They have a poor safety record. But the Indian Air Force (IAF) is reluctant to phase out its old Soviet era warhorse MiG-21 due to the delay in inducting new and modern fighter jets.
Dubbed 'flying coffins' for their frequent crashes, only 150-160 of the over 450 single-engine MiG-21s with the IAF are still in service. A large number have been lost in accidents during peace time.
"The main problem with MiG-21s is that they are very old and the on-board systems have become obsolete," a highly-placed IAF official told IANS. The official himself has flown the combat aircraft.
But because it faces a shortage of fighter squadrons, the IAF cannot afford to phase out the ageing MiG-21s. If it does that, it would diminish its force level drastically.
The IAF, the world's fourth largest air force, currently has a fighter squadron strength of 33.5 against the sanctioned 39.
"We have a shortage of fighter squadrons. Also, the delay in the delivery of indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and in the acquisition of MMRCA (Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft) is pushing further the phasing out of MiG-21s. After all, we need to maintain a minimum force level," another IAF commander said.
The Indian government has issued tenders for acquisition of 126 medium multi-role combat aircrafts but the acquisition has been delayed due to time consuming procedures which include submitting of bids, technical evaluation of proposals from global military suppliers and field trials. The first aircraft would conservatively be inducted only by 2020, according to defence ministry sources.The assessment is that the retirement of the five squadrons of MiG-21s will diminish the IAF's conventional edge over its adversaries.
The current deadline for the retirement of MiG-21s is 2011. But this is likely to be pushed back further due to the slow pace of procurement and indigenisation process.
"The MiG-21s have a serviceability of 80 per cent. We have good maintenance facilities for MiG-21s. Otherwise we would have been forced to retire them," said the official.
Since 1993, the IAF has lost over 260 aircraft during peace time. Of these 107 were its vintage warhorse MiG-21s. Fifteen of them crashed in the last five years, leaving seven pilots dead.
The latest crash took place September 11 when a MiG-21 went down in Bathinda in Punjab, killing the pilot.
The MiG-21s, inducted in 1964, proved their worth in the 1971 war with Pakistan and again in 1999 during the Kargil conflict, also with Pakistan. The IAF inducted its first MiG-21 from the erstwhile Soviet Union five years after their induction into the Soviet Air Force. Thereafter some 450 MiG-21 jets were inducted in the IAF to bolster its strength.
The indigenous LCA (light combat aircraft) project has been marred with delays because of the inability of military research bodies to provide engines with right configuration for the aircrafts.