Murphy's Law: Elderly MiGs Rejected By Everyone

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January 3, 2021: Most African air forces have a few elderly Cold War era warplanes, usually jets that have been inoperable for years. Many of these were acquired in the 1960s and 70s and not maintained very well. One of these nations, Nigeria, recently offered, via aircraft broker Inter Avia Group, twenty MiG-21 jet fighters. They are advertised as having little air time. One of these MiG-21 with only 34 flight hours while the others range from 199 to 547 flight hours. The MiGs are offered with 15 spare engines and other spare parts. Some of these jets were purchased in 1975, when Nigeria received 30 of them. In 1984 another 15 were purchased. The aircraft were used for reconnaissance and ground attack. usually against civilians, several times but were never in combat. All were withdrawn from service in the early 1990s and now only twenty of the original 35 are left to sell. These aircraft have been stored in the open for nearly 30 years, with only some tarps covering the engine inlets and cockpits. None are flyable and these is not much demand for operational second-hand MiG-21s and only scrap dealers are interested in buying MiG-21s that have not flown for decades. Inter Avia is a broker and only makes money if someone purchases an aircraft they have listed as available. No asking price was given and Inter Avia advised prospective buyers to contact them about prices. Any offers are apt to be quite low and not much more than scrap value. There is some market for spare engines but the ones Nigeria offers have been in storage for over three decades and in need of refurbishment to make operational. There’s an interesting story behind this offer, but details have not yet been made public. Nigeria has been unsuccessful in the past when surplus aircraft were put up for sale. That was because the aircraft were in bad shape and Nigeria refused to take what the aircraft were worth and demanded more than anyone would pay.

Currently the Nigerian Air Force does not have many combat aircraft. These include eight recently acquired Chinese J-7 jet fighters. These are Chinese built MiG-21s. Although a 1950s design, the J-7 is much updated and adequate to deal with neighboring air forces. There are also about a dozen French/German Alpha Jets. These 7.5-ton twin-jet planes entered service in the 1970s as a trainer/ground attack aircraft. They are armed with a 23mm autocannon and carry about two tons of bombs, rockets and missiles. Nigeria bought 24 in the 1980s and used them heavily for two decades until most were inoperable. In the last five years 14 of their Alphas have been refurbished to make them flyable. The problem is, the elderly Alphas have been hard at work as the only counterterrorism aircraft available. The J-7 and Alphas are the only combat aircraft Nigeria has, aside from about a dozen armed helicopters.

To provide some useful combat aircraft Nigeria has ordered twelve A-29 Super Tucanos. This is a single-engine turboprop trainer/attack aircraft that is used by eighteen nations. The armed version carries two internal 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns and can carry up to 1.5 tons of bombs and rockets. It can stay in the air for up to 6.5 hours. Max altitude is 11,300 meters (35,000 feet) and cruising speed is 400 kilometers an hour. Naturally, this aircraft can move in lower and slower than any jet can and is much more effective than a jet when it comes to ground attack. Standard equipment includes a GPS navigation system, armor for the pilot, a pressurized cockpit, and an ejection seat. Not bad for an aircraft with a max takeoff weight of 5.4 tons. It is rugged, easy to maintain and cheap. You pay $15-20 million for each Super Tucano, depending on how much training, spare parts, and support equipment you get with them.

These "trainer/light attack aircraft" can also operate from crude airports or even a stretch of highway. Aircraft like this can carry systems to defeat portable surface to air missiles. One of the options is a FLIR (infrared radar that produces a photo-realistic video image in any weather) and a fire control system for bombing. Several nations are using the Super Tucanos for counter-insurgency work. The aircraft is also used for border patrol by the United States. African military leaders have long wanted some basic, easy and cheap to operate aircraft for training and reconnaissance. That is what the Super Tucano does, plus carry out ground attack if so equipped.

The Super Tucano can double as trainers. It's easier to train pilots using Super Tucano, cheaper to buy them, and much cheaper to operate them. It costs less than a tenth as much per flying hour to operate a Super Tucano compared to an F-16. This is why the U.S. Air Force uses Super Tucano (as the A-29) as a trainer for training pilots of allies that have or are receiving the Super Tucano.

Meanwhile active-duty MiG-21s are slowly fading away worldwide. In 2013 China ended production of its J7 after nearly fifty years of manufacturing what evolved into an advanced version of the original Russian design. China began licensed production of the Russian MiG-21 in 1964, but it took another decade for that to evolve into the J7 and for mass production to really get started. Over 2,400 were produced. The earlier ones were inferior to the MiG-21 because Russia refused to transfer technology for the latest models of this 1950s design. By the 1980s the Chinese had matched the Russian MiG-21. This didn’t bother the Russians because in 1985 Russia ceased MiG-21 production, after building more than 11,000. From then on, if you wanted a new MiG-21 you had only one source, the Chinese J7. For three decades China kept improving the J7 capabilities, mainly through tweaks to the airframe and better electronics. Most J7s were used by China but about twenty percent were exported to fourteen countries. About a dozen of these nations, including Nigeria, still operate their J7s.

In 2011 China officially withdrew its J7s from first line service. This came as no surprise. In the four years before that China more than doubled its number of modern combat aircraft (J-10, J-11, Su-27, Su-30, and J8F) from 500 to over 1,200. In 2007 China relied mainly on some 2,000 locally built copies of Russian MiG-19s (J6) and MiG-21s (J7). There are still several hundred bombers that are mostly Russian knockoffs. China is buying and building a lot of the Russian Su-27s and Su-30s, the latter an upgrade of the former. But new, home grown designs, like the J20 are also showing up.

Another reason for withdrawing the J7 to secondary regions, where modern jets are unlikely to be encountered, is the inability to use J7s for a lot of training. That's important because China has revised its combat pilot training program. The new system puts more emphasis on trainee pilots demonstrating combat flying skills before they can graduate. Cold War era Russian aircraft designs, like the MiG-21, were not designed for the heavy use required for Western style pilot training. J7 pilots cannot easily be trained to the same standard as those flying more modern aircraft.

China has long been the largest user of the MiG-21/J7. The J7 was, in many ways, the most advanced version of the MiG-21, as the Chinese kept improving their J7 design. Over 13,000 Mig-21s and J7s have been produced during the sixty years it was manufactured, making this the most widely manufactured jet fighter of the last century. During World War II there were several propeller-driven fighters that were produced in greater numbers. The MiG-21 looked fearsome but it was a bust in combat, getting shot down more often than not. Russia still had 186 Mig-21s in service when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. These MiG-21s were officially retired a few years later. India, the last major user of the MiG-21, is in the process of retiring them as well.

 


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