Preventing More Tragedies: It's Time to Retire India's Accident-Prone MiG-21 Fighter Jets

"It is imperative that the Indian Air Force takes necessary measures to reduce the number of accidents and enhance the safety of its pilots and crew. Only then can India's military aviation achieve the safety standards expected of it."

Preventing More Tragedies: It's Time to Retire India's Accident-Prone MiG-21 Fighter Jets

A recent crash of an Indian Air Force MiG-21 in Rajasthan resulted in the loss of three civilian lives. While not the only aircraft type to experience accidents, the MiG-21 has gained notoriety as the most accident-prone aircraft in use. Various media outlets have compiled data indicating that in 2021, a total of eleven Indian military aircraft crashed, with five of them being MiG-21s. This trend has led to the aircraft being dubbed the "Flying Coffin" and "Widow Maker" due to its high crash frequency.

Despite being in service with the Indian Air Force since 1963, longer than any other aircraft, there have been calls to replace the ageing MiG-21s for decades. Some experts have argued that the planes were past their utility as far back as the 1980s. However, due to a severe shortage of aircraft squadrons and sluggish procurement processes, the Air Force continues to rely on them.

Below is the relevant link to an article addressing the issues on military aviation crashes and everything wrong with the aviation manufacturers:

Why HAL’s Safety Record is at Risk: Reasons Behind the PSU’s Ongoing Struggles
“HAL’s aircraft will play a critical role in India’s military operations in a volatile geopolitical environment. If HAL is unable to address its challenges, the country’s defence sector could suffer significant setbacks” Opines Girish Linganna

Reason Behind Crashes?

While investigating each aircraft accident separately, it has been observed that technical defects, human error, and bird hits are some of the major factors leading to accidents. Among all the aircrafts, MiG-21 is the oldest serving plane and has been involved in a significant number of accidents. This can be attributed to its extensive use in the Indian Air Force and the large number of years it has been in service.

Despite being a common occurrence, experts have noted that the Indian Air Force has a higher crash rate compared to other countries. Although military aviation is inherently dangerous, India's crash rate remains unacceptably high due to various factors such as outdated aircraft, poor maintenance practices, and insufficient training for both aircrew and ground-crew.

While there is no inherent issue with the MiG-21, experts have raised concerns over the fact that these aircraft were first inducted in the 1960s and all the MiG-21s currently in service in India are at least 35 years old, despite upgrades.

Some have argued that the MiG-21s currently in service have been upgraded and are not the same as the ones from the 1960s. However, regardless of the variant, the fact remains that it is still a MiG-21. The upgrades have primarily focused on avionics and armament, which do not directly impact the safety of the aircraft. It can be likened to driving a Ford Model T on today's roads, which was one of the first mass-produced cars.

Comparing flying a MiG-21 today to driving a Ford Model T, it highlights the need for India to upgrade its aircraft to more modern and safer models.

Credit: Open Sources

Why Is There A Lack Of New Fighters?

The Indian Air Force is still relying on the MiG-21 as it faces a severe shortage of aircraft, forcing it to operate whatever aircraft it has to carry out its operational duties. Unfortunately, the failure to produce newer aircraft over the past few decades has left the IAF with a fleet of planes that were made in the 1980s, including the MiG-21, MiG-29, Mirage, and Jaguars.

Currently, the IAF has 32 squadrons, which is well below the mandated strength of 42 squadrons. All four of the remaining MiG-21 squadrons are slated to be phased out by 2025, further reducing the IAF's already-low strength. These squadrons of Tejas aircraft will replace the retiring MiG-21s, but this will not increase the IAF's numbers as they retire at a rate of one squadron per year until 2025.

As per media reports, the Tejas Mark1A version, consisting of 83 domestically manufactured planes ordered from HAL, is considered the sole viable substitute for the MiG-21. The initial batch of these planes is anticipated to be delivered by mid-2024. Nevertheless, even with the induction of Tejas aircraft, the Indian Air Force will continue to confront a deficiency as these planes will merely take the place of the retiring MiG-21s and not supplement the existing fleet. Moreover, other aging squadrons of Jaguars and MiG-29s will also retire, exacerbating the problem.

The root cause of the IAF's continued reliance on the outdated MiG-21s is the failure to timely procure newer aircraft. It is essential for the IAF to urgently acquire more modern and safer planes to replace its aging fleet, to ensure the safety of its personnel and enhance its combat capabilities.

It is imperative that the Indian Air Force takes necessary measures to reduce the number of accidents and enhance the safety of its pilots and crew. This could involve upgrading its inventory to more modern aircraft, improving maintenance standards, and providing better training to its personnel. Only then can India's military aviation achieve the safety standards expected of it.

Expert Views From Veterans:

The loss of fighter aircraft at the rate of one aircraft every 20–25 days for the last 30 years is yet another dimension that we must scrutinise very closely. The MiG-21 FL (Type-77) and perhaps one squadron of MiG-21M (T-96) are the only pre-1971 war fleet that we presently have. Every accident without fail is caused when one or more parameters linked with aviation safety are breached voluntarily or due to carelessness, Opines Gp Capt. TP Srivastava (Retd) in his article ‘Why Do IAF Aircraft Keep Crashing? - An Analysis’ published by MVI on 16 Dec 2021.

Why Do IAF Aircraft Keep Crashing? - An Analysis
An analysis of the causes for the high attrition rate due to air crashes between 1972–2015 with the recommended corrective measures for the Indian Air Force (IAF)

Accidents can be attributed to indiscipline in almost all of the cases. However, accidents will happen, since man was not designed to fly. There are more than enough rules that have been formulated that a person can’t keep track. There needs to be a review and carefully rescind what is not needed or contradictory. Opines Gp Capt. Johnson Chacko (Retd) in the same article.

On the other hand, Maj Gen. Rajan Kochhar (Retd) stated that laying the blame on sub-standard spares is easy to make since the MiG-21 manufacturing line has closed down, and its spares and ancillaries have to be sourced from original manufacturers in the Republics of the former Soviet Union. Strict quality control before their purchase by either HAL or the IAF is obviously of the essence, but the possibility of greater indigenous manufacture under license must also be seriously examined.

Air Cmde. SP Singh (Retd) mentions a few reasons for Mig-21 crashes below:


Single engine, no backup in case of failure/ flame out. Success rate of 'relight'  in Air less than 50%, mostly due to insufficient height and time available to pilots for relighting the engine.

Material fatigue due to aerodynamic load of flying under 'stress' of high speed, combat gravity load, high landing speed and impact of landing momentum all compounded with 'ageing'. MiG21 came to India in the late 60s, almost 60 years of service life!!

There are few other Technical issues like 'quill shaft' failure leading to engine seizure (we lost more than 10 MiG21s in 90s due to this one factor), hydraulic/electrical or pneumatic brake system failures and  canopy crack/burst in air.

Pilot Error

These being 2nd generation aircraft, the navigation and orientation systems are age-old that were UPGRADED recently in BISON (famous for shooting F16 post Balakot strike engagement). Compounded with 'very restricted front visibility of the cockpit', limited onboard  modern landing aids and highest landing speed (340 KMPH!!!) give very limited time for pilots to react during the crucial phase of landing. Unlike modern day Rafale, Su30v and Mirage 2000 that have exceptional all round bubble canopy visibility, most modern landing aids, HUD, and lower landing speed are much easier to fly in the critical phase of landing.

Limited on-boarding aids with age-old O2 systems and high altitude flying or dense cloud flying or night flying, chances of Hypoxia, Disorientation etc., are much higher.

About The Author

Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst, and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Private Limited which is a Subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia.

(Views expressed are the author's own & do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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