Retiring the MiG-21: Time to expedite procurement of the Tejas light fighter - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 2 August 2022

Retiring the MiG-21: Time to expedite procurement of the Tejas light fighter

874 MiG-21s entered IAF service since 1963. Some 400 of these were lost to crashes, killing over 200 IAF pilots 


By Ajai Shukla

Unsigned editorial in Business Standard

3rd August 2022

For decades now, there has been a grim inevitability about the periodic news of another, and then yet another, crash of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) frontline MiG-21 fighter, all too often accompanied by the bleak announcement that the pilot, often two of them, had been unable to bale out and had lost their lives. The statistics are astonishing: Of 874 MiG-21 fighter variants that entered IAF service since 1963, more than 400 – or almost half the overall number – were lost to crashes. Some 200 IAF pilots lost their lives in these flying accidents because, for one reasons or another, they were unable to eject and parachute to safety. There are now only a few dozen of these fighters remaining in IAF service but the crash of a twin-seater MiG-21 Type 69 trainer near Barmer demonstrated on Sunday that they continue to extract a ghastly toll of young lives.


The MiG-21 is the most-produced supersonic jet aircraft in aviation history, with 60 countries having built or flown 11,500 of these aircraft. Yet, there are also reasons for why the MiG-21s earned the sobriquet: Flying Coffins or Widow Makers. First and foremost, the MiG-21 is the most difficult of fighters to fly. To take off for its primary mission, which was originally to carry out high-speed, high-altitude interceptions of US bombers, it has to be accelerated to a speed of 340 kilometres per hour on the ground – almost twice the velocity of most contemporary fighters. It lands at almost the same speed, leaving very little time for the pilot(s) to react to any emergency. Second, ejecting from it is a hazardous business with spinal injuries inevitable when a pilot’s backbone encounters the atmosphere at speeds significantly higher than other fighter aircraft. This may be leading to a reluctance amongst pilots to eject from the fighter in good time. Former IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, hinted at this during a television interview on Monday while lamenting the high number of pilot deaths in MiG-21 crashes over the years. “200-plus pilots have been killed in [MiG-21] crashes. They are supposed to eject. Why did they not eject? That is what pains me,” said Dhanoa, an experienced MiG-21 pilot who has baled out from a stricken fighter.


Finally, in the assessment of combat aviation experts, as well as IAF courts of inquiry, an undeniable reason for the high number of MiG-21 crashes is the inability of the military procurement machinery, especially the ministry of defence (MoD), to procure modern fighter aircraft, in the large numbers needed to replace the remaining MiG-21 squadrons. The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project was designed to provide a large number of light, inexpensive fighters that would replace the MiG-21. But instead of working hand-in-glove with the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) to develop and certify the Tejas, the IAF kept demanding greater capabilities from the Tejas, leading to cascading delays in bringing the indigenous fighter into service. Now, with two squadrons of the Tejas Mark 1 in service and four squadrons of the Tejas Mark 1A on order, there is genuine hope that large numbers of Tejas fighters can replace the MiG-21. The IAF and the MoD must also expedite the long-delayed procurement of 114 multi-role, twin-engine fighters, which will be needed to replace heavier IAF aircraft so that squadron numbers remain at the desired number of 42. 

1 comment:

  1. I wrote this in 8 Dec 2010. It holds up well. If there was no MMRCA IAF would have ordered 40 Tejas IOC copies and 80 FOC copies. HAL would be churning out 16 per annum now instead of 2026. Instead this MMRCA crap made IAF and HAL focus on imports. Now atleast IAF and HAL should realise 114 MRFA production line won't be coming.


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