The recent announcement by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on phasing out the entire fleet of the MiG aircraft, which have earned the nickname ‘flying coffins’ for their terrible safety record, is a welcome development, though belated. The decision came after yet another crash of MiG-21 trainer aircraft in Rajasthan’s Barmer district, killing two IAF pilots. The Soviet-designed MiG-21 aircraft, inducted into the IAF in 1963, has been questioned over its poor track record. The recent crash once again puts the spotlight on the safety issue. Over 200 accidents involving MiG aircraft have been reported since their induction. The key question remains as to why the IAF continued to use these aircraft despite their poor safety record.
The IAF continued to depend on the MiG even though the Soviet Air Force – credited with designing the aircraft – removed it from service in 1985. After 1985, even Bangladesh and Afghanistan removed it from service. India is now battling a shortage of fighter jets. Becoming a slave to procedures and slow decision-making has led to this shortage of modern aircraft in the IAF’s fleet. At present the IAF has 36 Rafale jets that are currently the most modern in its fleet and this was possible only when procedures were compromised. This was an emergency procurement against the IAF’s almost 20-year requirement of 114 fighter jets that still stands. Lack of accountability in speeding up the process has led to half of the Air Force’s existing fleet ageing with no replacements still in sight. As a stop-gap measure, purchasing MiG-29s and Sukhois from Russia has also not made any headway. The decision to phase out the entire fleet of the MiG aircraft is welcome but efforts to buy modern fighter jets for the IAF should also be sped up.