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

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.

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 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.

The Russian MIG with Soviet markings

The Russian MIG with Soviet markings

Last Word

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.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 28, 2020:

Thanks, Tom, you have put things into proper perspective.

tom on September 27, 2020:

raf lost over 100 lightnings ,usaf lost over 200 f 16,luftwaffe lost 150 f 104.1947 -1962 raf lost 1500 planes

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MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Robert, the crash rate per 100,000 hours of flying for the MIG 21 is about 10 which is high but the F 102 had 13.6. One factor why the MIG21 was in the limelight is that it was the main workhorse of the Indian AirForce and HUNDREDS have been built. It was also the most flown plane and obviously the most effective. I have flown the MiG 21 a lot and I can tell you it's a wonderful plane I logged hundreds of hours of flying on it without a single mishap. It is one of the older generation planes and is not fly by wire but needs manual skill and a pilot has to be good to fly it.

Robert Sacchi on September 27, 2020:

Do you have crash rates for IAF fighters?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Tom, thanks but this information has to be tempered with the fact that the MIG21 has been flying for six decades.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 25, 2019:

Thank you

Robert Sacchi on May 17, 2019:

Great interfacing with you as well.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 16, 2019:

Thanks, Robert, great interacting with you

Robert Sacchi on May 16, 2019:

You're welcome.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 16, 2019:

Thanks, Robert for the info

Robert Sacchi on May 14, 2019:

In 2017 the USAF mission capable rate was 71.3%.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 13, 2019:

Thank you Robert for commenting. Yes, the Russian planes are great and reliable maybe not as sophisticated as the American planes.

Robert Sacchi on May 13, 2019:

Thank you for this informative article. The 1998 Kargil War got little mention in the U.S. except there was the usual worry about the tension sparking a nuclear exchange,

Lawrence Hebb, I saw the same video you mentioned the other day. It is the usual debate between capability and reliability. The U.S. favors capability and Russia favors reliability.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on January 09, 2016:

Excellent add on info on the MIG 21. Thank you

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on January 08, 2016:

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!"

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on January 08, 2016:

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

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on January 07, 2016:


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


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 22, 2015:

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

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 21, 2015:

Thank you Grand old lady for your comment

manatita44 from london on December 21, 2015:

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.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on December 21, 2015:

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

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