Explained: Indian Air Force's Ageing Fleet And Why New Planes' Procurement Is So Slow

The Indian Air Force is flying MiG-21 aircraft that are over 35-years-old as it's dealing with a shortage of fighter aircraft squadrons and governments have over the decades failed to procure newer fighters to replace ageing MiG-21 squadrons.


Explained: Indian Air Force's Ageing Fleet And Why New Planes' Procurement Is So Slow

Two Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots were killed on Thursday when the MiG-21 aircraft they were flying crashed in Rajasthan's Barmer district. 

The Thursday's crash is the sixth MiG-21 crash in the past 19 months. Five MiG-21 aicraft crashed in 2021, killing three pilots. In all, there have been a total of 292 MiG-21 accidents, with the first reported in 1963, according to defence blog Bharat Rakshak

While MiG-21 is not the only aircraft type to be involved in an accident, it is the most accident-prone aircraft. In 2021, 11 Indian military aircraft crashed, of which five were MiG-21, according to data compiled by The Print. It has over the years acquired nicknames of 'Flying Coffin' and 'Widow Maker' for its crash frequency.


The MiG-21 has been into Indian Air Force's service since 1963, longer than any other aircraft. The need to replace these aircraft has been expressed for decades, and a section of experts have said that the planes were past their utility in the 1980s itself. But the Air Force continues to use them as it deals with a severe shortage of aircraft squadrons and procurement continues to be sluggish.

Here we explain why is India using MiG-21 after six decades of induction — it would be 60 years of first MiG-21 joining IAF next years, what are the issues of IAF's modernisation, and what makes Indian procurement of newer planes so slow. 


Why is MiG-21 so accident-prone?

While each aircraft accident is separately investigated and several of them have unique reasons, accidents in past have broadly been credited to technical defects, human error and bird hits, according to The Indian Express.

It has also been highlighted that MiG-21 is the most well-known plane when it comes to accidents as it's the oldest serving plane. India Today explans: "MiG-21s form the bulk of the Indian Air Force's inventory and that explains why so many of them have crashed over the years. More numbers, more use and more years in service translate into a higher number of crashes."

Despite the frequency of usage, experts have noted that Indian crash rate is higher.

"Military aviation is inherently dangerous, but India's crash rate is high by any standards. Obsolete flying machines, shoddy maintenance, and inadequate training to aircrew and ground-crew continue to exact a heavy toll," noted defence journalist Rajat Pandit in a tweet. 

While nothing is wrong in general with MiG-21, and several aircraft take to skies regularly, experts have highlighted that the fact they were inducted into 60s and that all MiG-21s currently in Indian service are at least 35-years-old despite upgrades. 

On the defence that MiG-21s currently in service are upgraded ones and not those from 1960s, a former IAF commander told The Print, "Be it any variant, the fact is that it is a MiG-21. The MiG-21 Bison is an upgrade of the MiG-21bis, which was on its last leg of flying. What has improved is avionics and armament. Armament has no role in crashes. The engine remains the same. It is like taking a Ford T model car onto the roads today."


Fort T model was one of the first mass-produced cars. The former IAF commander compared flying MiG-21 today to driving a Ford T model.

Why is IAF still flying MiG-21?

The main reason why the Indian Air Force is still flying MiG-21 is that it's short of aircraft and has to fly whatever it has to carry out its operational duties. 

The failure to produce newer aircraft over last few decades means IAF is still flying planes made in 1980s, including MiG-21, MiG-29, Mirage, and Jaguars.

"Barring the 36 Rafale jets and 40 Tejas jets, there have been no fresh inductions or orders in the past few decades," notes The Tribune in a report. 


The IAF has 32 squadrons against the mandated strength of 42 squadrons. All MiF-21 squadrons —four in total— are slated to be phased out by 2025. It would mean that the strength which is already very low will further fall. Squadrons of Tejas aircraft are set to replace MiG-21s as they are retired at the rate of one squadron a year until 2025.

The Tribune reports, "The only firm replacement for MiG-21 would be the 83 indigenous planes of the Tejas Mark1A version ordered from HAL. The first batch of these jets are expected to arrive in mid-2024."

However, the IAF shortage will continue despite the induction of Tejas aircraft as those would just replace the MiG-21s being retired, not boost the numbers. Moreover, other ageing squdrons of Jaguars and MiG-29 would also retire. Herein lies the biggest problem facing the IAF that leads to outdated MiG-21's continued flights — the failure to timely procure newer aircraft. 


India's failure to procure newer aircraft

India has only inducted Rafale and Tejas aircraft in recent years. These inductions are too very low in numbers and very delayed. 

The process to procude 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was first floated in 2000 and the formal process began in 2001, called Request for Interest (RFI). The next stage —Request for Proposal (RFP)— was issued in 2007. The Indian Air Force in 2011 short-listed Rafale and Eurofighter jets and Rafale eventually emerged in 2012 as the lowest-bidder. 

However, negotiations for 126 aircraft reached an impasse in 2012-14, according to reports, over local manufacturing of places. The Economic Times reported, "The only way to have bought the Rafale jets after this impasse was to cancel the old deal and negotiate afresh. That HAL was the casualty in this reworked deal is clear."


Eventually, the Narendra Modi government purchased 36 Rafale aircraft in place of the original proposal of 126. The deal was signed in 2016, 15 years after the proposal was first floated, and that too for just 36 planes making up two squadrons. 

India's future induction plans include more Sukhois and MiG-29s as stop-gap measures from Russia but progress has not been made on this front. THe Russian invasion of Ukraine might also complicate any major defence deals with Russia.

The Tribune reported that there is a plan to procure 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) and indigenous advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA). While MRFA has been in the works for over 15 years and is only at the tender stage, the AMCA has not yet taken its first flight yet. The AMCA is still on the drawing board. 


Reaons for failure to induct new aircraft

There are two main reasons for the failure to induct newer aircraft into the Indian Air Force — the lack of indigenous aircraft production and slow procurement process of planes from abroad.

Rahul Bhatia, Research Analyst with Carnegie India, noted, "Delayed procurement processes, a mismatch in the defense industry’s vision of fighter aircraft and the air force’s requirements, and a questionable capacity to develop and manufacture homegrown equipment have left the air force shorthanded."

As far as the procurement of foreign fighters is concerned, there are several issues, such as bureaucratic delays and the mismatch between the industry and the stated requirements.


Amit Cowsish noted in an article that six of the seven candidates in an ongoing tender process had already been tested in the abandoned MMRCA program. Yet it's not known if the Indian government would skip repeat testing, as testing all of these candidates again would add years of delay to the procurement.

There is also politics around around arms deals which slows down military procurement in general, as was seen in the case of Rafale deal that Modi government signed. There have been scandals earlier as well, such as the one involving Bofors cannons and Tatra trucks for the Indian Army. Such scandals mean subsequent attempts at procurements would be slower and governments would be less incentivised to procure anything quickly out of fears of allegations of corruption or eroding oversight in the guise of cutting red tape.