The MiGs have reached the end of the line. The realisation had dawned on India’s military planners years ago but a spate of fatal crashes over the past two years appears to have driven the point home. Over the weekend, the Indian Air Force (IAF) decided to ground its MiG-21 fighter fleet for safety checks, days after three women were killed when a MiG-21 Bison fighter jet crashed into a house in Rajasthan’s Hanumangarh. With at least six high-profile crashes in the past three years putting the spotlight on the troubling safety record of India’s longest serving fighter plane, the authorities decided to undertake a comprehensive safety check, and said the jets will resume flying in a phased manner after the checks and the completion of an inquiry into the crash. To be sure, it is not uncommon for an aircraft fleet to be grounded for inspection after an unexplained crash or incident. But the MiGs have been a cause of concern for some time. This newspaper reported that at least 400 MiG-21s have been involved in accidents that claimed the lives of 200 pilots in the last six decades. An undetermined number of civilians must have also perished alongside. This simply cannot continue.
The MiGs have been the warhorses of the IAF since the first single-engine jet was inducted in 1963. In some ways, extending the shelf life of the MiG was inevitable, given the endemic delays in the procurement and induction of new fighters, and the structural issues with indigenous defence production. At the same time, maintenance woes mounted that were overcome with ingenuity. As a result, MiGs continued to be the mainstay of the IAF, getting an upgrade to the MiG-21 Bison in 2000, with significant improvements to avionics, radar, electronic warfare suite and weapons. The Bison was involved in IAF operations after the cross-border strike against terror targets in Pakistan’s Balakot four years ago.
Still, it is clear that the human toll of keeping these jets in the sky is quickly becoming prohibitive. Three squadrons – each with 16 to 18 fighter planes – of the MiG-21 Bisons remain with the IAF and they are scheduled to be phased out 2025. It remains to be seen if the recent crash forces the authorities to move up the deadline. Calling time on the MiG is a tricky decision, one that will have to factor in operational capability, future timelines of procurement and induction of jets, and threat assessments. But in the interest of safeguarding precious lives, no more delay is desirable.