The Indian MiG-21 was the first combat aircraft of non-Western origin in the IAF (Indian Air Force) inventory and its choice marked a watershed in the procurement of aircraft for the IAF. An agreement concluded in August 1962 provided for the Indian purchase of twelve MiG-21 s and Soviet technical assistance in establishing licence production of the type in India. A group of eight IAF pilots arrived at Frunze, the capital of the Kyrghyz SSR (now Bishkek), on 9th October 1962 to take a three- month conversion training course at the nearby Loogovaya AB, transitioning to the MiG-21 via theUTI MiG-15 and MiG-17.
The October-November 1962 frontier war between India and China impacted on the attitudes and consequently training of IAF pilots in the Soviet Union. Keeping their frustration in check, the IAF pilots were given an abysmal four and a half hours of flying time over a five month period, although classroom instruction on aircraft engines, airframe and systems (via interpreters) was very good. Not surprisingly, every IAF pilot was assessed as ‘exceptional’ in flying.
The first six of an eventual 10 MiG-21F-13s (izdeliye 74) left the Ukrainian seaport of Odessa on 15th January 1963 and reached Bombay on 28th January. 28 Squadron at Chandigarh, Punjab, was the first unit to receive them and, to mark the occasion, adopted the sobriquet ‘First Supersonics’. A second batch of four MiG-21 F- 13s reached India in mid-1964. The fighters received the serials BC816-BC825. They differed from other izdeliye 74s in having a vertical VHF blade aerial on the fuselage spine about halfway between the canopy and the vertical tail.
Two MiG-21 PFs (izdeliye 76A) were delivered to India in late 1964 along with the second shipment of MiG-21 F-13s; they, too, served with 28 Sqn. Subsequent events suggest that no more MiG-21 PFs were ever ordered.
It had been planned to procure another 18 aircraft in 1965 but the Second Kashmir War with Pakistan erupted in September that year and the IAF went to war with its MiG-21 trials squadron boasting only eight serviceable aircraft. (Two had been lost in a mid-air collision during a training flight at Ambala AB, Haryana, on 21st December 1963; the pilots, Sqn Ldrs M.S.G. ‘Mally’ Wollen and A. K. Mukherjee. ejected.) The handful of MiG-21 s played a limited role during the three weeks of warfare, being only utilised for combat air patrol duties over two forward airfields in the Punjab but had little occasion to fire their guns or missiles in anger. Moreover, both MiG-21 PFs were reportedly destroyed on the ground when Pakistani F-86s raided Pathankot AB, Punjab, on 6th September 1965.
However, the Mikoyan OKB offered a developed version of the MiG-21 PF with the R11F-300 engine, a fuel capacity increased to 2.900 litres (638 Imp gal), a parabrake repositioned below the rudder, an R-2L radar, underwing pylons capable of carrying fuel tanks and significantly, the capability of carrying a GP- 9 gun pack under the fuselage. It was designated MiG-21 FL (izdeliye 77), FL denoted forsazhl lokator (afterburner/radar). This was the version selected for licence production.
In late 1964 the original production plans had been revised as too ambitious. In mid-1966, the Department of Defence Production announced that the MiG-21 manufacture programme in India was to proceed in four stages, starting with assembly from completely knocked-down (CKD) kits, advancing to sub-assemblies, parts and, finally, raw materials. In order to assist the programme, a batch of 54 MiG-21 FLs purchased from the USSR was test flown there, then dismantled, shipped to India and reassembled at Nasik, Maharashtra, under Russian supervision.
The manufacturing project was handled by the specially created Aeronautics (India) Limited (later MiG-Division of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited). Licence production took place at a new purpose-built Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) airframe plant at Ozar near Nasik between 1966 and 1973. Another new factory was erected near Koraput, Orissa, to build the engines and yet another at Balanagar near Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, to make the avionics and missiles. 205 MiG-21 FLs were built, the process progressing from the basic assembly of Soviet CKD kits, on to production of most of the airframe and the fitting of imported engines and finally, the manufacture of almost the complete aircraft. The first Indian-assembled MiG-21 FL was handed over to the IAF in early 1967 and the first example entirely built from local components on 19th October 1970. The first HAL-built R11F2S-300 turbojet was delivered on 2nd January 1969. Indian production of the MiG-21 FLs totalled 196.
The MiG-21 represented an entirely new generation of combat aircraft of the Mach 2, missile age and the IAF adapted new technique in operations, maintenance and employment of supporting ground systems. The MiG-21 FL was a superb aircraft for close combat and had excellent handling characteristics and high performance, the technical staff being as enthusiastic about its servicing and maintenance simplicity, but the IAF demanded that the fighter be urgently modified to address its limited armament and range. Consultations with the Russians led to some major improvements, the main heads of modification concerning an increase in internal fuel capacity, more effective brake pressure and the eventual incorporation of larger capacity drop tanks, a cannon pod and a gun sight. The GP-9 pod housing the 23-mm GSh-23 twin-barrel cannon, and the computing gun sight with an electrical ranging system, were imported as kits from the Soviet Union and the fighters were modified by Base Repair Depots of the IAF. The cannon pod became an additional notch in the confidence factor, pilots no longer have to face the uncomfortable prospect of being left unarmed after the two missiles were fired in the first few seconds of combat. In place of the 490-litre central auxiliary fuel tank, the IAF modified is MiG-2ls to carry similar capacity drop tanks under each wing, thus greatly increasing endurance, range and firepower.
MiG-21 FL survivors were withdrawn from active service in 2005.
The last and most advanced variant was the MiG-21 bis (izdeliye 75A), which was designed as an all-round fighter and had a new R25-300 engine to improve low-altitude performance. It was known in the IAF as Vikram (Hero).
The most advanced trainer variant was the MiG-21 UM (izdeliye 69A), which, externally, looked the same as the MiG-21 US except for a sweptback dorsal radio aerial and the angle of attack sensor on the port side of the nose. Reports state that about 70 of this variant were purchased, including some received in the 1990s from Eastern European countries and, in 2000-2003, 19 from Kyrghyzstan, three from the Ukraine and one from Russia.