The Mig -21 Was the Mainstay of the Indian Air Force for Five Decades or More
India inherited an Air Force from the English. The British government on the recommendation of the Skeene Committee constituted the Indian Air Force in 1932. Its first squadron was located at Karachi (now in Pakistan). Subsequently, the IAF which later became the Royal Indian Air force was expanded to 10 squadrons. A transport squadron was added in 1946 with the US-built C47, the military version of the famed DC3 (Dakota).
Initially, all aircraft in Indian Air Force were of British origin and this state of affairs continued even after the British left. Towards the mid-fifties, the IAF felt the need of a more advanced fighter/interceptor and the Indian government approached the British and other nations for the latest supersonic interceptor. The IAF was keen for the Lightning Mark I. At that time the Nehru government began to steer an independent course and this was not to the liking of the western powers. India opened its doors to the USSR and the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev visited India as a part of this opening up. This alarmed the west even more and all requests for modern aircraft fell on deaf ears.
Nehru appointed the left-leaning Krishna Menon as the Defense Minister in 1957 and he with his strong leftist views approached Russia. The Indian request was considered by the Politburo and Khrushchev got the green signal to help India. It was also a political decision to undercut the Americans and western powers. This step was a brilliant coup by Menon. The west was surprised. It was also announced that Russians would build two aircraft factories in India for the manufacture of the planes.
The factories were set up in Nashik and Koraput as the first batch of MIG-21's landed in India with IAF colors. The MIG 21 was thus made part of the IAF arsenal and it alarmed the west even more. All credit must go to Krishna Menon who negotiated the deal. It was a great deal, as it involved the transfer of technology.
The MIG 21 Enters IAF Service
The MIG 21 was inducted into the air force despite dire warnings by the administration of General Eisenhower. The IAF made the MIG its main first-line aircraft. In 1962 China and India fought a border war, but the IAF was not used. This was a political decision by Nehru. He did not have a stomach for a long war and was not keen to escalate the conflict. The MIG saw action over Goa during its liberation by the Indian army. It also was used in the 1965 war and proved a worthy aircraft.
The MIG 21 was an advanced aircraft with good avionics. It had a speed of Mach 2 + and also carried missiles and guns. It was a versatile interceptor and had a fair comparison with American aircraft. The MIG made in India had better avionics than their Russian counterparts. It was a single-engine plane and that can be counted as a negative mark as in case of a flameout, the pilot had no option but to bail out. The MIG was all in all a hardy plane and soon it became the number air weapon of the IAF. The MIG was used in 1971 as well as the 1998 Kargil war with excellent results. It was a moment to savor as for the first time Russian combat aircraft did better than US planes. The IAF equipped over 15 squadrons with these planes.
Upgradation and Future
The Plane entered the 21st century with the tag as India's first frontline plane. The IAF, however, wanted to upgrade the MIG and Russian technicians and Engineers worked hard to upgrade the MIG. Its avionics were substantially improved with better RADAR. The final version of the MIG was the MIG 21 (BIS). This is to remain in service till 2024-25, after which it will be phased out.
The MIG did great service for the IAF, but there will always remain a question mark about its safety record. Over the years over 100 MIG 21 have crashed, taking precious lives. Courts of Inquiry into the accidents have been held, but most of them have pointed to pilot error, though this is hard to digest.
The MIG 21 was, however, a great plane and it would have by 2025 served the IAF for almost 7 decades with its many upgraded versions. India and Russia are now jointly developing the latest generation advanced fighter, but the MIG 21 will always have a place in the sun in the IAF history as well as the history of Aviation for all time to come.
With the retirement of the MIG-27( Bahadur) the IAF has a shortage of first-line fighter aircraft. The workhorse will now only be the MIG-21(BIS) which is the last variant of this plane. Despite its lower level of avionics compared to an F-16, the plane piloted by Wg Cdr Vardhaman was able to "kill" an F-16 in an aerial dog fight during the Balakot bombing by the IAF.
The MIG-21 is now in its last phase and will be phased out by 2024-25. It will be the end of the road for this plane. The IAF still operates 7 squadrons of this versatile plane.