Attrition: The MiG-21 Curse Continues


December 9, 2011: India lost another MiG-21 fighter, the fifth to have crashed this year. That's over 71 percent of Indian warplanes lost this year. Over the last half century, India has bought 976 MiG-21s, and over half are gone, mostly because of accidents. While India was something of an extreme case in this area (other users don't fly their MiG-21s as much), it's been typical of MiG aircraft. All this is part of the decline of the once feared, and admired, MiG combat aircraft. Starting in World War II (the MiG-1 entered service in 1940), through the Korean War (the MiG-15 jet fighter) and the Cold War (the MiG-17/19/21/23/27/29), MiGs comprised the bulk of the jet fighters in communist, and Indian, air forces. But after the Cold War ended in 1991, the flaws of the MiG aircraft (poor quality control and reliability, difficult to fly) caught up with users, in a big way. In the last few years, most of the bad news about military aircraft reliability, accidents and crashes has involved MiG products.

For example, last year, all Indian MiG-27s were grounded for four months because of suspected common mechanical problems. Within a month of the MiG-27s being allowed to fly again, another one crashed. The four month grounding was caused by fears that all the Russian made engines in these aircraft might have a common problem. These fears are not new. The MiG-27 and Cold War era Russian warplanes in general, do not age well. India only has about a hundred MiG-27s still operational, and all of them were grounded for over a year (2005-6) when serious problems were discovered with the MiG-27's Russian designed engines.

Two years ago, India decided to retire 60 percent of its 250 MiG-21 fighters within two years. The only ones remaining will be the upgraded MiG-21bis models. In the last four years, India believed it had cleared up many of the reliability problems with the MiG-21. Actually, they have, but the MiG-21 remains a dangerous aircraft to operate. For that reason, India also plans to bar less experienced pilots from flying the MiG-21.

When consulted about the high MiG-21 accident rate, Russia pointed out that India had insisted on manufacturing many of the spare parts needed to keep MiG-21s operational, and many of these parts were not manufactured to Russian specifications. While Russia does not have a reputation for making the highest quality equipment, their standards are often higher than India's. It's no secret that much of the military equipment made in India is pretty shabby by world standards.

Most of the pilots lost in these MiG-21 accidents were new pilots, which pointed out another problem. India has long put off buying jet trainers. New pilots go straight from propeller driven trainer aircraft, to high performance jets like the MiG-21. This is made worse by the fact that the MiG-21 has always been a tricky aircraft to fly. That, in addition to it being an aircraft dependent on one, low quality, engine, makes it more understandable why so many MiGs were lost. And a lot were lost.

The Indian MiG-21 problems were believed overcome by 2006, a year in which no MiG-21s were lost. India improved maintenance, spare parts quality and pilot training to the point that the aircraft was no longer considered the most dangerous fighter to fly. But they were more expensive to keep in safe flying condition. India has reduced its military aircraft crash rate by over fifty percent in the last decade, but the older MiGs are still seen as dangerous to fly, and they often are.

The Indian problems with MiGs were not unique. Inadequate maintenance and poorly trained pilots have been the cause of about half the lost MiGs. But India has it worst because they train their pilots to Western standards using Russian aircraft that were not designed to be used that heavily in peacetime.

While the MiG-21s and the MiG 23/27 aircraft are distinctly different designs, all are difficult to fly and maintain. Over the last few years, all Indian MiG-23s were retired because of reliability and safety problems. The reason is simple, the aircraft are too expensive to maintain and too dangerous to fly. But India was not the only one, besides the Russians, who had problems with Russian made warplanes. During the Cold War, the U.S. had several dozen Russian aircraft they used for training their fighter pilots. Despite energetic efforts to keep these aircraft flying, their accident rate was 100 per 100,000 flying hours.

That's very high by U.S. standards. The new F-22 has an accident rate is about 6 per 100,000 hours, mainly because it's new. F-15s and F-16s have an accident rate of 3-4 per 100,000 flight hours. India, using mostly Russian aircraft, has an accident rate of 6-7 per 100,000 hours flown (compared to 4-5 for all NATO air forces.) The B-52 has the lowest accident rate of (less than 1.5 per 100,000 flying hours) of all American heavy bombers. The B-1s rate is 3.48. Compared to the supersonic B-1 and high-tech B-2, the B-52 is a flying truck. Thus the B-52, despite its age, was the cheapest, safest and most reliable way to deliver smart bombs.

Combat aircraft have, for decades, been getting more reliable, even as they became more complex. For example, in the early 1950s, the U.S. F-89 fighter had 383 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. A decade later, the rate was in the 20s for a new generation of aircraft. At the time, the F-4, which served into the 1990s, had a rate of under 5 per 100,000 hours. Combat aircraft have gotten more reliable and easier to maintain, despite growing complexity, for the same reason automobiles have. Better engineering, and more sensors built into equipment, makes it easier for the user and maintenance personnel to detect potential problems. Aircraft used the computerized maintenance systems, currently common on new aircraft, long before automobiles got them. Unless you have a much older car that still runs, or a real good memory, you don't notice the enormous increase in automobile reliability. But older pilots remember, because such changes are a matter of life and death if you make your living driving an aircraft. And commanders know that safer aircraft means more aircraft to use in combat, and more aircraft that can survive combat damage and keep fighting.

The MiG-29 was supposed to have solved a lot of the quality and reliability problems of earlier MiG aircraft. But this was not the case. The MiG-29 crashed a lot, and was much more expensive to maintain, especially compared to contemporary Russian fighters like the Su-27. For decades Sukhoi was the second largest Russian military aircraft supplier, and after the Cold War ended, Sukhoi aircraft became the most common. The MiG aircraft appear to be at the end of the line.




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