The 4th Squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF), comprising Soviet-era MiG-21 Bison fighter jets, performed its last flight from the base in Rajasthan, where they have been stationed since 1966.

From now on, the squadron will operate modern Sukhoi Su-30 MKI aircraft of Russian origin – the Indian Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

The Bison, originally developed in the Soviet Union, is the most advanced MiG-21 jet variant ever built. According to EurAsian Times, “Whether the remaining squadrons will be converted to other aircraft or they will be number-plated will depend on the availability of new aircraft.” The indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas is expected to fill the gap created by the phasing out of the legendary fighter jets that once formed the backbone of the IAF.

The MiG-21 is probably one of the best-known Soviet aircraft. It is the most-produced supersonic jet in aviation history. It was designed in response to the Korean War’s need for a short-range interceptor and light strike fighter. First flown in 1955, the MiG-21 was the first Soviet plane to reach Mach 2. For three decades, variants of the MiG-21 went head-to-head with the F-4 Phantom and other American-made fighters in Cold War-related conflicts worldwide.

The MiG-21 was the first supersonic jet in the IAF, inducted into service in 1963, and in operation with Number 4 Squadron since 1966. The second generation interceptor variant commenced delivery in 1964, and saw use to great effect in conflicts with Pakistan between the perils of 1965 and 1971.

The decision to phase out the Mig-21 in favour of the Su-30 MKI and indigenous LCA fighters was announced in 2011, at which point 476 of the fleet of 946 MiG-21 aircraft had been lost in accidents over the decades. Initially scheduled for 2017, the replacement is still ongoing, with two Mig-21 squadrons still in operation.

The Su-30 MKI was jointly designed by the Sukhoi Design Bureau and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited based on the Su-30 fighter aircraft. The MKI variant is a multi-role combat aircraft that made its first flight in 1997. One major advancement over the MiG-21 that the Su-30 MKI offers is a fly-by-wire control system. The Mig-21 was highly manoeuvrable when it was first introduced, but is outclassed today by aircraft with this system of avionics. 

In November 2017, the IAF successfully tested the air-launched variant of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, with a striking range of 290km, from the Su-30MKI. Following third live fire from the fighter two years later, the IAF successfully integrated the cruise missile onto the aircraft in December 2019.

New Delhi still operates two squadrons of MiG-21s, which the IAF is planning to phase out by 2025. Each squadron has between 16 and 18 jets. Last month, India’s defense ministry also approved a $5.4 billion spending package, which covers various weaponry and ammunition, including the purchase of 12 Russian Sukhoi Su-30 MKI fighter jets that will be built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). These aircraft would be the most modern Su-30 MKI warplanes used by the IAF, defense officials said, and would comprise more than 60% domestically produced materials.

The phasing out of the remaining MiG-21s will pave the way for the country’s domestically developed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)-MK1A jets, which will be introduced to fill the gap left by the outgoing MiG-21s. The IAF is expected to start receiving the LCA Mark-1A warplanes from February 2024 onwards.


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