The recent MiG-21 crash in Rajasthan that killed three villagers serves as a grim reminder of the tragic state of the aircraft. The MiG-21 has been in service with the Indian Air Force (IAF) since 1963, longer than any other aircraft. Over the years, it has acquired nicknames such as “Flying Coffin” and “Widow Maker” for its high crash frequency. Despite the need to replace these aging planes being expressed for decades, the IAF continues to use them due to a severe shortage of aircraft squadrons and sluggish procurement. In this article, we will explore why the IAF is still flying the MiG-21 and the challenges faced in replacing it.
MiG-21’s Tragic Record
The MiG-21 has been involved in a total of 292 accidents since the first one was reported in 1963. In 2021 alone, five MiG-21 aircraft crashed, causing more pilots to lose their lives in crashes than combat. The aircraft’s frequent crashes have earned it a reputation as a death trap for Indian pilots. In January, two IAF fighter jets – a Sukhoi Su-30 and a Mirage 2000 – crashed during a training exercise, resulting in the death of one pilot. While one aircraft crashed in Morena in Madhya Pradesh, the other went down 100 km away in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur.
The Need for Mig-21 Replacement
The MiG-21 has been in service for almost six decades and is well past its utility. However, the IAF has not been able to replace it due to a severe shortage of aircraft squadrons and slow procurement. The failure to produce newer aircraft over the past few decades means that the IAF is still flying planes made in the 1980s, including MiG-21, MiG-29, Mirage, and Jaguars. The IAF has only inducted Rafale and Tejas aircraft in recent years, but these inductions have been delayed and are too low in numbers.
HAL’s Production Rate of Tejas
HAL’s production rate of Tejas, the only firm replacement for the MiG-21, is too low. The IAF has ordered only 40 Tejas jets, which are not enough to replace the aging MiG-21. The first batch of Tejas Mark1A jets is expected to arrive in mid-2024. Therefore, the IAF is forced to fly whatever aircraft it has to carry out its operational duties, including the aging and accident-prone MiG-21.
Slow Procurement Process
India’s failure to procure newer aircraft is another reason why the IAF is still flying the MiG-21. The process to procure 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was first floated in 2000, and the formal process began in 2001. However, negotiations for 126 aircraft reached an impasse in 2012-14 over local manufacturing of planes. Eventually, the Narendra Modi government purchased only 36 Rafale aircraft in place of the original proposal of 126. The deal was signed in 2016, 15 years after the proposal was first floated, and that too for just 36 planes making up two squadrons. The MMRCA tender is still not finalized, and there is a plan to procure 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) and indigenous advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA).
IAF Needs to Revamp and Replace the MiG-21 ASAP
IAF has around 70 MiG-21 aircraft, with four squadrons of MiG-21 Bison aircraft currently in service. Each squadron comprises 16-18 aircraft, including two trainer versions. Over 200 pilots have been killed so far due to MiG-21 crashes. The need to revamp and replace these planes is urgent, and the Tejas production needs boosting. The MMRCA tender needs to be finalized to bring in more modern aircraft.
In conclusion, the recent MiG-21 crash in Rajasthan serves as a tragic reminder of the state of these ageing aircraft. The nickname “Flying Coffin” and “Widow Maker” is well-earned given the high number of accidents and pilot deaths associated with the MiG-21. Despite this, the Indian Air Force is still using them due to a severe shortage of aircraft and a slow procurement process.
It’s high time that the Indian government and defence officials take decisive action to replace the MiG-21s and upgrade the Air Force’s capabilities. The HAL-produced Tejas fighter jet is a promising replacement for the MiG-21, but its production needs to be boosted to meet the Air Force’s needs. The MMRCA tender needs to be finalized to bring in additional modern aircraft to the fleet.
With the rising security challenges and conflicts in the region, it’s essential that the Indian Air Force has access to modern and reliable aircraft to meet the needs of the country’s defence. The government must prioritize this issue and invest in upgrading the Air Force’s capabilities to ensure the safety and security of the nation.