The Srinagar-based ‘51 Swordarms’ Squadron of MiG-21s had played a major role in thwarting Pakistan Air Force’s retaliation a day after the IAF’s pre-dawn air strikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammed facility at Balakot on February 26, 2019.
Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman, then a Wing Commander, was awarded a Vir Chakra for shooting down an F-16, while his MiG-21 also went down during the aerial skirmish on that day. The other three squadrons of the single-engine MiG-21s, which were the first truly supersonic fighters to be inducted by IAF in 1963 but have been dogged by an alarmingly high crash rate in later years, willbe phased out by 2025, as was reported by TOIin July.
These three MiG-21 squadrons are currently based in Uttarlai, Suratgarh and Nal in Rajasthan. Retirement of the old and highly-unforgivingMiG-21s, which lack modern systems with built-in safety mechanisms, has been delayed several times because of the shortfall in fighter squadrons.
IAF is currently making do with just 32-33 squadrons (each squadron has 16-18 jets), when its “authorised strength” is 42. 5 squadrons to deal with China and Pakistan, due to the long delays in induction of new fighters, including the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft.
IAF, of course, now has 36 new omni-role Rafale fighters, inducted under the Rs 59,000-crore deal with France. The force is also banking upon the induction of 73 “improved” Tejas Mark-1A fighters and 10 trainers, in the February 2024-February 2029 timeframe under the Rs 46,898-crore contract inked with HAL last year.