Last month the Indian Air Force celebrated the 50th anniversary of receiving its first MiG-21 jet fighter. The celebration was upbeat, masking the fact that India is rapidly getting rid of its MiG-21s and not just because they are old. On the bright side, obtaining manufacturing rights to the MiG-21 enabled India to build a domestic aircraft manufacturing industry that now produces military and commercial aircraft. The same thing happened in China, which began manufacturing the MiG-21 at about the same time. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that India has lost so many MiG-21 fighters to accidents that it is trying to retire this type of aircraft as quickly as possible. Over the last half century, India has bought 976 MiG-21s and over half are gone, mostly because of accidents. While India was something of an extreme case in this area (other users don't fly their MiG-21s as much), it's been typical of MiG aircraft. All this is part of the decline of the once feared, and admired, MiG reputation.
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. For example, all Indian MiG-27s have been grounded several times in the last few years because of suspected mechanical problems. These fears are not new. The MiG-27 and Cold War era Russian warplanes in general do not age well.
In 1963, India had good reason to believe that, with the MiG-21, Russia had learned from experience and created a superb jet fighter. That was not the case, but like many users of MiG jet fighters India stuck with the brand. They were not the only ones. The most extreme example of this was Albania that, in 2005, retired the last MiG-15 fighters still in service.
A late 1940s design, partly based on work Germany had done during World War II (and using captured German engineers and plans, as well as British technology and Russian aircraft design ideas), the MiG-15 looked good on paper. The six ton MiG-15 was fast, rugged, and resistant to damage. But the flight controls made it difficult to maneuver as effectively as "inferior" (on paper) American aircraft. MiG-15s were usually the losers in aerial battles with aircraft like the American F-86 or F-80. Recognizing those flaws, there followed the six ton MiG-17, which corrected most of the MiG-15s faults and added a new one, difficulty maneuvering at low altitudes. In the mid-1950s, the nine ton MiG-19 showed up, further refining the original MiG-15 idea. The MiG-19 was supersonic but, as pilots discovered, it was maneuverability, not speed, that brought victory. The MiG-19 was quickly followed in the late 1950s by the 8.5 ton MiG-21, which is still serving in dozens of air forces. Most modern jet fighters weigh in at twenty tons or more and dwarf the MiG-21 in other ways as well. India was the last major user of MiG-21s to admit that they were using flawed and inferior aircraft and have rapidly been replacing them with non-Russian aircraft or non-MiG aircraft (like the Su-30) from Russia.