On May 8, 2023, a MiG-21 fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force crashed in Hanumangarh after taking off from Suratgarh Airbase. The pilot safely ejected, but the fighter jet claimed the lives of three civilians.
This incident has spotlighted the ageing fleet of the Indian Air Force’s MiG-21, which has been involved in 400 accidents and malfunctions since its induction in 1960.
The MiG-21 was the most formidable mainstay aircraft of the IAF for a long period. After its induction, the Indian Air Force procured over 870 of this aircraft to boost its overall combat prowess.
However, the most manoeuvrable aircraft of the IAF has a very poor safety record. It has claimed the lives of many talented and precious pilots. It has been involved in 400 crashes in the last six decades.
According to officials, the IAF has three squadrons of MiG-21 with 50 aircraft. The IAF has finalised three years to phase out all the remaining MiG-21 fighter squadrons. The Indian Air Force has planned to phase out three squadrons of MiG-29 Aircraft in the next five years.
The phasing out of these Soviet-origin fighters is an integral part of the modernisation process of the IAF. “The MiG-21 phase-out plan is on track,” said a military official. The phase-out plan is not linked to the recent accidents involving the platforms.
In February 2021, as a part of the IAF modernisation drive, the defence ministry sealed a 48,000-crore deal with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to procure 83 Tejas LCA (Light Combat Aircraft).
The IAF has acquired 36 Dassault Rafale Jets to enhance its combat capabilities. Moreover, it is also in the process of acquiring 114 Medium Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA).
On July 18, 2023, a MiG-21 aircraft of the IAF crashed near Patta Jatian village in the Jawali area of Kangra District in Himachal Pradesh, killing the lone pilot. The pilot, Squadron Leader Meet Kumar, had gone airborne from Pathankot Airbase.
On July 28, 2022, two pilots died after their MiG-21 Bison crashed in Barmer, Rajasthan.
In March 2022, Ajay Bhatt, the Minister of State for Defence, said in the Rajya Sabha that 42 defence personnel were killed in accidents involving aircraft and helicopters of three services in the last five years.
Another incident occurred on December 24, 2021, when Wing Commander Harshit Sinha lost his life in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer Sector (near Desert National Park under the Sam Police Station.
On August 25, 2021, a MiG-21 Bison crashed in Barmer after a technical malfunction that occurred shortly after take-off. The pilot was able to save his life.
Similarly, on May 20, 2021, a MiG-21 crashed after taking off from the Suratgarh in Rajasthan, where it crashed in Langeana village in Moga, Punjab. The pilot, Squadron Leader Abhinav Choudhary, was killed.
On March 17, 2021, Group Captain Ashish Sharma was killed when his aircraft crashed after the take-off from Gwalior Airbase. The officer was on a combat training mission which ended in an emergency as he could not eject from the aircraft on time.
According to official data, the total number of air accidents in the last five years was 45, of which 29 platforms were of the IAF. Two pilots of the IAF lost their lives when a twin-seater MiG-21 trainer aircraft crashed into Barmer in Rajasthan during a training sortie.
On May 4, 2023, an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH Dhruv) crashed following a hard landing in Kishtwar in Jammu & Kashmir. In January 2023, a Sukhoi-30 MKI and Mirage 2000 collided in mid-air.
In October 2022, a weapon systems-integrated (WSI) version of an ALH of the Indian Army crashed near Tuting in Arunachal Pradesh. Another ALH-WSI crashed into the massive Ranjit Sagar reservoir near Pathankot on August 2023, killing two Army pilots.
According to official details, between March 2017-December 2021, 31 people lost their lives in accidents involving 15 military helicopters that included four ALHs, four Cheetahs, two ALH-WSI, three Mi-17VS, a Chetak and a Mi-17.
In December 2021, General Bipin Rawat, the 1st CDS (Chief of Defence Staff), his wife Madhulika and 11 other armed forces personnel died when a Mi-17VH helicopter crashed near Coonor in Tamil Nadu.