With questions raising over Indian Air Force's four-decade-old MiG-21 fighter jet, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa on Tuesday said, the IAF is still flying the 44-year-old plane when no one even drives a car that old. The supersonic jet fighter has been the core of India's defence fleet following the February 27 aerial combat at the Line of Control, in which Pakistan used superior F-16 jets.
"It goes to the credit to our MiG-21 aircraft, which is almost 44 years old and which I can fly. I am sure no one would like to drive a car of that vintage," Dhanoa said, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh by his side. The air chief marshal was interacting with reporters on the sidelines of a seminar on "Modernisation and Indigenisation plans of the Indian Air Force" at the IAF Auditorium in New Delhi.
Dhanoa, however, said the basic version of MiG-21, which joined the Indian Air Force in 1973-74, would be phased out this year. "Hopefully, I will fly the last sortie in September, subject to visibility," he was quoted as saying.
On February 27, the Russian fighter jet, flown by IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, shot down an F-16 jet of Pakistan in a fierce dogfight in the subcontinental skies along LoC. At least 110 MiG-21 jets, equipped with powerful multi-mode radar, better avionics and communications systems, were upgraded in 2006 to MiG-21 Bison.
In May 2017, Dhanoa led a four-aircraft 'Missing Man' formation in honour of the servicemen killed during the Kargil conflict. The MiG-21 has witnessed several crashes over the years, with India losing more than half of its MiG combat fleet of 872 aircraft, parliament was informed recently.
The phasing out of MiG-21 could be a part of Indian Air Force's move to replace the high-end obsolete weapon with indigenously developed ones that will boost in-house defence manufacturing. However, "to win a war, we also need high-end, high-tech items, which we need to import," Dhanoa said.
The developments come amid the escalating tension between India and Pakistan over abrogation of special status to Jammu and Kashmir, on which Dhanoa said the IAF is "always cautious and alert" to check any untoward aerial movement on the border. "We have seen their (Pakistan's) deployment. The Indian Air Force is always cautious. We are responsible for air defence and we are always alert," he said when asked about the prevailing situation at the Indo-Pak border.
"It is not that something has happened so we have become cautious. We are always alert. The Air Force is prepared not only when an enemy aircraft ventures in, but we also keep an eye on civilian aircraft so that incidents like Purulia airdrop do not happen," Dhanoa said.
The Line of Control (LoC) has witnessed several exchanges of fire between the Indian and Pakistani forces since the government repealed the provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and bifurcated the state into two Union territories - Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Earlier, in his keynote address at the seminar, Dhanoa said the IAF is the fourth largest air force in the world and it has grown into a multi-spectrum air force with the use of force multipliers and other assets.
On aircraft, he said, "Fifth-generation fighter aircraft are the reality and the next generation one is on the drawing board". "But can we afford a victory in such a process? If there is no war, we cannot wait for indigenous technology to replace obsolescent equipment, neither will it be prudent to import every defence equipment from abroad," the IAF chief stated.
On indigenisation, Dhanoa gave examples of the Rohini and Rudra radars, the Astra missile and other critical assets. "The credit must also go to the ADA National Flight Test Centre, as we have not lost a single light combat aircraft in flight testing since January 2001. While on other platforms earlier, we have paid with lives of our test flight pilots and engineers," media quoted Dhanoa as saying.
Since Independence, 19 pilots and engineers have been killed in air accidents in flight testing and evaluation of the indigenous Marut, Kiran, Ajit and prototype aircraft, he stated. "Recently, we lost two young and extremely competent pilots during the testing of Mirage-2000 upgrade in HAL, Bangalore," he added.
The seminar was for the Indian industry to better understand what the requirements of the IAF were, and have convergence of various stakeholders.