This last week has highlighted the inherent danger posed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-21 to the pilots flying the aircraft.
Even though flying a fighter aircraft is always a risky proposition, the nature of the profession becomes more dangerous in an aircraft that is long past its shelf life. Last Monday, another IAF MiG-21 crashed and another pilot lost his life.
And a serving IAF officer filed suit in the Delhi High Court saying that flying a MiG-21 amounted to a ‘violation of his fundamental right to life’, citing injuries caused by an ejection from the aircraft before it crashed due to an alleged manufacturing defect and poor workmanship by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
Without going into the merits of the arguments raised by Wing Commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila, it is difficult to deny the need to retire the MiG-21 fleet as soon as possible, given the statistics of attrition they’ve thrown up.
But while it’s easy to label the MiG-21 aircraft ‘Flying Coffins’ that should be grounded for good, it’s important to ask why the IAF continues to operate the aircraft.
The IAF operates 34 fighter squadrons out of an authorized 42 squadrons. These include a mix of Sukhoi-30MKI and MiG-29 air superiority fighters, Jaguar and MiG-27 strike aircraft and the MiG-21 interceptor.
In 2009, the IAF announced the grounding of the HPT-32 Basic Trainer Aircraft (BTA) on which its cadets were provided initial training at the time, following a crash that killed two instructor pilots. The aircraft had suffered 17 crashes, killing 19 pilots and had a chronic problem with its fuel supply system, which could not be resolved. The manufacturer, HAL, offered to equip it with a parachute to recover it in case of an imminent crash.
With a BTA being ‘basic’ to training, the IAF realized the urgency of a process to acquire new aircraft to replace the HPT-32 on priority. And after the tender process was completed, the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 Mk II was selected as the new IAF trainer in a relatively fast acquisition process, given the traditional speed of Indian defense procurement.
Given that MiG-21 aircraft currently constitute the single largest chunk of the IAF fighter fleet and shoulder a large part of responsibilities for the protection of Indian airspace, this warhorse is also just as ‘basic’ to the requirements of the IAF as the BTA. Quantity has a quality all its own, said Stalin.
And while some of the MiG-21s have been upgraded to the Bison variant, the aircraft flown by Flight Lieutenant Shikhar Kulshreshtha on Monday was also one of these. But upgrades don’t necessarily make an obsolete aircraft safer and newer technologies are inherently geared to increasing redundancies and reducing errors.
Clearly, replacing the MiG-21s entirely is an important task, but was always going to be a massive endeavor.
The IAF has four programs for induction of fighters into service, which include the Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and the Sukhois-30 MKI. While the FGFA is still under development, there will be 270 Sukhoi-30MKI heavy fighter aircraft after all deliveries are complete.
Thirdly, the IAF selected the French Dassault Rafale in January, 2012, 11 years after initiating a process for its Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender.
But the first aircraft will only be delivered three years after the contract is signed and to date, it remains unclear when the order will be placed.
The aircraft intended to replace the MiG-21 is the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), conceived in 1983. 30 years on, the head of Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has said the first operational aircraft would roll out at the end of this year.
Less widely known is that the IAF remains unimpressed with this aircraft, and has ordered only 40 of them, planning to base them at Sulur in Tamil Nadu, away from bases which typically watch over India’s borders.
The IAF requires a more powerful engine and better avionics for an acceptable modern replacement to the MiG-21. For this, the DRDO is developing the LCA Mk II. So far, integration of the new engine into the existing LCA airframe remains a challenge and it’s unclear when it will be ready.
There could, however, be another approach to this problem.
It’s time for the defense ministry and IAF to question whether there is any aircraft that can replace the MiG-21 that could be inducted in the near future, given existing acquisition programs.
And then take a leaf out of the Basic Trainer Aircraft acquisition experience and consider a low-quantity, high priority purchase of fighter aircraft off the shelf.
While the IAF had to issue a tender for trainers since it had never evaluated such aircraft before, executing such a process would be much quicker since no tender would be required, as six of the top fighter aircraft from around the world have already been extensively evaluated in the MMRCA contest.
But picking the Rafale again, in addition to the MMRCA selection, could be difficult as it would mean two different sets of terms of contract for the same aircraft, especially since the first is still to be agreed. Also, the French aircraft would present capabilities far beyond those required of a MiG-21 replacement and the cost of acquisition and operation would be incomparably high.
The defense ministry and IAF could, however, refer to the results of the MMRCA evaluation and determine which of the other five aircraft could be suitable by cost and performance as a MiG-21 replacement for a direct purchase of, say, a few dozen fighters.
This would be much cheaper than the MMRCA and be delivered much faster, being ordered off the shelf in smaller numbers without any license production in India.
It will require imagination and will to prioritize the replacement of the MiG-21 to realize the benefits of initiating such a process. But it could also be seen as admission of the lacunae of existing procedure.
Still, if the defense ministry and IAF cannot see an aircraft to replace the MiG-21 on the horizon, it should examine this idea on merit.
This article has been updated to include the correction of an error. Sulur is in Tamil Nadu, not Karnataka, as earlier stated.