On Wednesday morning under a harsh winter sun at the Uttarlai air base in India’s western desert, the Indian Air Force’s new chief, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, climbed into the cockpit of a MiG-21 Type 96. It would have been a moment of some nostalgia for the chief, who as a younger officer, had flown the same type on night strike missions in the Kargil sector during the brief conflict in the summer of 1999. As he gunned his fighter from the front line base roughly 85 kilometers from the Pakistan border, it’s hard to know what crossed his mind. The IAF’s own brief statement that day described the aircraft Dhanoa had chosen to fly as the ‘oldest fighter’ in Indian service.
The visual opportunity made the chief a bit of a hero in public, certainly millennial, perception. Few had even heard of Dhanoa before he took on his four stars last month, and fewer still know that he received a war medal for dangerous flights in a MiG-21 into very hostile territory seventeen years ago. A jet that brought him safely home. So when he gunned the stick to blast off from Uttarlai yesterday, there must have been at least some measure of nostalgia. In the news, on social media and elsewhere, the sortie was hailed as a flourish of pluck and leadership — here was a man leading from the front, the twin messages as crisp as the air this rickety old Soviet interceptor was slicing through as it winged back for a landing. One, that here was a chief who was telling his men and women that he wouldn’t be leading from a desk, that angry flight was what the Indian Air Force was always supposed to be about, and there was no place for indolence among senior officers. Two — and in the Indian context, this is particular emotive — here was a chief who was putting his weight behind a jet that suffers from a very sticky perceptional problem, and continues to be inextricably associated with danger and death. Here was a chief reassuring his pilots, especially younger crews, that the MiG-21 was a safe airplane to fly. That if the chief could dust out a Type 96 for a sortie he didn’t really have to fly, then MiG-21 pilots shed any concerns. It was an act well-intentioned and noble amidst the enormous chasms that usually exist between military chiefs and the ranks.
That was, at any rate, the messaging the chief and the IAF likely intended. The subliminal symbolism, though, couldn’t possibly have been more ironic and paradoxical. In at least three key ways, it was a shrill alarm bell reflective of all that the Indian Air Force is constrained from enunciating in public. On can think of at least three.
First off, Dhanoa’s flight was a straight reminder to a young audience that the now seriously vintage MiG-21 is still its flying backbone. Your correspondent personally received a tide of messages both on social media and directly wondering why the IAF chief was flying a MiG-21 — and whether the IAF still operated the MiG-21 in meaningful numbers. That’s the thing — it does. And will continue to do for the next few years. That’s a hard pill to swallow, and the Air Chief Marshal posing smartly in his flightsuit in front of the unmistakable forward section of a Fishbed was somehow deeply representative of the irony. It’s very simple: These are aircraft that should have been gone by now.
Two, the flight was a muffled lament. Controversy has surrounded the MiG-21 for years, helped along by popular culture and an easily excited media that don’t have the time for the intricacies of flight safety indices, flight-hour empiricals, sortie rates and the like. But even facts and figures cannot possibly justify the continuance of a seriously dated platform like the MiG-21 in frontline service of a country as big — and with the vast aerial defence duties — as India. During the Kargil War, then Army chief General Ved Malik had famously snapped that India would fight with what it had — an exasperated pronouncement on delays in modernisation that had saddled the Army with obsolete equipment. Dhanoa’s flight appears to be saying the same thing now, even if conditions are vastly different now than they were during the 1999 conflict. India has many more modern fighter jets and has concluded deals for more. The LCA, intended originally to replace the MiG-21 in large numbers, has finally entered service and will hopefully spread its wings and take over the MiG-21’s duties not too long into the future. And yet, there’s the MiG-21, front and centre. One can’t help but wonder if it would have sent out a tremendously more constructive message if the IAF chief had flown the Tejas for the cameras, not a jet most crews (and their families) wish to see retired without delay.
Three, and it’s difficult to get away from this, the Air Chief’s solo sortie in the MiG-21 has perplexingly been projected (and received) as something of a feat. That couldn’t have been the explicit intention, but that’s the taste. Isn’t that an admission, then? Has the sortie basically, in that case, conveyed that it requires a special courage to fly a MiG-21 alone? Because surely the IAF chief is qualified to fly the type. After all, as the IAF itself stated when it announced his elevation to the position of Chief of Air Staff, “The Air Marshal has mainly flown the Kiran and MiG-21 aircraft with flying experience across the entire spectrum of fighter aircraft.”
There are many solid reasons why the MiG-21 continues to be in Indian service. Fleet strength commitments, deployment imperatives, minimum frontline numbers, etc. The Indian Air Force is also working hard to retire as many MiG-21s as it can — and as soon as it can. But over 100 remain in frontline service. And the Indian Air Force’s new chief, smiling and heroic in the Uttarlai sun, just tapped everyone on the shoulder about that.