The Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21, also known as the Fishbed, are the longest-serving fighters in the Indian Air Force.

The Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21 proved to be a valuable asset to India in a number of battles, from the moment it entered service in 1963. The Indian Mig-21Bis has been continuously upgraded with modern weapons and avionics on an airframe that is still decades old, and now it looks like it will soon be retired. Indian media reported that by 2025, the country’s MiG-21s will be decommissioned. The decision was made after the latest accident that killed two military officers.

India is the largest operator of MiG-21s. In 1961, the Indian Air Force opted to purchase the MiG-21 over several other Western competitors. As part of the deal, the Soviet Union offered India full transfer of technology and rights for local assembly. Since 1963, India has introduced more than 1,200 MiG fighters into its air force. To date there are more than 100 MiG-21s known to be in service with the Indian Air Force.

The MiG-21 is extremely prone to accidents. According to indiatoday, More than 400 Indian Air Force MiG-21s have crashed in the last 60 years, claiming the lives of over 200 pilots and 60 civilians. Hundreds of crashes over the years have fueled debate over the safety of the aircraft and has earned it the infamous ‘flying coffin’ moniker.

Currently, only the MiG-21 Bison, which is the most upgraded version of the aircraft, is operational in the air force’s fleet. All other variants have been phased out. The Bison has been retrofitted with fourth-generation avionics. The lightweight fighter jet was designed to achieve Mach II, despite its low afterburning turbojet engine. However, the MiG-21 is largely devoid of fly-by-wire technology, which lets onboard computers handle several components of the aircraft, aiding the pilot in several ways, especially in adverse situations.

In the Indian Air Force the MiG-21 is used in a variety of roles ranging from high-speed interceptions to low-level dogfighting and close support role. Indian MiG-21 was switched to a close support role from the 1980s. Upgrades for the same were made which led to an increase in weight. This made the aircraft more sluggish and unwieldy during landing and take-off because the aerodynamic control forces decline but the inertia remains the same. It must be noted here that the MiG-21 already has a higher landing and take-off speed compared to most other aircrafts in the IAF fleet. Its take-off speed is almost double compared to that of other aircrafts. In the event of any fault, the pilot has less reaction time in a MiG-21 as compared to the situation in other aircrafts.

Bird strikes are also prevalent in India, which is particularly troubling for single-engine aircraft. In double-engine aircrafts, if one engine is lost in the event of a bird strike, the other engine can hold the plane stable until the affected engine is restarted. Newer single-engine aircrafts like the Mirage 2000 have a set of static-guide panes which reduces the vulnerability to a bird strike. The Mirage also has two air intakes, while the MiG-21 has just one.

However, it must also be noted that several mechanical problems on the MiG-21 had been corrected as they were learnt over time. The experience of the engineers having worked on the aircraft for over 40 years have given them invaluable lessons on what to fix and improve. But there is only so much that can be done. Simply put, the Indian Air Force doesn’t have much of a choice. Defense procurement is a time-consuming process and indigenous manufacturing is even slower. To keep the number of squadrons over 30, the IAF has had no choice but to keep the MiG-21 in service. Despite its potential shortcomings, the aircraft continues to be effective in combat.

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