On the 30th of September 2022, the Indian Air Force will be phasing out one of its four squadrons that operate the MiG-21 ageing fighter fleet. This squadron is known as No-51 Squadron and its headquarters are located in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. It is also known as the “Sword Arms “. It is one of the Indian Airforce’s most distinguished squadrons. The legendary Braveheart officer of the IAF Wing Commander “Abhinandan Varthaman” was a member of this unit. Aircraft from this squadron have also participated in Operation Safed Sagar of the 1999 Kargil Conflict and subsequently in Operation Parakram in 2001. It was conferred the Vayu Sena Medal and three mentions in dispatches for its performance and effectiveness.
The primary aircraft of this squadron is the MiG-21 Bison (an upgraded version of the original MiG-21). It is an interceptor-fighter aircraft used by the IAF. The aircraft was acquired from the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1963. The NATO name for this Soviet fighter is “Fishbed”. This aircraft has seen and participated in numerous international frontiers and wars such as Arab Israeli Wars, Vietnam War, Iran-Iraq War, and the Libyan Civil War. Due to the lack of the number of fully trained pilots of the newly acquired MiG-21, the aircraft did not play a significant role in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965.
The aircraft is credited to have won the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War for India. It was used to attack aerial and ground targets such as in the Bombing of Dhaka, Chittagong and Jessore. It is a highly manoeuvrable air-to-air dogfighter. The aircraft is known to have defeated and overpowered the United States-made F-104 Star-Fighter given to Pakistan Air Force. As per the recorded sayings of the US veterans who engaged in combat with the MiG-21, it is very tough for aircraft of that time to hit and target this agile fighter.
It was extensively used in the 1999 Kargil Conflict. However, with the development of the infra-red heat-seeking missile technology (Stinger missiles), it became easy prey to shoulder-launched missile platforms. Several pilots in the Kargil war especially Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja who operated the MiG-21 lost their lives and aircraft to Stinger Heat Seeking Missiles. With further advancements in surface-to-air missiles, their usage was reduced to a great extent. It also faces stiff competition from other US-based jets such as the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon and Phantom Aircraft.
The Russian-made MiG-21 had several inherent weaknesses in terms of quality and performance. Most of the MiGs supplied to India were of poor quality and this led to severe technical malfunctions which in turn caused a large number of casualties and deaths of around 200 young pilots. The accidents went up to such an extent that it earned the title “Flying Coffin”.
Despite their defects and shortcomings, the 3rd generation aircraft performed very well against the 4th generation Pakistani F-16 jets. The Pakistan Air Force on the 27th of October 2019 launched multiple attacks on Indian airfields in Jammu and Kashmir, in response to the Balakot Strike by IAF, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was sent to intercept an air intrusion by Pakistan Air Force’s F-16 Falcon. In the ensuing dogfight, the military flying skills and experience of Abhinandan showed the world that a 3rd Generation old MiG-21 can shoot and hunt down a superior fighter. All that matters in war is training and skills.
Nevertheless, the Indian Air Force has planned to phase out all of its MiG-21 Fleet by 2025 as it has become obsolete. New and modern Aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) have been procured such as Mig-29, Sukhoi-SU-30 MKI, and Mirage 2000. Indigenously developed Tejas LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) has been introduced into the Indian Air Force with the prime intention of replacing the MiG-21 Bison.
India has been the largest operator of the MiG-21 followed by Vietnam, Bulgaria, Romania and Mozambique. Its design has been copied, oriented and upgraded into new planes such as the Chengdu-Series of Fighter aircraft by the PLAAF (Peoples Liberation Army Air Force).