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The MIG -21 Was the Mainstay of the Indian Air Force for Five Decades or More

Updated on November 27, 2017

The Beginning


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 a 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 and surprised the west. It was also announced that Russians would build two aircraft factories in India or 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.

Krishna Menon and Nehru
Krishna Menon and Nehru

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 battle worthy aircraft. In 1962 China and India fought a border war, but the IAF was not used. This was a political decision by Nehru not 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 flame out, 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 the 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 a 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.

The Russian MIG with Soviet markings
The Russian MIG with Soviet markings


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Excellent add on info on the MIG 21. Thank you

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      I saw a doco on YouTube a few days ago that had Russian and American fighter pilots flying planes from opposite countries and then giving an assesment, it was very revealing as they all said the American planes were great to fly but the one that could take the punishment and still come baxk fighting was the MiG 21! As one Russian said "in the F16 it took two crew ten minutes to strap me in, in my MiG it takes me ten seconds!"

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Thank you Lawrence. Nice comment, yes the MIG 21 will go down in history as one of the great all time fighters

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


      The Mig 21 was the plane NATO was always worried about tatically speaking. This was a great write up and much as it pains me to admit it (Hey, I'm British so naturally I always think our stuff the best :-) the Indian Air Force made the right decision as the MiG 21 was the better plane in many respects.

      Happy new year


    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Manitita, sir I am flattered by your comment. Thank you

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Thank you Grand old lady for your comment

    • manatita44 profile image


      2 years ago from london

      You seem to know a lot Bro, and at the same time, India also sounds like a force to be reckoned with. Nice Hub and great bit of history.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      2 years ago from Philippines

      Very interesting piece of airplane history. Nice to learn something new every day.


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