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Warplanes: RIP, MiG-21
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April 27, 2010: India has finally made it official, its troublesome fleet of MiG-21 fighters are being phased out. The 121 that were recently upgraded, will all be retired in seven years. The other 85 will be out of service in two years. India operates the largest fleet of MiG-21s, although China has even more of their MiG-21 clones, the J-7 in service. China still exports J-7s, but is rapidly retiring the ones remaining in Chinese service. Over 10,000 Mig-21s and J-7s have been produced in the last sixty years, making this the most widely manufactured jet fighter of the last century (during World War II, there were several propeller driven fighters that were produced in greater numbers.) The MiG-21 looked fearsome, but it was a bust in combat, getting shot down more often than not.

During 1966-84, India built 658 MiG-21s. Over half those aircraft were lost to accidents. This got worse as the aircraft got older. India lost 250 MiG-21s to accidents between 1991 and 2003. When consulted, Russia pointed out that India had insisted on manufacturing many of the spare parts needed to keep MiG-21s operational, and many of these parts were not manufactured to Russian specifications. While Russia does not have a reputation for making the highest quality equipment, their standards are often higher than India's. It's no secret that much of the military equipment made in India is pretty shabby by world standards.

Most of the 110 pilots lost in these MiG-21 accidents were new pilots, which pointed out another problem. India has long put off buying jet trainers. New pilots go straight from propeller driven trainer aircraft, to high performance jets like the MiG-21. This is made worse by the fact that the MiG-21 has always been a tricky aircraft to fly. That, in addition to it being an aircraft dependent on one, low quality, engine, makes it more understandable why so many MiGs were lost. And a lot were lost.

The MiG-21 problems were overcome by 2006, a year in which no MiG-21s were lost. India improved maintenance, spare parts quality and pilot training to the point that the aircraft was no longer considered the most dangerous fighter to fly. But they were more expensive to keep in safe flying condition. So now all are headed for retirement.

That introduces another problem, the MiG-21 replacement. Currently, India is determined that this will be the locally developed jet fighter, the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft, now called Tejas). There have been a lot of development problems, and mass production (at least 20 aircraft a year) won't begin until 2012. Or at least that's the plan. For over two decades, India has been trying to design, develop and manufacture its own "lightweight fighter" (the LCA/Tejas). The project has been a major disaster.

The U.S. F-16 is probably the premier "lightweight fighter" in service, and entered wide service about the time India began thinking about creating their own. Both the F-16 (at least the earlier models), and the LCA, weigh about twelve tons. But the F-16 is a high performance aircraft, with a proven combat record, while the LCA is sort of an improved Mirage/MiG-21 type aircraft. Not too shabby, and it is cheap (about half the cost of an F-16). Also, for all this time, money and grief, India has made its aviation industry a bit more capable and mature.

When work began in the mid-1980s, it was believed that the aircraft would be ready for flight testing by 1990. A long list of technical delays resulted in that first flight taking place in 2001. Corners had to be cut to make this happen, for the LCA was originally designed to use the Indian built Kaveri engine. For a jet fighter, the engine is the most complex part of the aircraft, and the Kaveri has had its share of setbacks. Fortunately, there was an American engine, the GE 404, that fit the LCA, and could be used as a stop-gap. The Kaveri engine has been ordered for the first production aircraft. The American engine has been used in the meantime, for the prototypes.

For all this, India only plans to buy 200-300 LCAs, mainly to replace its aging MiG-21s. Export prospects are dim, given all the competition out there (especially for cheap, second-hand F-16s). The delays have led the air force to look around for a hundred or so new aircraft (or even used F-16s) to fill the gap between elderly MiG-21s falling apart, and the arrival of the new LCAs. However, two decades down the road, the replacement for the LCA will probably be a more competitive, and timely, aircraft. The main purpose of the LCA program was not to produce a suitable replacement for the MiG-21, but to help build an Indian warplane industry. In this, it succeeded.

The LCA was not the first attempt to produce an Indian jet fighter. The HF-24 was an earlier attempt at developing a modern fighter. Designed by Kurt Tank (who also designed the German FW-190 and Ta-152 during World War II), the HF-24 was a failure because India could not develop a powerful enough engine. Thus the 147 HF-24s built, served from the 1960s, to the 1980s, as a ground attack aircraft.

 

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