MIG-21 Crashes Says a Lot About India’s Long-term Capability Development Planning

Article by Mr. Shantanu K. Bansal

The loss of Wing Commander Harshit Sinha in another MIG-21crash this year cause jitters around the nation. The crash happened on the night of December 24 and it is the 5th crash in the row involving the same fighter aircraft.

In 1963, the Air Force 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 have crashed since 1971-72, killing over 200 pilots and another 50 civilians on the ground, The Times of India reported. Not to forget that there has been no accountability of any sort for these deaths so far.

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 which, more than 200 persons, including 171 pilots, 39 civilians, and eight other services’ 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 the history has been as mass-produce as compared to the MIG-21 aircraft. At least 11,000 MIG-21 has 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 near to MIG-21 production levels is 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 its upgraded versions are still undergoing production. At least 40 countries operate these aircrafts, including the older version. The 2020 F-16.net report states that worldwide ever since F-16 started its operations there has 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 the western defence products are comparatively available at higher rate but are rather long-lasting of greater quality assurance as compared to Russian products with cheaper rates but doesn’t stand good in its longevity.

This is a general perception when comparing Russian defence products with that of the western which might not hold true in all the cases. Although, one may come to a conclusion that as far as MIG-21 is concerned there has been no record of the fighter jet besides it which is having such a high crash record.

Although, Russia is nowhere to be called as culprit for these crashes, although there may be some designing issues besides counting on the number of aircrafts produced the flying-rate to fatal ratio would always stand higher comparatively.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been planning to replace MIG-21 fighter since 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 the 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 till date which can sustain nation’s limited offset requirements. The government may have to come-up with more sanctions to increase the Tejas’s rate of production as a possible alternative.

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. 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.

Read at IADN Ask The Expert Section: Lessons learnt after 27th Feb Pakistan aggression?

In order 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. besides issuing tender for the procurement of 126 Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA).

On 31 January, 2012 it was announced that the Dassault Rafale had won the MMRCA bid, the biggest defence offset tender in the history due to 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 succeeded.

Considering government’s target of having 42 squadrons to face a two-front conflict. The NDA government formed in 2014 do took a leap by ordering 36 Rafale fighter aircrafts from France but mere this much of the aircraft will not make much difference in fleet quantity while the same government’s own efforts to come-up with MMRCA 2.0 acquisition plan has not provided fruitful results so far.

Needless to say since India took decision to get Rafale fighter as part of the MMRCA which is almost making a decade time, the cost of this particular fighter aircraft must have got skyrocketed ever since besides the fact that after India took decision to get Rafale fighter aircrafts 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 of new fighters and phasing out the old fighters in a 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. The IAF by the end may have to reduce the flying-hours of this particular jet for the mean time.

All in all one can rightfully say that India’s own slow and outdated decision making process, combined with lack of long-term force development plans have led to the continuity of the MIG-21, despite its poor safety record. On the other hand, China which the CDS General Bipin Rawat considered as the enemy number one of India is closing the technology gap with the West and Russia and India cannot afford to lag behind.

Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd.) notes that with fast depleting squadrons, the IAF will require 500 fighter aircraft of 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 Up-gradation of the combat aircraft fleet is a continuous process to maintain the operational relevance but it is high time India gets required reforms in its planning processes to ensure optimal force development levels in sync with the modern threats to the nation and technology development levels around the world.

Also Read at IADN: How Azeri Military Innovated its Drone Tactics to Win the Nagorno-Karabakh War?

The introduction of the UAVs to the contemporary trends of air warfare have 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 National Security Strategy, presently under consideration at the highest levels.

Also Read at IADN: Upcoming Opportunities and Challenges for AD Systems Around the Word


  • Shantanu K. Bansal

    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: Shantanukbansal2@gmail.com

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