On October 8, the Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted an impressive air show at the Hindon Air Base in Ghaziabad.
One of the highlights of the air show was the sight of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman flying MiG 21 at the air show.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman had shot to limelight on February 27 this year after he shot down an F-16 fighter jet of the Pakistan Air Force through his vintage MiG-21 Bison aircraft.
While the entire country loved the sight of the IAF hero flying again, the question that arises is why the IAF pilots are still compelled into flying the MiG-21, a remnant of the Soviet era.
Only on September 26 this year, less than a fortnight before the Indian Air Force Day, a MiG-21 fighter aircraft crashed near Gwalior after taking off from the Maharajpur airbase and two pilots escaped in the crash. They managed to eject successfully from the cockpit of the aircraft.
This, therefore, exposed the longstanding issues arising out of the vintage aircraft which was acquired several decades ago. This also raises a big question mark as to why the government doesn’t want to get rid of the deadwood that constantly puts the lives of the IAF pilots at risk.
It is pertinent to mention here that the Air Chief Marshal, BS Dhanoa who retired from service recently on September 30, took his last sortie on September 2 in a MiG-21 along with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
The 30-minute sortie came nearly six months after Wing Commander Varthaman had shot down a Pakistani Air Force, F-16. Thereafter, the MiG-21 Bison that he was flying too crashed and Wing Commander Abhinandan ejected successfully but was caught by the Pakistani authorities. Pakistan had to return him days later.
It is beyond comprehension why the successive governments- both present and past have insisted upon promoting the vintage fighter aircraft which has long outlived its utility.
This PR exercise only inhibits the much-needed modernisation of the Indian Air Force in terms of capable fighter jets.
It must also be mentioned that successive governments have regularly promoted the aircraft in what can be seen as a means of promoting the aircraft as a capable one despite its having become outdated.
Even in 2003, the then Defence Minister, George Fernandes had taken a 25-minutes sortie in the MiG-21.
At that time, it was seen a measure to dispel fears about the IAF fighter jets which have been labelled as ‘flying coffins’. Fernandes had told reporters after taking the sortie that there were “attempts to degrade these fighters and I want to dispel apprehensions about its safety.”
However, leaving the Air Force starved for modernisation in terms of frontline fighter jets cannot be set off by Ministers taking sorties in the MiG-21.
It is the unpardonable neglect of the Indian Air Force on the part of the successive governments due to which the MiG-21 is still a part of the Indian Air Force and its pilots have to use the vintage aircraft which is highly unsafe for them.
MiG-21 is way past its retirement age but has still been kept operational through repeated upgrades and extensions.
Failures due to old components have proved to be undoing of the Soviet-era fighter jet.
Infamous as the most accident-prone fighter of the IAF, the MiG-21 has earned the names “flying coffin” or the “widowmaker”.
Even today, 113 MiG-21s are known to be active in the Indian Air Force. Moreover, since 1963, 1200 MiG-21s have been inducted into the IAF. The aircraft is more than five decades old and cannot be sustained in today’s time despite the numerous technology upgrades. The aircraft remains obsolete and it is absolutely beyond repair.
The IAF had to bear the heavy human cost for the political leadership’s indecisiveness and insistence on continuing with the vintage fighter. Since 1970, more than 170 pilots and 40 civilians have lost their lives in air crashes involving fighter jets in combat roles and training purpose. Most of them have been attributed to the MiG-21 jets.
Sufficient aircrafts have not been inducted into the IAF over the past decades in order to replace the accident-prone MiG-21 fighter jets. Take, for example, the then Defence Minister Antony of the UPA regime had bluntly stated in 2014 that India would not sign a $ 20 billion deal to acquire fighter jets for the Indian Air Force.
The political leaders and the policymakers of the country must understand that the fighter jets are strategic assets of the IAF and they cannot insist upon the Soviet-era aircrafts being safe when the statistics prove otherwise.
These aircrafts are supposed to take part in combats and dogfights and that is why they need to be safe both while flying and engaging the enemy.
Barely fitting them with make do upgradations wouldn’t serve the purpose. It’s high time the government takes a big, bold decision acquiring sufficient aircrafts and doing away with the deadwood which exists in the form of MiG 21 fighter jets.