the largest units ever manufactured (11,496) was called the AK-47 of airplanes. The aircraft continues to be flown by many air forces around the world.
Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), who once led the team for the MiG-21 Bison upgrade project in Russia, says the safety concerns raised about the aircraft in the media are often exaggerated.
He says the record of the MiG-21 speaks for itself. “The IAF pilots have carried out record MiG-21 sorties, and the force employed close to a thousand aircraft, which have performed exceptionally well,” he adds.
The aircraft has proven its battle readiness on multiple occasions, one of which occurred during the Cope India exercise held at the Gwalior air force range in February 2004. MiG-21s had decisively defeated even the modern F-series aircraft of the USAF in a mock combat exercise forcing the Americans to rethink their war strategy.
The IAF pilots notched up a staggering 9:1 kill ratio against the American pilots, an event that shocked the military enthusiasts around the world.
Aviation Week & Space Technology’s David A. Fulghum at the time quoted Colonel Mike Snodgrass, commander of the USAF’s 3rd Wing, as saying, “The two most formidable IAF aircraft proved to be the MiG-21 Bison, an upgraded version of the Russian-made baseline MiG-21, and the Su-30MK Flanker, also made in Russia.”
Nonetheless, the Bisons are on the way to be phased out from the IAF considering the growing public outcry with the aircraft having witnessed two accidents in 2021 itself.
It may take more than a few years considering the security situation India is faced with its two nuclear-powered neighbors, which demands that a significant number of squadrons are maintained until the replacements start arriving.