Over the years, a large number of MiG-21 variants has been in service with the Soviet Air Force. The MiG-21 bis version was designed in the early 70s and was flown for the first time in 1976. The fighter was developed on the basis of experience gained from the earlier variants and has good transonic and supersonic handling characteristics, high rate of climb, small size and high max take off weight. The MiG-21 bis is the last of the series of MiG 21s and is a true all weather, multi-role fighter. It was inducted into the Indian Air Force in the early 1980s. Since then, it has been the mainstay of the IAF.
In 1976, the "third generation" MiG-21bis, considered the definitive variant of the classic tailed-delta fighter design, was a follow-on the "M" sub-type as a multi-role air superiority/ground attack version. The MiG-21bis assumed the prime air defence mantle and sufficient numbers were acquired in 1976-77 to equip three squadrons (Nos. 15, 21 and 23) formerly operating the Gnat light fighter. With some 580 MiG-21s delivered by HAL and nearly 250 MiG-21s (including the two-seat operational trainers) imported as "fly aways", the type remained an immense asset for the Indian Air Force for over a quarter century. The quantity vs. quality dilemma inevitably faced by most of the world's air forces as a consequence of spiralling costs was mitigated for the IAF by the large scale availability of the MiG-21, which type will surely go down as one of aviation history's all-time classics.
In early 1980s, the Indian Air Force carried out an evaluation of perceived threats and the likely battle scenario of the 1990s which highlighted the inadequacies of MiG Bis, the main stream aircraft of the Air Force. Consequently, the Ministry sanctioned in August 1983 the development of LCA class of aircraft to fill the gap in force level of the Air Force from 1995.
The LCA was expected to enter into service in 1995 to replace MiG Bis that were scheduled to be phased out on the expiry of their life of 20 years/2400 hours. The LCA program, however, suffered considerable slippages and the aircraft was not expected to be available for induction before the year 2005. In view of this, extension of total technical life of MiG Bis and its upgradation to enhance its operational capability to desired levels was considered necessary. The Ministry decided to upgrade the existing MiG Bis aircraft rather than outright purchase of a new aircraft keeping in view the high cost of modern fighters and the constraints on the defence budget.
The $340 million upgrade program for the MiG-21 was started in 1996. Of the 300-plus Mig 21s, which formed the mainstay fighting force of the IAF, about 125 were retained and upgraded to the Mig 21Bis category. The platform and engines are same but overhauled, and the onboard avionics and missiles are the latest. To make the aircraft capable of effectively operating in the air defense role for the foreseeable future, Government approved (January 1996), the upgradation of 125 aircraft at a total cost `2,003 crore.
The main systems identified (1995) by IAF for upgradation were envisaged to make the aircraft a viable combat aircraft. These systems were Multi-mode Pulse Doppler (KOPYO) radar, Inertial Navigation System (INS) / Global Positioning System (GPS), Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), Counter Measure Dispensing System(CMDS), Self Protection Jammer (SPJ), Advance air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons , Display system including a Head-up-Display (HUD) and Multi Function Display (MFD), Helmet Mounted Sighting Device (HMSD), Video Recording System (VRS), Single Piece Front Wind-shield and an HMSD compatible canopy and Incorporation of hand-on throttle and stick (HOTAS) concept.
The upgradation was to be achieved by integrating advanced avionics and weapon which were either to be imported or developed indigenously. There were no plans of upgrading engine and airframe the aircraft. While the Design and Development (D&D) Phase of two aircraft was to be completed by original equipment manufacturer (OEM) at USSR by August 1998, the series modification of remaining aircraft was to be completed indigenously by HAL, Nasik Division by September 2001.
Russia delivered the first two upgraded MiG-21-93 jets to India in December 2000, and the first two upgraded MiGs done in India were shipped to the IAF in May 2001. The upgrade of 125 MiG-21s was slated to be completed by 2005, with the implementation of the program expected to enable the IAF to extend the life of the jets uptil 2015. MIG 21 Bis variant aircraft had been planned for upgrade also.
Ministry had stated (May 2004) that upgradation of the aircraft was estimated to be completed by 2005-06. Air HQ also intimated (February 2011) to Audit that calendar life of aircraft had been extended up to 40 years. Upgraded aircraft were being operated from six IAF squadrons and one Tactical and Combat Development and Training Establishment (TACDE).
By the end of 2007 the IAF had already completed the upgrade process for 100 Mig 21Bis, fitting them with Beyond the Visual Range (BVR) missiles, a new navigation-attack radar and other weapons dramatically improving their capability. The pilot workload is lower and its flight safety record has been very good.
Despite acquiring its first supersonic jet in 1963, the IAF did not get a jet trainer until 2004 because it took decades for the proposal to make its way through the defence procurement bureaucracy. For close to 40 years rookie pilots went straight from propeller driven and subsonic trainers to the supersonic MiG-21.
In an article in Indian Aviation magazine, IAF Wing Commander K.S. Suresh says in air combat manoeuvres, inexperienced pilots flying the MiG-21 have got into trouble without realising it. When the aircraft develops a high rate of descent, it cannot be arrested with the power available. Worse, “there is no protest from the aircraft like severe shudder, wing rocking etc prevalent in other types of aircraft. This gives a feeling of well-being and a number of pilots did not recognise the danger in time to take recovery action or eject". Essentially, young pilots were pitchforked into an aerial meat grinder, resulting in a high loss rate from peacetime accidents.
Of the 793 MiG-21s inducted into IAF since 1963, by 2012 well over 350 had been lost in accidents, killing 170 pilots. However, labelling it a “flying coffin" is plain wrong. This is being done by misinformed (or incompetent) and under-pressure journalists. In fact, during my days at India Today magazine we stopped using such expressions when confronted with facts. The then IAF chief called us and said our cavalier use of the term “flying coffin" was causing trauma to the families of pilots flying the aircraft. He supplied us data to show the MiG-21 wasn’t a dangerous aircraft at all. Former Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis said the higher number of crashes (not to be confused with the crash rate) is because the “MiG-21s are most in numbers and in use operationally".
More than half a century after its first flight, the MiG-21 packs a lethal punch. Kargil was one theater where the MiG-21 showed it was still a threat. The Pakistan Air Force’s director of operations during the war acknowledged afterward that the GPS-assisted high-altitude bombing by the MiG-21, MiG-23BN and MiG-27 was a game changer. This is corroborated by aviation historian and author Pushpindar Singh in Himalayan Eagles: “…targeting pod imagery observed by IAF pilots in real time showed enemy troops abandoning their positions at the very sound of approaching fighters."
Flying task for each type of aircraft is fixed by the Ministry and prescribed in the Policy pages of the squadrons. As per these norms the serviceability of aircraft should be maintained at 75 per cent. The year-wise position with regard to serviceability, Aircraft on Ground (AOG - refers to those aircraft which are not air worthy] and flying task achievement of aircraft from 2004-05 to 2008-09 were reviewed in audit during 2009-10. Against the prescribed norms of 75 per cent the average serviceability rate of aircraft ranged between 41.32 per cent and 51.52 per cent during 2004-05 to 2008-09 due to high rate of AOG. Actual flying tasks performed also fell significantly short of the flying task prescribed by the Ministry and ranged from 29.09 to 55.70 percent. Actual serviceability was low because of non-availability of spares and failure of items before their expected life.
Deficiency in operational manpower at the operating squadrons both at the level of officers and airmen during the period 2004-05 to 2008-09 was a shortage of pilots between 6.25 percent and 23.75 percent and at airmen level were between 30.75 percent and 37.62 percent at the squadrons.