Why is India still using MIG-21 from the 1960s?


Over the span of 5 Decades of Mig-21s service with Indian Air Force, Indian Pilots have operated multiple variants of the particular Fishbed Model. The first Mig-21 with Indian Air Force were Type 74 F-13 Mig-21, which was inducted first with No.28 Squadrons “First Supersonics” but they saw very limited service, especially during 1965 Indo-Pak War where they took part in some aerial actions while a few were lost to Ground Attack. Another Mig-21 variant operated by Indian Air Force during the 1965 Indo-Pak War was Mig-21PF Type-76, which also saw limited service with Indian Air Force.

The first Mig-21 variant to be inducted en masse with the Indian Air Force was the Mig-21FL Type-77 which featured an R2-L Radar and was equipped with K-13 Missiles and GP-9 Gun Packs and were tasked to perform Interception Operations and Close Air Support Operations. During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, these Type-77 Migs shot down some 6 enemy aircraft and also undertook an infamous Precision Strike Operation against the Governor’s House in Dacca on 14th December 1971.

The next Mig-21 Variant with Indian Air Force was the Mig-21M Type-96 which featured more powerful weapon package, Zero-Zero Ejection Seats, a powerful R-13-300 Engine, modernized avionics and possessed Multi-Role Capability allowing Indian Air Force to undertake a wide variety of missions with this aircraft. Mig-21M/MF saw service during the Kargil War was one of the Mig-21M piloted by Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja was shot down by a Pakistani Shoulder-Launched Surface-to-Air missile.

The Mig-21 Type 75 aka the “Bis” variant was another addition to the Mig-21 Inventory of Indian Air Force and came with Standard Modernized Avionics, Search & Track Radars, IFF Systems and Radar Warning Receivers. As the upgradation program of the Mig-21 kickstarted, some 125 Mig-21 “Bis” was chosen to be upgraded by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and MiG-MAPO in the consortium of several other Technical Agencies.

The upgrade added some Next Generation Capabilities to the Mig-21 like a new Phazotron NIIR’s Kopyo Multimode Radar, SURA Helmet-Mounted Sight, El-Op Head-up Display (HUD), Tarang Radar Warning Receiver, Elta EL/L-8222 self-protection jamming pod and capability to use Beyond-Visual Range Missiles like R-77. Mig-21 “Bison” is the only Mig-21 variant that now serves with the Indian Air Force besides some other Trainer Aircraft like Type 66 Mig-21 which are used to train Rookie Pilots on Mig-21.

So, Mig-21 with all the tweaks and turns isn’t exactly the same platform as the baseline Fishbed model and has successfully adapted to the ever dynamic Art of Modern Warfare with news advents in Weapon Package, Avionics and Electronic Capability, until the 21st Century kick-started in. With the 21st Century, there have been radical changes in Aerial Battles, with the inclusion of Airborne Warning and Control Systems which changed the face of Battlefield of not being only dependent on the Kinematics but also the Information Warfare. In a seemingly complex environment, even an inferior platform well connected with more advanced surveillance platforms can take on superior platforms with impunity.

Mig-21 displayed this aspect during various Cope India exercises where the Mig-21 used to possess a Data Link with Indian Air Force Su-30K/MK who would use more powerful radars to get a view of the Battlespace, and scored kills against USAF F-15C Fighter Aircraft, in Within Visual Range Combat where Mig-21s small, nimble and manoeuvrable nature coupled with Elta Jamming Pods allowed it to remain hidden for long enough before taking on the enemy with surprise.

How India got the People’s Fighter

The MiG-21 wasn’t the IAF’s first choice; it was the Lockheed F-104. The US had provided Pakistan the F-104 jet, but in order not to upset Islamabad it denied India the same aircraft. Satu Limaye writes in ‘US-India Relations’ that “the US refused to sell India any weaponry, offensive or otherwise, that was not directly applicable to mountain warfare”. This led India to suspect the US was trying to nudge its defence capabilities in the direction of a particular American strategic objective (the containment of China) while at the same time protecting Pakistani sensitivities.

After being spurned by the western powers, India turned to Russia. Moscow, which was looking for a major buyer, offered India full transfer of technology and rights for local assembly.
In 1964 – two years after the PAF got the F-104 – the MiG-21 became the first supersonic fighter jet to enter service with the IAF. The Russians supplied the entire production facility – the engine plant was established in Koraput and the fuselage in Kanpur. By the 1971 war, India had acquired seven MiG squadrons comprising around 100 aircraft.

Of the 793 MiG-21s inducted into IAF since 1963, well over 350 have been lost in accidents, killing 170 pilots. However, labelling it a “flying coffin” is wrong. Former Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis has said the higher number of crashes (not to be confused with the crash rate) is because the “MiG-21s are most in numbers and in use operationally”.

In fact, the Russian jet has a much better record than its chief western rivals. Between 1960 and 1987, the German air force flew nearly a thousand F-104s and lost 292. In a similar time frame, the Canadian air force lost over 100 of their 200 Starfighters. Britain’s Royal Air Force pilots, having considerable World War II experience, didn’t fare any better, crashing over a hundred of their 300 Lightnings over a period of 25 years.

In a report prepared for the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, C.J. Knapp and R. Johnson revealed that during a 19-year period from 1975-93 there were 190 Class A – or major – mishaps involving 204 F-16s and 217 aircrew.

As we have seen, 18 nations – including NATO members Romania and Croatia – continue to stick with the MiG-21. MiGs are not tumbling out of the air in Croatia, Algeria or Romania. China has cloned and flies over 700 of these fighters and has supplied 150 to Pakistan. None of these air forces has a training standard similar to the IAF’s. This involves intense peacetime training, which means potentially more accidents. Former air force chief N.A.K. Browne has gone on record that he would rather lose pilots during training than during war.

Why is India still using Mig-21?

This can be attributed to two reasons: Versatility of Mig-21 and the constant delays and hiccups in the LCA Programme. Every Air Force looks for three things in a Frontline Combat Platform: Cost of the Platform, Nature of the Platform and finally its Operational and Maintenance Costs. Mig-21 has a great advantage in this regard, as it was quite cheap to procure and with local manufacturing, it was an apple of the eye, which is the reason why near about 1000 Mig-21s were inducted into IAF alone.

Couple this with, its outstanding manoeuvrability, upgrade packages available and easy maintenance made it the backbone of Indian Air Force for multiple decades. It can take on various duties like Air Superiority, Close Air Support, Aerial Interdiction, Air Defence and Interception Operations. This is the reason why India’s primary adversaries still continue to use F-7 Fighter Jets, which is a Chinese Licensed Produced Variant of the venerable Mig-21. With the fatigue life regularly tweaked by Indian Air Force, HAL and National Aerospace Laboratory, the ageing of the Mig-21 platform is not a problem anymore, though many aircraft have gone past their stipulated calendar life.

Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Programme, which would later bore Tejas, was kickstarted in the 1980s to replace the Mig-21 itself but it could not fructify results in a given time period. With the first Technology Demonstrator launching in 1995, till the Tejas got Final Operational Clearance, Indian Air Force wished to retain its Mig-21 fleet, retiring which prematurely without any potential replacement in sight would be disastrous for Indian Air Force who wish to uplift the number of squadrons to a threshold of 42 Squadrons to wage a two-front war. With LCA Programme, fructifying results now, it can be hoped that the Mig-21 can finally be put to rest now by next decade.





Source:- Harsh Mishra Quora Blog , Photo Credits to Kedar Karmarka

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