The greatest aircraft of the Indian Air Force, Part 1: The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 by KS Nair

In the first of our celebrations of the most significant aircraft of the Indian Air Force we’ll look at the MiG-21. Fast, agile and extremely manoeuvrable, this Soviet ‘pocket rocket’ has served for almost 80% of India’s history as an independent nation.

“I once flew a DACT mission against two MiG-29s, I didn’t engage them in a turning fight. I kept my fight vertical and got two kills.” -–– Group Captain MJA Vinod (full interview here)

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 was first inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1963. That was fifty-seven years ago, and the induction was of six aircraft. In the nearly six decades since then, the IAF has flown something approaching nine hundred examples of the type. And three-quarters of that number were built in India. On that basis alone, it is one of the most important Indian warplanes. The acquisition was transformational for the IAF, and in some ways beyond the IAF, for India. For a sense of where the transformation began, for the first ten years after Independence, India had genuine financial incentives to source imports from the UK. Hence the acquisitions of Tempests, Vampires, Hunters and Gnats. By the late 1950s India was seeing value in diversifying its sources of weaponry. Hence that initial batch of six Soviet MiG-21s. The MiG-21 was the first major non-Western weapon system India ever acquired. It was a huge change, going far beyond the language of the manuals. The Soviets had completely different design philosophies and combat doctrines, so completely different maintenance and operational practices.

In what would have been a case study in the private sector, the IAF made a conscious decision to acquire the technology – but to not adopt the procedures and tactics. The IAF planned from the start to use MiG-21s the way Western air forces use their interceptors; in independent squadrons, mobile between bases operating other types as well. This was different from Soviet / Warsaw Pact practice, of operating in regiments, about two or three times the size of a squadron, and generally operating one regiment of a single type from a base. Simplifying somewhat, this was also substantially the way the Luftwaffe had operated in WW2 – their deployable unit was the Gruppe, not the Staffel.

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The IAF used the MiG-21, and other Soviet hardware later, in ways their designers had never intended. The Soviets, planning for massive continent-wide land battles, built and deployed the MiG-21, as they did most of their military kit, in vast numbers, intending to stockpile them at different locations throughout Central Europe. They were essentially disposable assets, to be abandoned after a short cycle of intense operations. Operating life in war would have been measured in days, or at most weeks. India needed different ancillary equipment, maintenance schedules, and much else.

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When she procured the MiG-21, initially largely as a response to Pakistan’s acquisition of F-104 Starfighters, they were considered high-value assets, to be husbanded and carefully used primarily against those Starfighters. This use imposed different maintenance needs, quite different from the Soviet. The IAF developed maintenance processes, schedules for replacing parts, spares inventory requirements, geared in ways the Soviets had never planned for. In the acid test, the MiG-21 met Indian expectations in combat. In Indian hands it outfought some Western types, including USAF F-15s during one of the first exercises with them. The unique ways the IAF operated the MiG-21 were a product of unique times and circumstances.

Many of them have now changed, and the IAF is able, and recognised for its ability, to mix and match technologies from different sources. This makes for less than optimal fleet management and inventory constraints, certainly – but it does say something about Indian ingenuity and jugaad. Some difficulties notwithstanding, particularly during the disruption of spares supplies in the 1990s, a new generation of Indian aviators still fly the MiG-21. They include some of the first few Indian women combat pilots. At a time when more modern types are in the news, we might remember that India has used MiG-21s on a scale that even their designers didn’t think of.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR K S Nair has written two books, most recently The Forgotten Few, and about 70 articles on the Indian Air Force and military issues in developing countries. His next book, to be published by HarperCollins in 2021, will cover the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, during which the MiG-21 came into its own.

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  1. Jim

    The folk storytelling ability as well as skills at weaving near-magical tales in South Asia are
    truly LEGENDARY. In fact, fully unrivalled.

  2. Brian

    This is the first time I have read about the difference between the former Soviet operational use of their aircraft in comparison to western “doctrine” and providing the reader with examples. Well written & looking forward to more.

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