Every few months, a dreadful MiG-21 crash awakens aviation watchers and keyboard warriors in India. Their short-term outrage at the accident fuels catchy headlines in media. In most such accidents, the pilot(s) manage to pull the handle and eject. In few cases, the ‘holes in the cheese’ align badly and we lose lives. Then, outrage reaches a crescendo: commentators bandy about phrases like ‘flying coffin’, ‘widow-maker’, etc. Serving chiefs dorn g-suits and take to the air in a MiG-21 while retired chiefs and passionate veterans take to TV studios. Before embers on the pyre of those killed have cooled, life in India and its air squadrons returns to normal.
As per reports, little less than half (400) of the total MiG-21s inducted by IAF (estimated around 870) have crashed since the 70s due to various reasons, killing over 200 pilots and 50 civilians on ground. This is a damning statistic by any standard.
It’s not like the IAF has a choice. I write this with the greatest respect for bravehearts who continue to fly machines that were contracted six decades ago, in such large numbers that it formed the backbone of IAF. Spine-replacement is neither easy nor without pain.
Low-tech, large numbers — a double-edged sword
Such large numbers can be a double-edged sword. There is strength of numbers and economy of scale. But without a time-bound plan for upgrade / replacement and innovative solutions for back-end logistic support, not all pilots who fly such machines will outlive the nebulous Total Technical Life (TTL) of aircraft. For the IAF, these statistics took another blow 28 Jul, 2022 when a twin-seater MiG-21 Type 69 trainer crashed at Barmer in Rajasthan after taking off on a night training sortie from AFS Uttarlai. Experienced flight commander Wg Cdr M Rana (38) and young trainee Flt Lt Advitiya Bal (26) perished in the crash.
The MiG-21 is the fighter equivalent of Chetaks (Alouette III). Inducted in the same era in large numbers, the supersonic fighter is terribly unforgiving of errors of commission or omission. MiG-21 pilots have to take split-second decisions in an ageing fighter with landing/takeoff speeds much in excess of modern commercial aircraft equipped with two pilots, full autopilot, flight director, autothrottle, etc. Of course there will be accidents.
Are we using the right metrics?
However, accident investigation and safety management systems are (rightfully) agnostic to social media trends or ‘outrage factor’. There are definitive cause-group classifications and accident rate (per 10,000/million hours) that are used by analysts for course corrections. Simply put, if you have an aeroplane X that flies in vast numbers, logging more flying hours than aeroplane Y with lower numbers (& consequently lesser flying hours), absolute number of accidents on X may strike you as higher at first glance.
Thus a metric based on “rate per ‘n’ flying hours” is chosen (IAF uses ‘accident rate per 10,000 hours’ while more advanced air forces and civil aviation use rate per million flying hours). This takes out the ‘startle effect’ or ‘alarm factor’ of absolute numbers, giving a more sober estimate on how the odds weigh for or against a type/mark of aircraft.
The same metric should not, in my opinion, be used across the board for, say, a Boeing P8I that can fly for hours with just one landing and takeoff, and a MiG-21 Bison that thunders off runways at 340 kmph for sorties lasting less than 45 minutes; or a ground attack Jaguar flying low-level over hostile terrain. But sadly, this is how we rationalise any MiG-21 accident. Official sources quote the convenient downward trend of ‘accident rate per ten thousand hours’ to whitewash ugly fleet replacement failures. They downplay the fact that our acquisition system is in deep distress. It doesn’t help that the MiG-21s have swung between two extreme outcomes — one where a plausible interception in dogfight leads to glorification of the ageing fighter (Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman was decorated with a Vir Chakra for a PAF F-16 shootdown post Balakot), and, on the other hand, tragedy of the magnitude that was witnessed at Barmer in Rajasthan on Jul 28, 2022.
Quantity has its own quality
Sad as every crash is, when the number of aircraft are high, striking them off from service without putting replacements in place is not an option for a fighting force. Quantity has its own quality. For instance, a spate of engine-related issues and severe obsolescence forced the Indian Navy to retire the Ka-25s in 2008 without much ado. The numbers were small — just one squadron — and their capability had dwindled to a ‘fleet in being’ status. Nobody winced when i put up the file noting, as a young Joint Director in NHQ, for releasing ‘Hormones’ from naval service. I am not sure if the same can be said or done for for the MiG-21 that forms the bulwark of our air force; maybe air warriors can comment.
No public scrutiny of accident reports or statistics
Since no data of any meaningful value related to flight safety and accident investigation is ever put out by the armed forces for public scrutiny, one cannot expect anyone outside the system to analyse or offer mitigating strategies. One of MiG-21’s foremost exponents in recent times and a former air chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, publicly defended the MiG-21’s prowess in a recent interview to India Today, issuing another one in a long list of ‘safe to fly’ certificates. But this time, the former air chief’s testimony sounded two ominous warnings:
- Why didn’t the pilots eject?
- What option does the IAF have in the face of repeated penny-pocket acquisitions except “soldier on?
Unfortunately — indeed terribly inconvenient for the former chief — this is fait accompli admission of “too little, too late”. There has hardly been any coherence in thought or policy around the replacement strategy for the MiG-21s. Successive air chiefs have tiptoed around the MiG-21 replacement plan, singing paeans about the fighter’s capability while trying to look good in LCA’s atma nirbharta mirror. Equivocating at high levels can send mixed signals and bolster false sense of security. Former air chief ACM Rakesh Bhadauria managed to drive a crucial order for 83 indigenous LCA Tejas. Maybe he can better explain this ‘scarred past of MiG-21 versus the shining future of LCA’ dilemma.
‘Buy cheap, spend later’ comes with costs
My limited experience of having flown Russian-origin helicopters reveals their machines are robust and cheaper to buy (low initial acquisition cost). The same applied to warships that Indian Navy has been operating for years. But this honeymoon ends when the contract begins and warranty expires. Russian hardware had their time and place — a low-hanging fruit; yours to choose if the government wants to make politically-correct decisions. But, for the most part, Eastern block flying machines did not keep pace with the march of technology; they could hardly compete on an international stage, except in countries like ours where fiscal challenges & “buy cheap, spend later’ temptations drove procurement. This filled our squadrons with Russian hardware.
Russian nightmare, no American Dream, plus Atma Nirbhar Bharat to boot
With the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War and its second-order effects on global supply chains, India’s Russian dream may well turn into a nightmare. The ‘American dream’ or import option is all but over, what with list after list of banned imports being put out by MoD. This is perfect time for nixing programs that managed to balance the books but failed to save lives. The latest crash of MiG-21 at Barmer should serve us notice that indigenous capacities should be bolstered with greater accountability and deeper audits for quality and timelines.
The “normal checklist” for MiG-21 is no longer applicable to the unfolding scenario. It’s time to flip the cards over to the “abnormal checklist” section. A short bulleted ‘to do’ list follows:
For IAF (and sister services):
Stop normalising MiG-21 crashes with a playbook that has become so repetitive it doesn’t even convince the villagers over which you rain debris.
Create better frameworks for analysing accident statistics than ‘rate per 10k hours’.
Let go the crutch of “the big chief flew it, so it’s safe”. That can be done at unit level, but the chiefs must look beyond optics.
In the Light Combat Aircraft, you have a great replacement for the MiG-21 — as per ACM Bhadauria’s own admission. Bring in a modicum of accountability and sensitivity to this project’s headmasters and its timelines. Today, all of government is puffing winds into the sails of atma nirbhar Bharat and private sector participation in defence. Against the accident-ridden history of obsolete MiG-21s stands an indigenous Tejas that has had ZERO accident thus far (even if most such flights were test flights undertaken with great planning and risk mitigation). If your belief in this product of indigenous enterprise is so strong, surely it’s time to floor the pedal on this project for immediate replacements that are required in large numbers?
Review the entire gamut of accident investigation. As of now, it is rather superficial and treated as ‘secondary duty’ across all three services. Create a pool of trained and talented investigators with necessary time, training, resources and ‘nose’ for drilling deep into root causes.
Improve inter-service transparency of accident reports and safety statistics. Don’t protect turf, safeguard the crew. They may wear different colour of uniform, but they all come from the same fold. Eschew parochialism and window-dressing.
For the mandarins in MoD:
To bureaucrats and ministers who made a successful career out of the decrepit system of distributed unaccountability, i ask you — have you no shame? While rushing to grab the microphones for every kindergarten-level achievement in defence innovation for a nation of 1.38 bn, your highest-level representatives are conspicuous by their absence each time a MiG-21 comes down in a fiery shower of metal and debris. Are you actually “integrated” with the forces’ decisions you so clinically vet in an operational vacuum? How about grabbing the mic and saying “too many people have died and our edge is blunted. This is what we’re going to do, notwithstanding what Chiefs or former Chiefs feel”. Late Raksha Mantri Manohar Parrikar made a beginning you might like to follow.
For the average observer of MiG-21 crashes:
Your outrage is understandable. Air crashes, though deeply tragic, often provoke short-term hysteria. However, policy should be informed by deeper metrics and the scientific method, most of which is couched in secrecy with the armed forces under the cloak of national security. Under the system we have, it will remain opaque to you. Your energy is better directed raising the right questions through channels open to common citizens. Sloganeering with phrases like “flying coffin” will only sow distrust in the minds of bravehearts who have no choice but to fly these jets. Please choose your words — and targets — carefully.
If anything, the latest MiG-21 crash should remind us that the pace at which fleet replacement programs are progressing is deeply sick & stunted. What’s worse is the normalization & crocodile tears that follow. We all have a little blood on our hands.
(An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint. You can read it here).
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover graphics courtesy The Quint.
5 thoughts on “Barmer MiG-21 Crash: MoD’s Apathy or IAF’s Defensive Posture?”
When passenger cars can have a life of only 10/15 years in Delhi/NCR- based on as I understand, Supreme Court (SC) directives, why can’t perhaps SC issue similar notice to GoI to promulgate shelf life of each of military platforms instead of having ‘infinite-till-replaced’ life? Also by the way, do they have a full motion, high fidelity Mig-21 simulator where rookie pilots can practice difficult emergencies in near- real environment? Last I knew a decade ago, sadly there were none.
Called a spade. Well articulated. It took us a long time to let go the HT-2 and later HPT-32. It probably will take us longer with the MiG-21.
They are old but sturdy. However, there is no getting across the fact that we’ve had one too many accident.
IAF keeps on harping about the “need for 42 combat squadrons.” Assume that we accept that demand. But please remember that missile squadrons like Agni, Prithvi, Brahmos, Aakash etc are combat squadrons. Some are designed to be strike missiles and some are air defence missiles. Please factor in the missile squadrons. The simple conclusion is that the Mig-21s are surplus to requirements.
An excellent article. A non-military person with an interest in military matters, I have often had concerns about the accident rate of the IAF. Your article helped me understand the issues, and lack of transparency in details released to the public.
I would like to hear your views about the LCA. I remember that I was in college – way back in the 1970s – when the LCA project was announced. I am now retired and the plane is still under development. This must be one the longest drawn out projects in military aviation, Our last foray into developing an indigenous fighter-bomber, the HF-24, was not very successful. Why is it taking so long? Will it meet expectations of the armed forces (air force or navy)? These are things I would like to hear from you,