The MiG combat aircraft, which has served more than a lifetime and is into its sixth avatar, must ideally be phased out sooner than 2025. And they would be too if only India could afford the kind of money needed to modernise the IAF fleet quickly. Meanwhile, the MiG, also used for at least 20 years as a stepping stone trainer for young pilots, many of whom have been lost in mishaps that took place too often for comfort and robbed the air force of bright pilots in the prime of their life, has earned the reputation of a “Flying Coffin.”
The defence budgets may, in their numbers, seem enormous but India, with two prickly northern neighbours, has always needed to spend a fair proportion of its GDP in protecting itself. Currently, that figure is about 2.7 per cent. The process of procurement of arms and equipment has, however, been convoluted by the obdurate nature of decision-making at multiple levels, the play of politics, the role of intermediaries and the whiff of scandals. The gap between concept and deployment has invariably been too long to be anywhere close to the ideal in serving national military interests.
The IAF may have asked for the MiG-21 jets to be replaced as early as in the 1980s. After four decades, India is still in the process of finding a modern equivalent of a multi-role fighter to take over. The pride of making the MiGs on our soil was justifiable up to a point. A time may have come to go well beyond and buy or make the aircraft that would serve a modern mix better with the quantitative low end also better looked after.
Had India been able to go through with the initially contemplated purchase of 126 “omnirole” Rafales, the high end may have been served better. The replacement of MiGs has been complicated by the process of looking for a “Made in India” single-engine combat aircraft running into problems with proposed aircraft not passing comprehensive technical evaluation. It will be interesting to see how soon India sorts out its Light Combat Aircraft project because the MiG-21s would have to keep flying till then....