The MiG-21 Bison that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was flying when he was downed by a Pakistan Air Force F-16 was well past its retirement age, and kept alive with repeated upgrades and service life extensions, experts have told IndiaSpend.

The accident-prone Russian-made MiGs – 482 of which were lost to accidents between 1971 and April 2012, averaging nearly 12 a year – were first inducted into the Indian Air Force in the mid-1960s. These were to retire by the mid-1990s, but were upgraded to Bison standard, even as successive variants were inducted until the 1980s.

“India is the last country in the world with a serious airforce to still fly the MiG 21s,” Pushpinder Singh, founding editor of the Vayu Aerospace and Defence Review, told IndiaSpend. “The poor young man who flew the aircraft against an F-16 didn’t stand a chance… [He] is now a prisoner of war and it is a national shame that in 2019 we are still flying these planes.”

As aircraft age, the number of failures due to the ageing of their functional equipment or system components grows. As system components often hold a longer life potential than the certified life of an aircraft, subsystem or service life extension programmes are carried out to maximise the use of their equipment.

However, every aircraft has its lifespan and the MiG-21s reached the end of theirs two decades ago, Singh said. After numerous upgrades and service life extensions, India will begin phasing out the MiG-21s along with the MiG-23 and MiG-27 from 2022.

But that may not be soon enough.

The MiGs are built on the technology of the 1960s and the 1970s, Air Marshal Padamjit Singh Ahluwalia (retd), former chief of the western air command, told IndiaSpend. “[We] are now nearing 2020… [It] is phenomenal of the IAF to sustain its use till date as these jets are no comparison for the F-16s.”

A history of crashes

Of 28 IAF aircraft crashes recorded between April 2012 and March 2016, more than a fourth (eight) involved the MiG-21, six of which were the upgraded MiG-21 Bison variant, the government told parliament in March 2016.

Source: Lok Sabha  *Both killed in MiG BISON aircraft
Source: Lok Sabha *Both killed in MiG BISON aircraft

From 1971 to April 2012, as many as 482 MiG aircraft accidents took place killing 171 pilots, 39 civilians, eight service personnels and one aircrew, the government told Parliament in May 2012.

The MiG-21s generally report the maximum number of crashes, Air Marshal Ahluwalia said, “These planes are difficult to fly–they have the highest accident rate.”

From 1993 to 2013, 198 MiG-21s specifically – often dubbed “flying coffins” by pilots – of different variants have crashed, killing 151 pilots, according to data from Bharat Rakshak, a website run by military aviation enthusiasts, citing government data. IndiaSpend has not been able to independently verify these data.

MiG-21 vs F-16

For over 50 years, the IAF has been using the Russian-made MiG-21s and its variants, which are the oldest fighters in its fleet. “We still have squadrons of the older models,” Air Marshal VK Jimmy Bhatia (retd.), who commanded the Western Air Command, told IndiaSpend. “More than a decade ago, we began upgrading these to Bison standards which include new radars and new navigational capabilities, among other upgrades.”

The MiGs “delivered in terms of quality – as these were supersonic fighter jets, keeping up with the technology of the time – and quantity, as we could have them in large numbers to serve us for over four decades,” Singh told IndiaSpend, adding, however, that every aircraft has its lifespan and the MiG-21s reached the end of theirs two decades ago.

By 2022, these aircraft will have reached the end of their lifetime and the MiG-21s along with the MiG-23 and MiG-27 will be phased out.

The US-made F-16s, which the Pakistan Air Force uses, “have pretty advanced radars, navigation systems and other capabilities. In terms of range, the F-16s are better than the MiG-21s,” Air Marshal Bhatia said. The PAF has been using F-16s for less than 40 years now, and received its newest batch of the Block-50 model 10 years ago.

Nevertheless, Air Marshal Bhatia said, the MiG-21s can rival the F-16s: “The MiG-21 Bison is capable of carrying the latest Russian missiles and in that sense you can’t say they are inferior to the F-16. I would still say they are comparable. But the fact is we are nearing the end of the air frame for these – there is very little residual life for them. Even for those aircraft that have received extensions – we are nearing the end of their extended life.”

Way back in 1983, the government had acknowledged the need to design and develop new-technology fighter jets, Singh said. “But since we couldn’t afford to buy them at the time, we created the Light Combat Aircraft programme Tejas,” he said. “Now 35 years later, the programme has yet to really take off.”

To hold up against today’s fighter jets, an aircraft needs the latest technology such as advanced avionics and radar, greater weapon-load capacity, stealth technology, electronic warfare capability, precision weaponry and other such features, which the MiG-21 does not have, Padamjit Singh Ahluwalia (retd.), former chief of western air command, told IndiaSpend. “As a fighter jet, the MiG-21 is a basic plane with regular avionics, it doesn’t have precision-strike weapons, or a reliable engine…”

After Wing Commander Varthaman’s MiG-21 Bison was shot down and he was taken prisoner, Indian Air Force sources defended the use of the MiG-21 Bison, saying it was one of the fighters in its inventory and that aircraft are rotated based on operations, time and threat level, The Print reported on February 27.

The need for newer aircraft

The first Tejas was inducted into the IAF in July 2016. On February 20, less than a week after the February 14 Pulwama attack, the IAF received final operating clearance or “release to service” documents for the Tejas Mk1.

“In 1999 in the Kargil operations we used the Mirage 2000s which worked beautifully,” Singh said. Three air chiefs pushed very hard to acquire these aircraft with multi-role capabilities to replace the MiGs, but “the system did not allow their procurement”, he said.

Instead, in 2007, the Congress-run government initiated the process to develop Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft. Six vendors were shortlisted–Russian Aircraft Corporation, the Swedish aerospace company Saab, France’s Dassault Aviation SA, the US’s Lockheed Martin Corporation and Boeing, and a consortium of British, German, Spanish and Italian firms. The first 18 aircraft were to be sold in ‘fly-away’ condition while the remaining 108 were to be manufactured under transfer-of-technology agreements.

In April 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, side-stepping a three-year negotiation for the MRCA tender, announced the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft after a deal struck directly with the French government. Later, in July 2018, then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar informed Parliament that the Centre had withdrawn a multi-billion dollar tender for 126 MRCA fighter jets.

This has led to a high-decibel controversy, with the Congress, currently in opposition, accusing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of non-transparency and calling the deal “one of the biggest failures” of the ‘Make-in-India’ programme.

“Rafale jets, which are more sophisticated and high-end, are honestly not the aeroplanes to replace the MiG-21,” Singh told IndiaSpend, “We need jets that are smaller, lighter and cheaper fighters for the frontline.”

Indian Air Force needs more jets

Currently, the IAF has 31 fighter jet squadrons, against an authorised strength of 42. This gap is due to the slow induction of newer fighter aircraft after the existing planes retire from the fleet on completing their technical life, the December 2017 parliamentary committee report found.

Over the next decade, 14 squadrons of MiG 21, 27 and 29 will retire from the IAF fleet, leaving only 19 squadrons by 2027 and 16 by 2032. To arrest the drawdown, the Air Force will induct Sukhoi-20, Tejas Light Combat Aircraft and Rafale jets, the IAF told the parliamentary committee.

“There is a certain size of a force needed to deal with threats and challenges and we are currently in severe depletion,” Air Marshal Bhatia said. “We need as many as 400 new fighter jets to meet our requirement... We need to be locking-in deals and inducting more fighters into the fleet, not piecemeal decisions,” he added.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.