Mig-21 Crashes: IAF-Politico-Bureaucratic Logjam

The loss of Wing Commander M. Rana and Flight Lieutenant Adivitya Bal in the MIG-21 crash this year caused jitters around the nation. The crash happened on the night of 28th July and it is the 6th crash in the row involving the same fighter aircraft, since 2021.

A BRIEF BACKGROUND

In 1963, the Indian Air Force (IAF) first inducted a fleet of 874 MiG-21 fighter jets of Soviet origin to increase its combat ability during the cold war. However, more than 400 of these jets crashed since 1971-72, killing over 200 pilots and another 50 civilians on the ground, Times of India, reported.

There has been no accountability of any sort for these deaths so far, while we saw no IAF official held responsible for the crashes, when it comes to questioning politico class, the fingures are diverted to previous governments. While the bureaucratic class dwells in silence ever since the inception, someone says ‘silence, corrupts, absolute silence corrupts absolutely!!’ Experts in governance have long questioned the politico-bureaucratic class of the country for unaccountability, in the case of prolonged service of the older fighters, the accountability of IAF along with the sate PSUs like HAL and ADA remains in quandary.

In 2012, former Defense Minister AK Antony had said in Parliament that more than half of the 872 MiG aircraft purchased from Russia had crashed. Due to this, more than 200 persons, including 171 pilots, 39 civilians, and eight other service people, had lost their lives.

Approximately 60 countries of four continents have flown the MiG-21, and it still serves many nations six decades after its maiden flight. No fighter aircraft in history has been as mass-produced compared to the MIG-21 aircraft. At least 11,000 MIG-21 have been produced and exported by the erstwhile Soviet Union (now Russia) to various countries since its first lot of production in 1959, most of the older version has been retired by now.

The only supersonic fighter aircraft which comes second to MIG-21 production levels is the F-16 of the USA. As per Lockheed Martin’s record, at least 4,604 units of these fighter jet has been produced ever since the late 1970s and their upgraded version are still undergoing production. At least 40 countries operate these aircraft including the older version. The 2020 F-16.net report states that worldwide ever since F-16 started its operations there have been at least 130 mishaps with 87 pilots dying. No parallel record of the MIG-21 fighter has been found in the open domain.

There is a general saying in the defence corridors that western defence products are comparatively available at a higher cost but are rather long-lasting and of greater quality assurance as compared to Russian products with cheaper rates. Although, Russia is nowhere to be called a culprit for these crashes as a lot of upgradations have been done by the HAL on the MiG-21 aircraft. In terms of crash rates around the world, the MiG-21 may stand at the highest position that is also because counting the number of aircraft produced – the flying-rate to fatal ratio would always stand higher comparatively to any other fighter aircraft.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been planning to replace MIG-21 fighters since the early 1980s when the government sanctioned the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme as a possible replacement for the MIG-21 fighters. Under the leadership of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the LCA Tejas programme took more than 30 years to develop and the Tejas has still not achieved the requisite production levels to date which can sustain the nation’s already limited offset requirements.

As per the IAF’s Performance Audit by CAG in 2015, the LCA was required to be inducted in 1994 as a replacement of MiG-21 fighter. It was in 1983 that the Government of India, then led by Indira Gandhi, rolled out a project to build a new LCA as a replacement for the Russian MiG-21s. However, the LCA was airborne only in 1994, and it missed several deadlines due to various factors. It was in 2019 when LCA Tejas was given Final Operational Clearance (FOC), the first order itself came in 2021 by the government to procure 73 LCA Mk1A Tejas. It is recommendable that the government should come up with more sanctions to increase the LCA present rate of production, as a possible quick alternative. As per the government records, amount spent so far on the manufacture of 24 LCA Tejas delivered till 30.09.2021 is Rs 6,653 crore.

MIG 21 IS OLD BUT TECHNOLOGICALLY NOT OUTDATED

The MIG-21 fighter aircraft is a technically sound design and in its present form in IAF, yes, it is old but it’s not technologically outdated, says IADN in-house expert, Mr Ankit Kumar. Possible design defects though encountered while flying the MIG-21 Fighter Aircraft which might not have any direct link with crashes include: –

• When in afterburner, the engine operates very close to its surge line and the ingestion of even a small bird can lead to an engine surge/seizure and flame out.
• Being a single-engine aircraft means it is always under threat. The chance of a plane crash increases when a bird collides or the engine fails.
• According to a BBC report, pilots have been complaining that some models of the MIG aircraft land very fast and the design of the cockpit windows is such that the pilot cannot see the runway properly.
To keep Falcon fleet up to date given the changing trends in the air warfare, the government time to time decided to extend the Total Technical Life (TTL) of the MIG-21s by upgrading turbofan engines, radars, avionics Etc.

IMMEDIATE REPLACEMENT MAY NOT BE AN OPTION

On 31 January 2012, it was announced that the Dassault Rafale had won the MMRCA bid, the biggest defence offset tender in history due to the aircraft’s lower life-cycle cost and technology suitability but given the slow policy and decision-making process of the government, the programme doesn’t succeed as a result MiGs still continue to serve the nation. Although, government do acknowledge that Mig-21 where never intended to be replaced by MMRCA but presence of advance fighter would have surely made Mig-21 exit from the force, easier.

Considering government’s target of having 42 squadrons to face a two-front conflict. The NDA government formed in 2014 do get a leap by ordering 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France but mere such aircraft will not make much difference in fleet quantity while the same government’s efforts to come-up with MMRCA 2.0 acquisition plan have provided no fruitful results so far.

Needless to say, since India decided to get the Rafale fighter as part of the MMRCA which is almost making a decade time now, the cost of this particular fighter aircraft must have got skyrocketed ever since besides the fact that after India decided to get the Rafale fighter aircraft in 2012, many countries followed the league and now the rafale order book totals to 242, by some account.

The Air Force is already down to 33 fighter squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons to face a two-front conflict. The IAF has witnessed significant delays in introducing new fighters and phasing out the old fighters within the required timeframe given the lack of long-term planning and decision-making at the highest echelons of the defence corridors.

Not being mentioned by many but the idea of having 42 fighter squadrons in the fighter inventory as an optimal fleet strength was against the IAF ‘wish list’ for having 60 squadrons to fight a two-front war. Hence, scrapping the entire fleet of MiG-21s would leave a critical void in numbers, and is not a viable immediate option. As of 2019, 113 MiG-21s are still known to be in operation. It is recommendable that the IAF may have to reduce the flying hours of this particular jet for the meantime, to be preserved to fly in full effect only during times of real national emergency.

All in all, one can rightfully say that India’s own slow and outdated decision-making process, combined with the lack of long-term force development plans of the IAF has led MIG-21 in service even till now, despite its poor safety record. On the other hand, China which CDS General Bipin Rawat considered the “enemy number one” of India is closing the technology gap with the West and Russia and India cannot afford to lag behind. More importantly, India needs a culture of accountability and answerability in echelons of governance including the forces otherwise we won’t require to call China as “enemy number one” of India.

TOWARDS BETTER CAPABILITY FORECASTING

Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd.) notes that with fast depleting squadrons, the IAF will require 500 fighter aircraft of the fourth-generation ++ category. He suggests that a good mix could be around 200 LCA Tejas Mk 1A, 125 twin-engine MMRCA class, ideally already selected Rafale. The remaining nearly 175 aircraft should be single-engine MMRCA class, much cheaper than the Rafale such as the Tejas Mk 2.
The upgradation of the combat aircraft fleet is a continuous process to maintain the operational relevance but it is high time India gets the required reforms in its planning processes to ensure optimal force technology development levels around the world.

The introduction of the UAVs to the contemporary trends of air warfare has the potential to get drastic changes in the conventional concepts of air engagements, besides advancing capabilities in the area of Air Defence (AD), all needs to be interlinked with the potential force development plans which should be addressed by the new doctrines. The Ministry of Defence along with the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) have to evolve a better force capability planning mechanism which may require developing a quasi-think-tank within the echelons of Ministry of Defence (MoD) as the present bureaucratic set-up has no ability to do any sort of long-term capability planning and development keeping in view the evolving nature of warfare.

The article first appeared on IADN Strategic Focus magazine, August-September 2022 Issue.

Views expressed are of author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the website or its affiliates.

Author

  • Founder of IADN. He has more than 10 years of experience in research and analysis. An award winning researcher, he writes for the leading defence and security journals, think-tanks and in-service publications. He is a senior consultant at the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla. Contact him at: [email protected]

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