A veteran Indian Air Force officer recently stated that the Indian Air Force would desire proven fighter aircraft. Who could argue with that? However, when I consider the anguish caused by crashing MiG-21s, I view this as a problem statement.
If you look at the history of fighter aircraft induction into the IAF, you will see that nothing has ever been truly proven when they were inducted—proven to fly yes, proven to fight no.
Let us begin with the MiG-21, which was introduced in 1963. It had a very small range, no guns, and two nearly worthless K-13 infrared homing missiles that would latch on to the heat of the Earth or the sun rather than a target aircraft’s exhaust. Nobody can claim that it was an established and proven platform at the induction time.
The IAF proved it; subsequently, further elements were added, such as a better engine, radar, weapons, missiles, avionics, and other improvements. The MiG-21 was developed into a powerful platform with several war victories.
When we got the legendary Sabre killer, the GNAT, a few years before the MiG 21, it was even less than proved. India purchased an experimental prototype aeroplane. Yes, it could take off and land, but the IAF completed all flying characteristics and flight testing from 1958 to 1980 in India. There were 613 major accidents and 624 minor events aboard the GNAT, including severe flight control issues, gun stoppages, brake seal failures, and problems with the hydraulic system and the HF radio transmitter. For 22 years, this equalled one incident per week.
During the testing phase, the GNAT was even grounded for six months. Finally, the Indian Air Force tested it in action, and we all know how wonderfully it did.
Then, similar to the present MMRCA debacle, we had the Jaguar after a lengthy selection procedure. Because of its ability to fly very low beneath radar cover and deliver explosives precisely in a single pass over the target, the Jaguar is a deep penetration striking aircraft.
Following the Jaguar’s selection, the Indian HF-24 was terminated for being underpowered. Unfortunately, the Jaguars were also underpowered, and their weapon targeting system from the United Kingdom was defective. Only with the installation and development of the DARIN system of Indian design has the Jaguar had a really viable ground attack system.
The less said about the MiG 23, the better. It was a significant purchase following Pakistan’s acquisition of the F-16. The MiG 23 could never compete with the F-16. However, the Russians gave us an attack aircraft based on the MiG-23, subsequently renamed the MiG-27. The MiG-23 also had a high crash rate.
Then there are Sukhois, or SU-30s, which will operate in the same capacity as MiG-21s for many years to come.
We’ll experiment with them, alter them, and put them to use. That makes me pleased. What’s more, guess what? When we obtained the SU-30, it had hardly been battle or flight tested.
But first, let me return to the current crisis: the MiG-21.
The MiG-21 is a favourite among pilots. They are thrilled with its performance. I get the impression that many pilots regard the MiG-21 as a machine to be conquered. Once you’ve conquered her, she’ll obey you and accomplish amazing things. But she will allow you to make mistakes, and if you do not conquer her, you will die. Everything is lovely and charming. But why doesn’t this happen with Tejas? This is because the Tejas’ fly-by-wire systems prevent the pilot from exceeding limitations, resulting in a crash. The MiG-21 allows pilots to push the envelope, making it exciting and capable. However, some pilots are killed as a result of this. This much is documented.
The MiG 21 has several possibilities for mishaps. The most dangerous aspects of flying are the takeoff and landing.
The engine is approaching full power for departure, and if it fails immediately after the aeroplane takes off, for example, due to a bird strike, the plane will go down.
The MIG 21 has a landing speed of 340 kilometres per hour. At such speed, the plane completes a football field in just over a second. Consider approaching the Earth at that rate. Because the MiG-21’s range and flight times are very short, only 30 to 45 minutes, a pilot who has flown 2000 hours on the MiG-21 may have done 5000 takeoffs and landings compared to just 1000 takeoffs and landings for a transport pilot who does four hour flights, so the chances of a takeoff or landing accident in the MiG-21 are that much higher. This is like learning to drive a car in a Formula One car.
It is documented that unless the pilot is previously experienced in flying the Mig-21, it is possible to encounter a flight circumstance that will result in a crash. The point I’m making is that, while being a well-liked and competent aircraft, the MiG-21 has its own set of reasons for being involved in accidents. The MiG-21 crashes should not be blamed on LCA TEJAS delays. The Mig-21 will let the pilot take a safe or dangerous attitude. It is the pilot’s responsibility to keep an eye on himself. This increases the burden for the pilot in conflict since he must learn to be safe while fulfilling combat demands.
When it comes to the Tejas, it will not enable the pilot to push the plane beyond software-defined limitations. The pilot may do whatever he wants on planes like the Tejas and the Mirage 2000, but the software will not enable him to fly dangerously. And the pilot may focus on weaponry, navigation, or anything else he has to accomplish.
Test pilots have stated in interviews that the Tejas equalises all pilots. It improves the performance of less-than-average pilots and cools down the hotshot pilots.
As an unspoken corollary, this means that hotshot pilots will stay hotshot with the MiG-21, whereas ordinary pilots may crash. Unfortunately, even pro pilots sometimes have mishaps. The claim that TEJAS did not have or does not have this or that is absurd. As previously noted, the GNAT, MiG 21, and Su-30 were insufficient and unfinished at the outset.
The IAF will have to embrace Indian-made aircraft and work with the industry to bring the platform to maturity, just as they did with so many other critical aircraft. Cooperation between force and industry is a hallmark of great power and must be pursued in the future.