NEW DELHI: The Indian Air Force is set to retire one of its four remaining squadrons of aging MiG-21 fighter jets in September, with the other three scheduled to be phased out over the next three years, people familiar with the development said on Friday.
The phasing out of the squadrons is not linked to the July 28 Barmer crash that killed two fighter pilots, but is part of an earlier air force plan to replace the MiG-21s with newer fighter jets, the officials said.
The squadron being retired in two months is the Srinagar-based No. 51 squadron, which is also known as “Sword Arms,” said one of the officials cited above, asking not to be named. Wing Commander (now Group Captain) Abhinandan Varthaman, who was awarded Vir Chakra for shooting down a Pakistani F-16 during a dogfight over the Line of Control on February 27, 2019, was in the No. 51 squadron then.
Several MiG-21s have crashed in recent years with the accidents turning the spotlight on India’s longest-serving fighter plane, its safety record, and IAF’s plans to replace the aging jets with newer ones in the coming years.
The air force got its first single-engine MiG-21 in 1963, and it went on to induct 874 variants of the Soviet-origin supersonic fighters to bolster its combat potential. More than 400 MiG-21s have been involved in accidents that have claimed the lives of around 200 pilots during the last six decades, the officials said.
More MiG-21s have crashed than any other fighter because they formed the bulk of the fighter aircraft in the IAF’s inventory for a long time, and the air force had to keep its MiG-21 fleet flying longer than it would have liked because of delays in the induction of new fighters, they added.IAF will induct different variants of Tejas light combat aircraft to replace the MiG-21s.