Updated: January 3, 2020 12:34:28 pm
On December 27, the Indian Air Force retired its fleet of MiG-27s. The 29 Squadron, known as the Scorpios, flew the aircraft into the sunset at the IAF’s Jodhpur base.
The service life of the ‘swing wing’-type aircraft marked an important era for the IAF as various efforts were made to strengthen the nation’s air defences. The Russian-origin MiG-27s were inducted in 1984-85, and underwent a midlife upgrade around 2006.
Ground attack aircraft
The MiG-27 is primarily a ‘ground attack’ aircraft, whose main role is to conduct precision air strikes in battle while tackling the adversary’s air defences. The jets have proved to be extremely effective in both Battle Air Strikes — air attacks in a war situation to support ground forces — and in Battle Air Interdiction, which are preventive operations that are sometimes carried out deep inside enemy territory, to target enemy installations, supplies, and forces, and hamper its future actions.
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In the 1980s, the IAF had the MiG-21, but was in need of effective modern aircraft that could perform Battle Air Strikes and Battle Air Interdiction roles. The MiG-21, which was at the time used in ground attack roles, was primarily an ‘Interceptor’ aircraft. The induction of the swing wing MiG-23BN, in a way a predecessor of the MiG-27, was an important addition to the IAF’s capabilities.
Swing wing aircraft
Swing wing (or variable geometry) technology allowed the aircraft to change the sweep of their wings — thus changing the geometry of the plane as per operational requirements. This provided flexibility and an ability to stay stable at low altitudes; however, the additional hardware mechanism added to the aircraft’s weight, and increased the possibility of failure.
Advances in aerodynamics ensured that variable geometry aircraft were no longer needed. The 29 squadron that operated the upgraded MiG-27 was the IAF’s last swing wing squadron.
Swing wing was not the only distinguishing feature of the MiG-27. Said Angad Singh, air power analyst at Observer Research Foundation: “The navigation and attack systems of the MiG-27 were second to none when it was inducted. It was a very effective strike aircraft when operating as designed at high speeds and low altitudes. The indigenous upgrade made it even more potent, and it was widely regarded as the most accurate weapons delivery platform of the IAF.”
Record of performance
At the time the MiG-27s were inducted, India’s air defence was focussed primarily on Pakistan. The jet showed its efficacy over Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Punjab, and also proved to be extremely effective in the high altitude conflict in Kargil in 1999. In Kargil, the MiG-27 took part in the IAF operation codenamed Safed Sagar, in which Air Force assets operated jointly with ground forces.
The Kargil war saw the most extensive role for the IAF since the 1971 war. MiG-21s, MiG-23s, and MiG-27s were used, along with Jaguar and Mirage jets. Then Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa’s MiG-27 was hit by the Pakistanis, after which he ejected and was held prisoner for more than a week.
Concerns over safety
The MiG-27 suffered its share of accidents, including a couple of crashes in 2019 as well. Some of the officers who flew the aircraft believe that having one of the most powerful engines in the single-engine category may have made the MiG-27 more prone to engine malfunctions. “The engine was the principal safety issue with the jet. Engine fires and other failures relating to the powerplant were common,” Angad Singh said.
The jet also saw groundings like the one in February 2010, after an accident in Siliguri. Air Chief Marshal P V Naik (retd), who was Chief of the Air Staff at the time, said, “Whenever an accident takes place, a Court of Inquiry is set up to investigate the causes. If there are reasons of the concern, the fleet is grounded. There is nothing unusual in that. All the aircraft are then checked before being cleared for flying.”
As the ‘Bahadur’ aircraft — a name the MiG-27 acquired during the Kargil War — was decommissioned, there was concern over the Air Force’s depleting strength. The IAF is still operating four squadrons of the upgraded MiG-21s, which entered service before the MiG-27s, but will phase out its entire MiG fleet by 2024. The MiG-21s will be the last one to go.
Angad Singh explained: “Aircraft retirement has little to do with induction date. The life of an aircraft is described in flying hours or years of service. Typically after an upgrade, the aircraft life is extended by a certain amount. In the case of the MiG-27, this was around 10 years, whereas for the MiG-21 Bison, the figure was 15 years. Considering both aircraft were upgraded around the same time in the mid-2000s, the MiG-27 would logically be retired earlier.”
The Air Force is now operating with 28 fighter squadrons against its sanctioned strength of 42. The proposed addition of two more Sukhoi squadrons, two Rafale squadrons, and various versions of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, will fill in for the retiring MiGs and legacy aircraft like the Jaguar.
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