Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Is IAF’s entire MiG-21 fleet facing ‘May Day’ call?

Yelling ‘May Day’ thrice is the universally accepted and followed ultimate distress call of an airborne aircraft’s pilot-in-command. The recent MiG-21 crash in Rajasthan — in which the pilot ejected but three civilians on the ground were killed — has renewed criticism that the aircraft is a relic of the past and a ‘flying coffin’, as if henceforth there will be ‘May Day’ calls for the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) entire MiG-21 fleet which still consists of six squadrons of the Bison variant (Military Balance, 2022, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies).

It is deplorable to use the expression ‘flying coffin’ as it will demoralise the fliers and associate staff of the operational MiG-21 Bisons. The importance of MiG-21 for the IAF must be understood in the wider perspective rather than jumping to conclusions.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the IAF had 41-plus operational squadrons which virtually constituted its sanctioned strength of 42. There were “31 fighter ground attack and nine multi-role fighter squadrons” and one-plus squadron of electronic-counter-measure jet aircraft (Military Balance, 2001-02). The point to note is that 33 out of 41 fighter units were variants of MiG-21, 23, 27 and 29 only.

Thus, when more than 80 per cent of the fighters of an air force are of the same origin, those must be flying the most for training and operations also. Moreover, the understanding and spirit of cooperation that Moscow and Delhi developed over the years was somehow completely missed by the West’s monumental politico-diplomatic and geopolitical misjudgment in the 1960s and till the 1971 India-Pakistan war and beyond, up to the end of the 20th century.

Obviously, whereas the West missed the opportunity to woo the South Asian giant, Moscow succeeded in receiving Delhi’s reciprocal support in ample quantity and quality despite the then Soviet Union’s 1989 retreat from Afghanistan.

Regrettably, what the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had successfully done pertaining to India’s defence, diplomacy and development, none of her successors could sustain it the way it should have been done. The need for fresh ideas to progress with the fast-changing and unfolding global power politics (with the rise and fall of several established nations) by changing one’s approach to the IAF was missed by New Delhi.

16/05/2023 Abhijit Bhattacharyya/Tribune

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