Why did the IAF decommission a “slightly” younger MiG-27 while still operating older MiG-21 aircraft?
On December 27 2019, the Indian Air Force retired its fleet of MiG-27s. The 29 Squadron, known as the Scorpios, flew the aircraft into the sunset at the IAF’s Jodhpur base.
The service life of the ‘swing wing’-type aircraft marked an important era for the IAF as various efforts were made to strengthen the nation’s air defences. The Russian-origin MiG-27s were inducted in 1984-85, and underwent a midlife upgrade around 2006.
The MiG-27 is primarily a ‘ground attack’ aircraft, whose main role is to conduct precision air strikes in battle while tackling the adversary’s air defences. The jets have proved to be extremely effective in both Battle Air Strikes — air attacks in a war situation to support ground forces — and in Battle Air Interdiction, which are preventive operations that are sometimes carried out deep inside enemy territory, to target enemy installations, supplies, and forces, and hamper its future action.
In the 1980s, the IAF had the MiG-21, but was in need of effective modern aircraft that could perform Battle Air Strikes and Battle Air Interdiction roles. The MiG-21, which was at the time used in ground attack roles, was primarily an ‘Interceptor’ aircraft. The induction of the swing wing MiG-23BN, in a way a predecessor of the MiG-27, was an important addition to the IAF’s capabilities.
Swing wing aircraft
Swing wing (or variable geometry) technology allowed the aircraft to change the sweep of their wings — thus changing the geometry of the plane as per operational requirements. This provided flexibility and an ability to stay stable at low altitudes; however, the additional hardware mechanism added to the aircraft’s weight, and increased the possibility of failure.
Advances in aerodynamics ensured that variable geometry aircraft were no longer needed. The 29 squadron that operated the upgraded MiG-27 was the IAF’s last swing wing squadron.
It is not known to many that IAF did test some MiG-27 with a modified Su-30 engines.
Infact IAF was keen on the re-engined MiG-27.But Re-engining is easier said than done.
It requires structural changes. It changes the aerodynamics of the aircraft. It will again necitate a testing regime. Re-engining is generally not preferred. It’s time consuming and a costly affair.
IAF even backed out from the idea of re-engining Jaguars.
Plus, the legacy maintainance issues with swing wingers.It didn’t make any economical sense to upgrade the MiG-27s.
Mig-21 is delta wing interceptor. It doesn’t have any move part in its fuselage. The only moving part is the retractable nose cone.The maintenance requirement is low for MiG-21. That is the reason why it is the most produced supersonic fighters.The design is so versatile that Chinese copied the design and made it as J-7.
Why younger MiG 27 was retired before MiG-21?
The cost of maintenance for MiG 27 is much more than Fishbeds. It’s doesn’t make economic sense to continue with MiG-27s.The warfare is moving towards multirole aircraft. In today’s scenario with strong ground radars, dedicated ground attack aircraft has lost its relevance. In present scenario, a dedicated ECM aircraft will jam enemy radar and another aircraft will do the bombing and fighting.
Most of the ground attack aircraft fly very low and it more susceptible to bird strikes, foreign material ingestion etc. If there is damage to engine, the aircraft is gone since you don’t have enough height to glide through. MiG-27 is a single engined aircraft and the risk posed for ground strike mission is very HIGH. Hence, it’s not viable for IAF to continue to put their pilots in risk.
Not all MiG-21 are 50 years old. Some were delivered to us in late 1980s. So, they still have 5-10 years of structural life left with them. The Bisons are from the newer lots and hence has been retained.
Does it mean that MiG-21 is still relevant?
Sadly No. MiG-21 is obsolete. No amount of upgrade can fill in the generational gap. In present scenario, if IAF does a exercise with Rafale and MiG-21, MiG-21 would be shot down before Rafale’s radar blip comes in MiG-21’s radar.
MiG 21 is not being retired because it is still easy and cost economical to maintain. Till Tejas comes in good numbers, MiG-21s has to hold the fort.