The story so far: In a tragic accident, a MIG-21 trainer jet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) crashed in Rajasthan last Thursday killing both the pilots onboard, Wing Commander M. Rana and Flight Lieutenant Advitiya Bal. This has once again put the focus on the MIG-21 jets as well as on the IAF’s fighter strength and modernisation.
The MIG-21 was inducted into the IAF in the early 1960s and since then more than 800 variants of the supersonic fighter were inducted into service. It remained the frontline fighter jet of the force for a long time. During this period, there were over 400 accidents involving the jet which claimed the lives of around 200 pilots. Currently, there are four MIG-21 squadrons in service consisting of the upgraded Bison variant. IAF officials have stated that there is technical life still left in them.
There are only four squadrons of the MIG-21 aircraft, the IAF informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence as per a report tabled in March this year. “As and when the technical life is complete, we can’t keep them extra even for a day, and we don’t keep them either. Life extension is done for some aircraft. In that regard, we now have the Bison aircraft remaining, which are upgraded, but still old. There is no doubt about that,” an IAF representative told the committee.
With delays in new inductions, the IAF has been forced to continue the last four MIG-21 Bison squadrons in service. One squadron is set to be phased out in the next few months, while the remaining three squadrons are planned to be phased out in the next three years. This phase out was worked out much before last week’s tragic incident.
The IAF has an authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons. As time passes, the drawdown is increasing as the total technical life is completed. However, the rate of new inductions is not matching the drawdown, depleting the overall number of fighter squadrons. Additionally, several frontline aircraft in the inventory including the Jaguars, MIG-29s will begin phasing out by the end of the decade. For instance, by 2027-28 the first of the MIG-29s, inducted in the late 1980s, will start going out.
In the last few years, the IAF has inducted two squadrons of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and two squadrons of Rafale fighter jets procured from France which pushed the squadron strength to 32.
In January 2021, the IAF had signed a contract with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for 83 LCA MK-1A which it will start receiving from early 2024 onwards. Along with that the to-be-acquired 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) will help arrest the drawdown, the IAF said.
A larger LCA-MK2 as well as the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) are under development. However, their availability in enough numbers will take some time.
The IAF has acknowledged that they will not be able to achieve the desired strength for the time being and that they are doing the best they can. In addition to the indigenous aircraft coming up, the IAF is confident that increasing the low availability rates of Su-30 and other fighters in service will offset some of the shortfall in the interim. However, that could be potentially impacted due to the war in Ukraine even though officials have said that they are assessing the impact of the war and western sanctions.
“But the interesting fact is that we have ended up spending a large amount when we got the funds last to last year and last year on revenue spares. There is also a very large number of Sukhoi-30 and other fighters on ground and we are hopeful that when those spares start coming from this year onwards, we will be able to actually add some squadrons,” the IAF representative had informed the standing committee.
The representative further added: “Serviceability state, as you are aware, has been low. Once we get that, the existing strength itself we can ramp up before the new aircraft come in. That is the best we are looking at for us as of now.”
In the last seven to eight years, several steps have been taken to increase the serviceability rates of the Russian equipment in use, especially the Su-30MKI fleet which constitutes a significant number in the IAF inventory. Part of the measures are long term spares and support agreements as well as joint ventures in India with Russian original equipment manufacturers for faster turnaround.