Decommissioning of fighter will be two years later than scheduled

The first supersonic fighter jet of the Indian Air Force — Russian MiG-21bis —which completed 50 years in service this April despite facing criticism following a substantial number of accidents, is likely to remain operational in its upgraded version until 2019 — two years later than they were originally scheduled to be decommissioned.

The Air Force took the decision owing to the delay in the commissioning of India’s own Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and the purchase of 126 Rafale fighters from France for which the official contract is yet to be finalised.

The Defence Ministry had stated that the Mig-21bis would be decommissioned in 2017. However, there has been nearly three-year delay in Tejas programme and the Air Force is yet to give operational clearance to it.

According to IAF chief Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, India purchased 874 MiG-21s of various modifications since 1964. Of them, 264 are still flying. The MiG-21bis’ super Kopyo multimode radar system and French-made Totem 221G ring-laser gyro aiming-navigation system were sufficient for the Air Force to keep using the MiG-2bis until 2019.

As things stand today, MiG-21 fleet’s upgraded Bison variant still forms a major chunk of the IAF fighter strength.

While three out of the 69 Indian MiG-29 B/S fighters have been modernised in Russia as part of a $964 million contract inked in 2009, three more are scheduled to be delivered to India later this year. The remaining jets will be modernised at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Nashik. These fighters will be fitted with the new Klimov RD-33 KM engine, the Zhuk-ME phased array radar and the Vympel R-77 beyond visual range air-to-air missile.

After a number of accidents and its eventual two-year grounding, Defence Minister A.K. Antony had said plans to phase out equipment approaching redundancy were in place and non-upgraded MiG-27s and MiG-21s were being phased out progressively by 2016 and 2018 respectively. Till April last year, the IAF lost more than half of its MiG-21s, he told the Rajya Sabha.

As many as 482 MiG-21s had been involved in accidents and as many as 171 pilots, 39 civilians and eight persons from other services lost their lives in these accidents. At that time, Mr. Antony had stated that both “human error and technical defects” were responsible for the crashes.

Even now, MiG-21s account for nearly 10 squadrons of the IAF and the upgraded fighters present a cost-effective option to the Air Force as compared to other fighters. Several former ace fighter pilots swear by the versatility and safety of the MiG-21, which in the 1971 war emerged as a clear winner against the American F-104 Starfighter in air combat. The MiG-21 again proved its capability and prowess during the Kargil war in 1998.

The induction of the first MiG-21s into 28 squadrons began in 1963 but in the years to come the Russian fighter came to be the mainstay of the IAF. “In its long operational service, along with kudos it also attracted a fair share of criticism and avoidable media scrutiny….with its sleek frontal profile, fast acceleration and a high degree of flexibility in terms of role employment for both air-to-air and air-to- ground missions — it remains the mainstay of the IAF’s combat fleet for a long time,” recalled Air Chief Marshal Browne in the foreword which he wrote for the commemorative book to mark 50 years of the MiG-21s with the IAF, written by Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar (Retd.) and Pushpindar Singh.

The IAF chief noted that post its upgrade to MiG-21 Bison in 2000, this aircraft “continues to shoulder an important share of the IAF’s operational responsibilities; something which we expect to continue for some more time in the future.”

Then, there is Air Commodore (Retd.) S.S. Tyagi, the former station commander of the IAF bases in Naliya and Jamnagar, who has done 6,316 sorties with the MiG-21, the maximum by any Air Force pilot.

According to him, the MiG-21 is a very demanding aircraft that can help a pilot exalt his capabilities to the end of the skies but even a transitory lapse could be disastrous, more so during hard manoeuvring.

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