Breaking Silence: Why is IAF still using MiG-21?

Mig 21 - Aviatorsbuzz

The entire AviatorsBuzz community expresses deepest condolences to Group Captain Ashish Gupta’s family & stands firmly with them in their moment of grief. Group Captain A Gupta lost his life in a MiG-21 crash on the morning of 17 March 2021.

Whenever a MiG-21 crashes in India, there is a media uproar about how IAF is flying these vintage jets, how these has to be replaced & a blame game starts where IAF, HAL & even the government is held responsible; & yet IAF continues to fly these jets. Is it IAF’s helplessness that they cannot replace it or is it HAL’s incapability to provide a suitable replacement. We’re going to look at each allegation, look at some facts & provide our point of view but before that let us see what actually happened.

Group Cap Ashish Gupta was posted in TACDE (Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment), an elite Top Gun style unit for aerial combat training of Air Force’s top one percent fighter pilots. It is based out of Gwalior. Serving in TACDE shows that Group Cap Gupta was an extremely experienced & skilled fighter pilot. Not all the details of the Crash are out but as per first hand reports, the crash happened at the airfield when Gp Cap Gupta’s MiG-21 Bison was taking off.

MiG 21 Bison - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: MiG-21 Bison taking off

About the MiG-21:

The MiG-21 is a Soviet era fighter aircraft which was inducted in the 1960s & more than 1,200 have flown with IAF since then. Please note that it doesn’t mean that the current MiG-21s which are flying were made in 1960s. There have been a lot of versions & variants of the 21 over the years. As of today all the older variants of the MiG-21 have been phased out. The only serving variant is the MiG-21 “Bison” which to be fair, is fairly old too. These MiG-21s were made starting from 1984; the same time when the Mirage 2000 was inducted. In 1984, these were named MiG-21 “Bis” & in 2008 the serving “Bis” aircraft were upgraded to “Bison” which is serving in the inventory of IAF as of today. 

So why does the MiG-21 has a poor service record when the Mirage 2000 is an equally aged aircraft? 30-40 years is the normal service life of an aircraft so why are these MiGs crashing?

Because, it is not the particular aircraft model is old (they still has usable flight hours left), it is the inherent design of the MiG-21 which is old & has many flaws. When it comes to safety these soviet era designs lack basic safety measures. Of course over the time in newer variants, some advanced & modern equipment were installed which did contribute towards pilot safety but not too much due to size & weight limitations. Bear in mind the MiG-21 is a light fighter with a 5 ton empty weight. 

MiG-21’s Tumansky - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: MiG-21’s Tumansky R-25 engine

Nothing much could be done to change or upgrade some crucial systems. To start with, there is no FADEC control over the R-25 engine. There is no fly by wire system, hence pilot has to continuously work on the stick which makes it difficult to fly this aircraft. There is no Zero-Zero ejection seat which limits the pilot’s ejection envelop. Pilot can only eject at a certain height & altitude. 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 seizure and flame out. In case of a flame out, it takes a significant amount of time to relight the engine again & at that moment if the aircraft is at a low altitude or is low on energy, a crash is evident. 

MiG-21 - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: MiG-21 taking off at high speed

The air intake is at the nose of the aircraft, which means while pulling a high-g or a negative-g manoeuvre there is again a chance of engine flame out. In case of a loss of engine power, the aircraft is like an unpowered rocket. Being a delta wing design, the speed at which the aircraft is controlled is extremely high. The take-off & landing speed of the MiG-21 is amongst the highest in fighters worldwide & if something goes wrong here, the pilot has shorter time to react. 

Combine all these things & we see that it is very difficult for the pilot to fly the aircraft. In less than ideal conditions, the pilot has high workload & if something goes wrong, there is little to no safety protocol or equipment. When it comes to combat, MiG-21 Bison still has an edge which was proved when it shot down PAF F-16 in 2019, but when it comes to safety, the Bison scores low.

Now it is clear that the MiG-21 Bison needs replacement, & here comes the question why IAF is still using it? Can’t it be retired in favour of the Tejas?

LCA Tejas FOC variant - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: LCA Tejas FOC variant with drop tanks, air to air missiles & unguided bombs.

The answer to this can be summed up by stating that IAF needed a “perfect” aircraft from the LCA program. HAL took a long time to “perfect” as Tejas was HAL’s first fighter aircraft (barring the 50 year old Marut). IAF’s ASQR (Air Staff Qualitative Requirements) were clear & the expectations were very high from the Tejas since initial days, even though it was destined to replace the troubled MiG-21. 

Both IAF & HAL are at fault here. IAF doesn’t have much options today because of this historically prevailing sentiment of having a fighter that exactly matches its requirements rather than supporting, developing & building a strong indigenous platform. HAL Tejas took its first flight in 2001. At that time it was nothing more than a piece of flying machine, far from the combat abilities. IAF didn’t nurture the Tejas program from the beginning as in the early 2000s, IAF had recently inducted the Su-30MKI as well as joined the Russian FGFA program. It was the same time when MMRCA tender was floated for medium weight fighters. In the heavy & medium weight category there was enough momentum as well as investment, but the critical requirement of replacing the MiG-21s were ignored as IAF was relying on HAL, though without supporting it.

Tejas, TD-1 - aviatorsbuzz
Pic: First technology demonstrator of Tejas, TD-1 on its initial test flights in 2001.

HAL, with the LCA program lacked constant inputs & course corrections from IAF that took almost 10 years from first flight for the initial operational clearance of Tejas. Lack of significant orders was another issue. IAF was adamant it’ll not place orders in huge numbers (even though the MiG-21 was aging) until the Tejas fits perfectly in their requirements. Since they didn’t place a large order in the early 2010s, HAL couldn’t expand its production capacity. Things started to get better only after 2011 when for the first time IAF pilots got their hands on Tejas. 

LCA Tejas - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: LCA Tejas final assembly line at HAL Complex, Bangalore

Even today the IAF has only ordered 83 units of the Tejas Mk1A which will be delivered in 6 years with just 16 aircraft per annum production rate. HAL’s counter argument to not increasing the production capacity to the desired number of 24 is that in case of 24 fighters per annum, the order will be completed quickly & the production line will be idle. Thus, the replacement of the MiG-21 as of today is slow because of this tussle between IAF & HAL. 

Talking more about HAL, the organisation was slow with the design changes in the initial days. There was a severe lack of enthusiasm & urgency if we talk about the LCA program 2 decades back. Partly this has to be blamed on the then governments too which has to provide not only funding but raise the general perception of the importance of indigenous manufacturing.

Why can’t IAF ditch the Tejas program altogether & go for a foreign fighter like the F-21 or Gripen that is cheap to buy & quick to operationalize?

F-21 fighter jet - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: F-21 fighter jet, a re-engineered version of the F-16 offered to India by US.

Let’s get few things right. Fighter aircraft procurement is different than buying a common commodity. Take the case of Rafale Induction. The Rafale deal was signed in 2015. It took 5 years for the first aircraft to land in India & it’ll take 7-8 years from the deal signing for all the 36 aircraft to land in India. It is a long & complicated process which starts with the AON (Accepting of Necessity), floating the RFI (Request for Information), inviting bids & setting up requirements, evaluating all the bids & aircrafts, & then placing an order. It’ll take further time to manufacture, test & deliver the aircraft, & that is not the end. The delivered aircraft will be new to the Air Force & pilots will need extensive training on them to qualify for air combat. Only after gaining significant hours, will the aircraft will be deployed for active combat roles. This entire process takes years & hence it becomes tricky to decide to buy a new aircraft just because you “urgently” want to replace a vintage aircraft. 

LCA Tejas - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: Tejas at hangar, being manned by IAF personnel

In our case, it became trickier because HAL Tejas was already under development when IAF first thought to replace the MiG-21. Not much emphasis was given on purchasing a light category fighter from a foreign OEM as HAL was developing the Tejas. IAF thought they’ll receive a flawless fighter but the initial Tejas variants were a long shot from that. Now with the Tejas almost ready for combat roles, IAF will not order any foreign aircraft, but considering the large airspace, we have, IAF has no other option than to maintain & operate the MiG-21s for the next few years when the Tejas Mk1A slowly backfills the squadron strength. 

No. 45 Squadron - Aviatorsbuzz
Pic: No. 45 Squadron, Flying Daggers at Sulur Air Base.

Ideally, IAF would have hurried the Initial operational clearance & ordered 4-6 squadrons of the IOC-1 configuration Tejas by early 2010 which could be upgraded later. HAL should also have been more agile with the development of the LCA, making changes as per IAF’s requirements & expand its production capacity with the support of IAF’s large order. We would have Tejas in significant numbers, which would have entirely replaced the MiG-21s & would have saved the lives of a lot of pilots. 

If today, we’re losing experienced pilots like Gp Cap Ashish Gupta, IAF, HAL, the past few governments, their poor planning & inter-agency coordination, all are responsible for it. The LCA Tejas, which is made to replace the MiG-21, should have replaced the MiG-21 at the right time even with deficiencies that could be removed with upgrades in the future.


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Subhadeep is a military aviation & defence systems enthusiast who writes well researched & unbiased content. He has written over 300 articles which have helped close to 5 million viewers to have an understanding of Defence. Hailing from a military family, he has experienced the functioning of Indian Armed Forces for years which has led to the understanding & accurate portrayal of the forces in his content. He will be frequently writing about aircraft, strategy, weapons & all his content will be easily comprehensible even by the common man with a limited understanding on the subject.