Why are the Indian Air Force's MiG-21 planes crashing?

India Jun 05, 2021

Recently Indian Air Force fighter plane MiG-21 crashed in Moga district of Punjab and the pilot was martyred in this accident. This is the third crash in 2021 involving a MiG-21. The MiG-21, one of the most advanced fighter jets at the time of its conception, designed in Soviet Union became the first supersonic fighter jet to enter the Indian Air Force (IAF). It was inducted in service in the 1960s.

MiG-21 played a small role in the 1965 India Pakistan war due to the limited induction of jets and lack of pilot training . However, MiG-21 played a significant role in the 1971 India Pakistan war (Bangladesh Liberation war). In the war of 1971 the IAF MiG-21FLs had claimed four PAF F-104A Starfighters, two PAF Shenyang F-6, one PAF North American F-86 Sabre and one PAF Lockheed C-130 Hercules. MiG-21 also played a crucial role in the Kargil war. It shot down a navy maritime patrol aircraft of Pakistan. The IAF acquired several MiG-21 variants over the decades. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) also manufactured some variants from 1966 for two decades. The MiG-21 Bison upgrade was launched in the 1990s to modernise the MiG-21. A new radar and electronic warfare with the capability to fire medium-range air-to-air missiles were included in MiG-21 Bison.

MiG-21 are very old now and termed as ‘flying coffins' due to frequent incidents of crashing of MiG-21. 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. Since 2010 more than 20 MiG-21s have crashed. However the other argument is that the number of crashes of MiG-21 is high due to the large number of MiG-21 in the IAF since its induction. Due to the upgrades, the fighting ability of MiG-21 is still excellent. In 2019 Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman with his MiG-21 bison shot down Pakistan's more advanced F-16, before being hit by a missile. Currently IAF operates 107 MiG-21 and they will be phased out in three to four years.

MiG-21 was supposed to be replaced by Tejas aircrafts developed in India but development of Tejas was delayed by decades. In a two front war India would need 42 squadrons with each squadron containing 18 fighter jets, currently India has only 31 squadrons. India has bought 2 Squadrons of Rafale from France. Therefore MiG-21s are not phased out as it will deplete squadron strength. IAF will get 40 Tejas aircrafts soon. In February defence ministry awarded a ₹48,000-crore contract to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for 83 LCA Mk-1A jets for IAF which will take the total number of Tejas variants ordered to 123. Under the government's Make in India plan IAF is planning to build 114 fighter jets in India in partnership with a foreign manufacturer. With more aircrafts to be inducted in IAF in this decade, MiG-21 will probably be phased out in three to four years.

This article has been written by Harsh Battulwar for The Paradigm

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