Attrition: India Starts Retiring All Its MiG-21s


December 15, 2013: On December 11th India retired its 124 remaining MiG-21FL jet fighters. This is the first phase of India retiring all of its MiG-21s. There were originally twice as many MiG-21FLs, which was the first MiG and first supersonic jet in Indian service. These aircraft arrived in the 1960s and 70s and until their retirement were used for training new fighter pilots. The MiG-21FL trainers and will be replaced by the new Indian designed and made Tejas light fighter. Until the Tejas is ready sometime next year the newly received Hawk 132 jet trainers will fill in.

India still has some upgraded MiG-21s in service. There are 29 Mig-21Bis (gone by 2016) and 115 MiG-21Bison (retiring in the early 2020s). There are also about 80 older MiG-21s that are due to be retired before 2016.

Since the 1960s India bought nearly a thousand MiG combat aircraft. Nearly 90 percent (872) were MiG-21s and 55 percent (482 aircraft) of these were lost in action (mainly accidents) along with 171 pilots. The other ones, swing-wing MiG-23s were more modern but not much more reliable. While India was something of an extreme case in this area (other users don't fly their MiGs as much), it's been typical of MiG aircraft.

All this is part of the decline of the once feared, and admired, MiG combat aircraft. Starting in World War II (the MiG-1 entered service in 1940), through the Korean War (the MiG-15 jet fighter), and the Cold War (the MiG-17/19/21/23/27/29) MiGs comprised the bulk of the jet fighters in communist, and Indian, air forces. But after the Cold War ended in 1991, the flaws of the MiG aircraft (poor quality control and reliability, difficult to fly) caught up with users in a big way. In the last few years most of the bad news about military aircraft reliability, accidents, and crashes has involved MiG products.

The most accident-prone of these aircraft was the MiG-21. Most Indian MiGs were MiG-21s, and most of these (657) were built in India under license. This seemed like a good idea at the time. The MiG-21 was an impressive looking and relatively inexpensive jet fighter when it first showed up in the late 1950s. Only much later, when it became clear that the MiG-21 was not very effective in combat, was it realized that all those spiffy looking MiGs were more liability than asset.

When consulted about the high MiG-21 accident rate Russia pointed out that India had insisted on manufacturing the aircraft itself, as well as many of the spare parts needed to keep MiG-21s operational, and many of these Indian made aircraft 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 and India eventually learned to accept that.

While the MiG-21s and the MiG 23/27 aircraft are distinctly different designs, all are difficult to fly and maintain. In 2009 all Indian MiG-23s were retired and the MiG-27s (a ground attack version of the MiG-23) will be gone by 2017. All this is because of reliability and safety problems. The reason is simple, the aircraft are too expensive to maintain and too dangerous to fly. But India was not the only one, besides the Russians, who had problems with Russian made warplanes. During the Cold War the U.S. had several dozen Russian aircraft they used for training their fighter pilots. Despite energetic efforts to keep these aircraft flying their accident rate was 100 per 100,000 flying hours.

That's very high by U.S. standards. The new F-22 has an accident rate of about 6 per 100,000 hours, mainly because it's new. F-15s and F-16s have an accident rate of 3-4 per 100,000 flight hours. India, using mostly Russian aircraft, has an accident rate of 6-7 per 100,000 hours flown (compared to 4-5 for all NATO air forces). The B-52 has the lowest accident rate (less than 1.5 per 100,000 flying hours) of all American heavy bombers. The B-1s rate is 3.48. Compared to the supersonic B-1 and high-tech B-2, the B-52 is a flying truck. Thus the B-52, despite its age, was the cheapest, safest, and most reliable way to deliver smart bombs.

India made a mighty effort to make their MiGs safer to fly but the rate was still obviously higher than that of Western aircraft (especially the few that the Indian Air Force operated). The MiGs were called "flying coffins" and gave the air force a lot of bad publicity. Meanwhile all combat aircraft have, for decades, been getting more reliable, even as they became more complex. For example, in the early 1950s, the U.S. F-89 fighter had 383 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. A decade later the rate was in the 20s for a new generation of aircraft. At the time the F-4, which served into the 1990s, had a rate of under 5 per 100,000 hours. Combat aircraft have gotten more reliable and easier to maintain, despite growing complexity, for the same reason automobiles have. Better engineering, and more sensors built into equipment, makes it easier for the user and maintenance personnel to detect potential problems. Aircraft used the computerized maintenance systems, currently common on new aircraft, long before automobiles got them. Unless you have a much older car that still runs, or a real good memory, you don't notice the enormous increase in automobile reliability. But older pilots remember because such changes were a matter of life and death if you make your living driving an aircraft. And commanders know that safer aircraft means more aircraft to use in combat and more aircraft that can survive combat damage and keep fighting.

Most of the pilots lost in these Indian 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 recently retired MiG-21FLs were used to help pilots get used to MiG-21s before going to a MiG-21 squadron.

The Indian MiG-21 reliability problems were believed to have been 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. India has reduced its military aircraft crash rate by over fifty percent in the last decade, but the older MiGs are still seen as dangerous to fly and they often are.

The Indian problems with MiGs were not unique. Inadequate maintenance and poorly trained pilots have been the cause of about half the lost MiGs. But India has it the worst because they train their pilots to Western standards using Russian aircraft that were not designed to be used that heavily in peacetime.

India is solving the MiG problem by retiring all the older (bought before the 1990s) MiGs. The MiG-21FLs are the oldest. By the early 2020s only the 67 MiG-29s will still be in service. The MiG-29s were among a new generation of Russian combat aircraft, appearing at the end of the Cold War, that were built to Western standards. This made a big difference in the accident rate but not nearly enough. The MiG-29 crashed a lot and was much more expensive to maintain, especially compared to contemporary Russian fighters like the Su-27. For decades Sukhoi was the second largest Russian military aircraft supplier, and after the Cold War ended Sukhoi aircraft became the most common. The MiG aircraft appear to be at the end of the line.






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