The times of India reports that India has grounded its remaining fleet of Russian-made MiG-21s after another fatal crash that claimed the lives of two pilots on a training mission.

Last week in the Barmer district of Rajasthan, Wing Commander M Rana and Flight Lieutenant Advitiya Bal were killed when their MiG-21 Type 69 trainer crashed during a night training flight. This marks the 6th MiG-21 crash in 18 months, killing six pilots.

India adopted the MiG-21 in the 1960s from the Soviet Union and has either bought or manufactured under license some 872 of the jets fighters over the years.  More than 400 have been lost in mishaps and in brief conflicts with Pakistan.  These mishaps have killed some 200 pilots and at least 60 civilians. Citing issues with the aircraft that include corrosion, shoddy maintenance, poor training, and the lack of quality spare parts, India will phase out its remaining four active MiG-21 squadrons in September.

In 2000, India undertook a major modernization program of the aircraft to include new sensors and weapons, but that upgrade is now more than 20 years in the past.  While the MiG-21 is relatively inexpensive to produce and maintain compared to modern fighter jets, they are still relics with a design almost 70 years old.  In spite of their low cost, India has been unable to fit out more than 32 squadrons of aircraft which is well short of the 42 squadrons the Indian Defence Ministry believes are needed to defend the country from threats posed by Pakistan.

India has worked for decades to develop its own jet fighter known as the HAL Tejas, a single-seat, delta wing fighter for air superiority and light attack roles.  This aircraft would be used by both the Indian airforce and their navy.

The India-made HAL Tajas Photo: Indian air force.

Since being approved for service in 2011, India has only equipped two squadrons with the Tejas but plans to buy as many as 450 of these aircraft in the coming years. The bulk of the front-line fighters in the Indian air force is comprised of 272, Sukhoi SU-30s. The Indian air force operates seven different types of fighter aircraft including the French Dassault Rafale and Mirage 2000, the UK’s Sepecat Jaguar, MiG-29s, MiG-21s, and the previously mentioned SU-30.

Any air force operating so many different fighters requires different pipelines for training, supplying, and maintaining each aircraft, greatly adding to the expense of keeping them in the air.  This is one of the most attractive features of the F-35 Lightening II program for the US military.  The three F-35 variants will serve in all branches of the US military with a streamlined system of pilot training, maintenance, and supply for all services.

India is the world’s largest buyer of weapons from Russia, importing some $5.5 billion in arms from Moscow since 2018. The war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia have disrupted this supply chain India has for Russian arms. No doubt, open contracts for Russian arms are on hold as Moscow diverts small arms, ammunition, air-to-air missiles, and other equipment to supply its own troops in Ukraine. Among the contracts on hold are finished parts for 600,000 Kalashnikov AK-203 assault rifles for a new assembly factory in northern India and the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.