MiG-21s are way past retirement age: here’s why the IAF needs new jets

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The MiG-21 Bison piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman when it was shot down by a Pakistani Air Force F-16 was well past retirement age and was being kept alive thanks to to repeated upgrades and lifespan extensions, experts said. IndiaSpend.

Russian-made crash-prone MiGs – of which 482 were lost in crashes between 1971 and April 2012, averaging nearly 12 per year – were first inducted into the Indian Air Force in mid-1960s. These were to retire in the mid-1990s, but were upgraded to the Bison standard, although successive variations were introduced until the 1980s.

“India is the last country in the world with a serious air force to fly the MiG 21s again,” Pushpinder Singh, founding editor of the Vayu Aerospace and Defense Review, Told India Spending. “The poor young man who flew the plane against an F-16 had no chance … [He] is now a prisoner of war and it is a national disgrace that in 2019 we were still flying these planes.

As aircraft age, the number of failures due to aging of their functional equipment or system components increases. As system components often have a potential life longer than the certified life of an aircraft, subsystem life extension or service programs are implemented to maximize utilization. of their equipment.

However, every aircraft has its lifespan and the MiG-21s reached the end of theirs two decades ago, Singh said. After many upgrades and lifespan extensions, India will start phasing out the MiG-21s as well as the MiG-23 and MiG-27 from 2022.

But it may not be soon enough.

MiGs are built on technology from the 1960s and 1970s, said Air Marshal Padamjit Singh Ahluwalia (ret’d), former head of Western Air Command. IndiaSpend. “[We] are now approaching 2020 … [It] It is phenomenal for the IAF to maintain its use to this day, as these jets are not comparable to the F-16s.

A story of blocks itself

Out of 28 IAF aircraft accidents recorded between April 2012 and March 2016, more than a quarter (eight) involved the MiG-21, six of which were the improved variant of the MiG-21 Bison, the government Told Parliament in March 2016.

MIG-21 crashes and Indian Air Force personnel killed, 2012-13 to 2015-16
Year Aircraft type IAF personnel killed
2012-13 MiG-21 BISON 0
2013-14 2 MiG-21 BISON, MiG-21 T-69 1
2014-15 2 MiG-21 BISON, 1 MiG-21 T-75 1
2015-16 (until 08.03.2016) MiG-21 BISON 0
Total 6 MiG-21 BISON, 1 MiG-21 T-69, 1 MiG-21 T-75 2 *

Source: Lok sabha
* Both killed in a MiG BISON plane

From 1971 to April 2012, no less than 482 MiG aircraft crashes took place, killing 171 pilots, 39 civilians, eight service personnel and one crew, the government Told Parliament in May 2012.

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

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

MiG-21 vs. F-16

For more than 50 years, the IAF has used Russian-made MiG-21s and their variants, which are the oldest combatants in its fleet. “We still have older model squadrons,” said VK Air Marshal Jimmy Bhatia (retired), who was in command of Western Air Command. IndiaSpend. “Over a decade ago, we started upgrading them to Bison standards, which include new radars and new navigation capabilities, among other upgrades. “

The MiGs “were delivered in terms of quality – because they were state-of-the-art, supersonic fighter jets of the day – and quantity, because we could have them in large numbers to serve us for a while. over four decades, ”Singh said. IndiaSpend, however, adding that every aircraft has its lifespan and that the MiG-21s reached the end of theirs two decades ago.

By 2022, these aircraft will have reached the end of their lifespan and the MiG-21s as well as the MiG-23 and MiG-27 will be phased out.

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

Nonetheless, said Air Marshal Bhatia, the MiG-21s can compete with the F-16s: “The MiG-21 Bison is capable of carrying the latest Russian missiles and in that sense you cannot say that they are lower than the F-16. I would still say that they are comparable. But the point is, we are nearing the end of the air cell for these – there is very little residual life for them. Even for planes that have received extensions, we are nearing the end of their extended lifespan. “

By 1983, the government recognized 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 Tejas Light Fighter Aircraft (LCA) program,” he said. “Now, 35 years later, the program has yet to really take off.”

To withstand 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 weapons and other similar features the MiG-21 does not have. , Padamjit Singh Ahluwalia (retired), former head of the Western Air Command, said IndiaSpend. “As a fighter jet, the MiG-21 is a basic plane with regular avionics, it does not have precision weapons, nor a reliable engine …”

After Wing Commander Varthaman’s MiG-21 Bison was shot down and taken prisoner, IAF sources defended the use of the MiG-21 Bison, claiming it was the one of the fighters in its inventory and that the planes are rotated according to operations, time and threat level, The imprint reported February 27, 2019.

The need for newer aircraft

The first Tejas was inducted into the IAF in July 2016. On February 20, 2019, less than a week after the Pulwama attack on February 14, the IAF received final operating authorization or commissioning documents for the Tejas Mk1.

“In 1999, in Kargil’s operations, we used the Mirage 2000s which were performing wonderfully,” 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 acquisition”, he said.

Instead, in 2007, the Congressional-led government initiated the process of developing medium multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA). Six suppliers were shortlisted: Russian Aircraft Corporation, Swedish aerospace company Saab, French company Dassault Aviation SA, US companies Lockheed Martin Corporation and Boeing, as well as a consortium of British, German, Spanish and Italian companies. The first 18 planes were to be sold in a “fly-away” condition, while the remaining 108 were to be manufactured under technology transfer agreements.

In April 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bypassing a three-year negotiation for the MRCA tender, announced the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets after an agreement reached directly with the French government. Later, in July 2018, then Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar informed Parliament that the Center had took of a multi-billion dollar tender for 126 MRCA fighter jets.

This led to a high-decibel controversial, with 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” program.

“The Rafale planes, which are more sophisticated and upscale, are honestly not the planes to replace the MiG-21,” Singh said. IndiaSpend, “We need smaller, lighter and cheaper fighter jets for the front line.”

Indian Air Force needs more planes

Currently, the IAF has 31 fighter squadrons, compared to an authorized strength of 42. This gap is due to the slow introduction of newer fighter jets after existing aircraft were withdrawn from the fleet at the end of their life. technical, according to the parliamentary committee of December 2017. report find.

Over the next decade, 14 MiG squadrons 21, 27 and 29 will withdraw from the IAF fleet, leaving only 19 squadrons by 2027 and 16 by 2032. To stop the withdrawal, 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 force needed to deal with threats and challenges and we are currently in severe exhaustion,” Air Marshal Bhatia said. “We need up to 400 new fighter jets to meet our needs … We need to make deals and get more fighters into the fleet, not piecemeal decisions,” he added. .


(Saldanha is an assistant editor with IndiaSpend.)

Republished with permission from IndiaSpend. You can read the original story here.


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