The MiG-21 Bison Upgrade Programme

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Bison02 SmallWhen we got an invitation to accompany the filming team of KaleidoIndia Ltd for a trip to visit the MiG-21 Bison’s Airbase, we just could not say no. KaleidoIndia was tasked by the Air Head Quarters to make a sequel film to the sucessful Aakash Yodha. This film , known as ‘Aakash Yodha 2’ was to be an internal film for circulation within the Indian Air Force.. The filming was almost completed when it was decided to include some more footage on the Indian Air Force’s latest acquisitions. The much publicised Sukhoi Su-30 MKI and the relatively low-key induction of the MiG-21 Bison (earlier known as the MiG-21 UPG). While the induction of the Sukhoi-30 MKI was a much-covered event, This would be the first time that the media would get a close look at the Bisons.

The MiG-21 Bisons are based at an Air Force Station north of Delhi. This airbase was home to No.3 Squadron, AF also known as the Cobras which operates the Bisons. Over the years, this huge airbase saw World War Two vintage Spitfires, Tempests, British Jet engined Vampires, French Dassault Ouragan and Mysteres, Hawker Hunters and Sukhoi-7s operate from here. The Airbase was attacked once by Pakistani B-57 Bombers in 1965, But no aircraft ventured to attack it during the 1971 War.

The first thing we noticed on getting down from the Air Force Dornier here was the ‘Frozen Tear’ Memorial near the ATC Building – a tribute to the gallant fliers who lost their lives over the decades. There were more than thirty names inscribed on the memorial obelisk, while a HAL built Gnat aircraft E-1051 was mounted on a pylon behind, dipping a wing as if in a salute to the fallen pilots. We were received by the COO, and immediately taken down to the No.3 Squadron dispersal.

No.3 Squadron – Background

No.3 Squadron was one of the oldest units of the Indian Air Force. Raised in 1942 on the Westland Wapiti, the Cobras had a distinguished career in the Second World War. Over the years they flew the Hurricane, Spitfire, Tempest, Vampire and the Ouragan. They were in the thick of the action during the 1965 War, when it was based at Pathankot. Flying the Mystere IVa in the ground attack role, it carried out many operations against Pakistani Armour and Troop targets. Its CO Wg Cdr Bhattacharya once critically damaged a Pakistani Army Aviation Cessna by his air to ground rockets! The Cobras lost two Mysteres on its ops, plus another four on the ground in a PAF attack on Pathankot.

The Unit was slated to convert to the MiG-21 when the 1971 War broke out. Based at Sirsa, the squadron operated in a Photo Recce Role. By that time, the Mystere was obsolete and a few losses were suffered due to ground fire. At the beginning of 1972, the Squadron converted to the MiG-21FL. Its association with the MiG-21 continues to this day.

The FLs gave way to the Bis in 1980 and the cobras operated for nearly twenty-two years. The Cobras had earlier shifted here in 1997. Then in 2001, they received news that they would be the first unit to be equipped with the Upgraded MiG-21 Bis. Then known as the MiG-21 UPG.

The MiG-21 in the Indian Air Force

The Indian Air Force’s love affair with the MiG-21 spans nearly forty years. The first MiG-21s, the early F-13s, also known as Type 74s arrived in October 1963 equipping the newly raised ‘ First Supersonics’ – No.28 Squadron. About six of them were acquired and were joined by another six MiG-21PFs (Type 76)s in 1965. The conversion was quite slow and the MiGs hardly had any time to show their effect in the 1965 Operations.

After the end of the 65 War, reequipping of IAF squadrons was done on a war footing . HAL started the manufacturing process of the FLs and by 1971, No less than Nine and a half Squadrons were flying the MiG-21FL (Type 77) at one point of time (1972). It is estimated that the IAF acquired nearly 250 Type 77s over a period of time. The aircraft distinguished itself in the 71 Operations — Particularly in Air Combat against the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Claims for four F-104 Starfighters, One Shenyang F-6 (Chinese copy of the MiG-19) and one Canadair F-86 Sabre were made and a host of aircraft on the ground were claimed in Counter Air Strike raids on Pakistani airbases. Six MiG-21s were lost in combat due to various reasons out of which only one was lost in Air to Air Combat – to a F-86 Sabre on the last day of the war.

There were several issues about the FL that were a source of concern for the IAF. The main grouse was the lack of an integral cannon in the aircraft. The FL had only two wingstations and if they were not used for carrying Fuel, then the central weapon station has to be used to carry a fuel tank – which meant that the Cannon pod could not be carried. This deficiency was overcome in 1974 when the IAF chose the R-13 powered MiG-21M (Type 96), which succeeded the production line at HAL after the FLs were stopped manufacturing. To cover up for the commencement of production, about two squadrons worth of the MiG-21MF were procured. Approximately another 220 M/MFs were procured/manufactured for the IAF and this was to be the mainstay of the force till the late 70s. In 1980, the first unit converted to the MiG-21 Bis, a type of which nearly 300 were to be procured in total.

The last Bis left the production line in 1985, when the focus shifted on manufacturing the MiG-27. Total MiG-21 procurement was approximately around 900 aircraft. These include nearly a 100 two seater Type 66 and 69s which were imported directly from the USSR or the East European countries in the early 90s. The two seater Mongol is now the aircraft being used as an Advanced Trainer at the MOFTU for the Stage III training of the pilots.

The Birth of the UPG idea

The Indian Ministry of Defence initially banked on the Light Combat Aircraft program to design a replacement for the huge inventory of MiG-21s that would need to be phased out towards the latter half of the 90s and the early years of the 21st century. But with the impending delays in the LCA program it became clear that an interim measure has to be implemented. Upgrading a select number of the MiG-21s with better avionics and armament to make them more compatible in today’s hostile EW rich environment could do this. Thus was borne the MiG-21-93 program. It was proposed to extend the Total Technical Life (TTL) of the MiG-21Bis from the current level of 2400 Hours as well as Upgrade the avionic capabilities of the existing aircraft. The Russian Counterpart – MiG MAPO indicated in August 91 that an upgrade of the MiG-21 can be carried out. After a joint study, it was decided to award the contract for upgradation to MiG-MAPO in in March 1994.

The proposal for 125 MiG Bis aircraft with an option to upgrade 50 more aircraft at a total cost of US$ 626 million was cleared in January 1996. The upgrade was to include major modifications by MiG-MAPO which would incorporate Western Avionics as well as indigenously developed components. Besides the major airframe, weapons and radar contract with MiG, a contract with Sextant was signed for the Inertial navigation System (INS), with HAL for subsequent upgradation of the aircraft, with NAL for fatigue testing and studies in TTL Extension and with BEL for development of the Tarang Radar warning Receiver (RWR).

HAL dispatched two aircraft (C-2777 and C-2769) to Russia in May 1996 for modification. However the Air Force team could only reach in October 96.The schedule was to upgrade about 30 aircraft by end of the financial year in 1999, followed by 40 aircraft in the subsequent years. The complete upgradation of the 125 aircraft and the additional option of 50 were to be completed by March 2003. However the project got delayed to the extent of three years. Non-Supply of documentation, revision of Bill of Materials and delays in integration of weapons and flight-testing resulted in these delays. The flight-testing and combat evaluation of the aircraft, which was scheduled to be completed by April 1998 was completed only by September 2000 after a delay of 30 months. The Russians in turn allege problems in payments by HAL as well as Low reliability in components supplied by the Indian firms.

The development of the RWR system was entrusted to Advanced Systems Integration and Evaluation Organisation (ASIEO) with an objective to develop a compact Advanced Radar Warning Receiver system for fighter aircraft – which could be used not only for the upgraded MiG-21 but also in other aircraft like the MiG-27 and Sukhoi-30. Two systems were supplied directly to MiG MAPO by April 98 , a delay of almost one year. Further delays were complicated in the delays in supply of the INS system.

However a major handicap of the project was that the study to find out the feasibility of the extension of TTL was not completed on time. It is believed this study, which was subcontracted to NAL in Bangalore was completed only in the middle of 2002. It was also charged in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) , a government watchdog body that audits the expenditure on all financial expenditure in India that the Russian contractors had gone back on technology transfer without any royalty clause. The report also said that similar technology transfer agreements for avionic systems had also not been finalised with western vendors, which could pose a difficulty in repair and overhaul of the upgraded fighters.

Induction progress

The first two aircraft (C-2777 and C-2769) which were upgraded in Russia, did their first test flight on October 6th, 1998. Trials of the medium-range Vympel R-73RDM2 and the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Vympel R-77/RVV-AEE air-to-air missiles were conducted in February 1999. The formidable combination of the Phazatron Kopyo (Spear) light weight multi-mode radar with that of the Missiles proved a success, the subsonic target drone aircraft being destroyed by a R-77 fired from 6km away. In all the two prototypes were believed to have done nearly 200 test flights.

After the two prototype aircraft have returned to India in July 2001, the HAL manufacture of the Upgraded MiGs from the supplied kits commenced. The first HAL built MiG-21 commenced taxi trials on August 27th , 2001. The first test flights of the HAL upgraded MiG-21Bis (C-2794) happened on August 31st, 2001. As more and more Aircraft were being upgraded, the privilege of being the first unit to fly these 21st century MiG-21s went to the Cobras. Somewhere around this time the decision to add a Suffix ‘U’ to the Alphabetical portion of the Serial was taken – to differentiate from the earlier Bis. Thus C-2794 would become CU-2794 etc.

Wg Cdr RK Dhir, who had been associated with the UPG program arrived from Russia to take command of the Squadron on July 23rd, 2001. The Cobras got a glimpse of their first UPG, the HAL Assembled one, when it came here in September. It was bought there to take part in the AFD 2001 Parade at Palam in October. The Indian and International media got thier first close glimpse of the aircraft on this occasion.

By the end of the year, five pilots were selected for the Conversion course and sent to Bangalore for Simulator training and to Ojhar for flying training. At that time the pilots referred to the UPG as ‘BUG’ – abbreviation for Bison Up Grade. Conversion training at Bangalore was ten ‘sorties’ on the Systems Integration Rig – the simulator. Thereon the pilots moved to Ozhar AFS at Nashik and flew five sorties each on the UPG.

The pilots termed the aircraft as a ‘revelation’ – They were most impressed by the avionics and new systems, though the airframe and engine were the same. All five pilots reported the change as ‘fantastic’.


Wing Commander Ravi Dhir, CO of No.3 Squadron, operating the MiG-21 Bison

Wg Cdr Dhir flew the first ‘series’ production UPG (CU-2782) on Jan 25th, 2002. The first three aircraft bought out by HAL were taken to Jodhpur for a series of weapon trials using the KAB-500 TV Guided bomb. No.3 Squadron however could take official charge of the aircraft only by May 25th, 2002.  By that time, the IAF had officially decided to call the Upgraded MiG, the Bison. The induction was not without problems. The initial aircraft were called away for further testing and the Squadron continued to fly the Bis in large numbers. However with more numbers of aircraft coming in, the Bis aircraft were handed over and flown out to the other units by the end of July.

In Sep 2002, one of the Bisons had a flame out during a normal sortie, Sqn Ldr Rajat Nangia had to eject. The aircraft flew by itself for a distance and carried out a force landing in the slushy paddy fields of Punjab – the fuselage being surprisingly intact and with little damage. The airframe was airlifted back   by a Mi-26 chopper and was shipped back to Ozhar by Transport. The lack of serious damage in the aircraft enabled the engineers to determine the cause of the flame out which was traced out to a faulty fuel pump for the R-25 engine. Though flying was kept restricted for the duration of this investigation, with the findings of the investigation team, the aircraft were subjected to fuel pump modifications on site.

In an interview with the filming team, the CO, Wg Cdr Dhir emphasized the ‘new’ features of the aircraft, including its ability to use BVR missiles like the R-77 and the usage of Standoff Weapons like the KAB 500, incidentally both of which were displayed on the Bison’s Weapon stations to the filming team (or for any media team) for the first time. The CO was all praise for the improved visibility of the new aircraft and the much simpler workload on the pilot due to the improved avionics.

One of the first things that we noticed are the external features that differentiate the Bison from the Bis. The earlier Bis had a very restrictive view in terms of the Cockpit. The older fixed windshield has been replaced with a new ‘frame less’ Windshield . The older side opening Canopy with a prominent rear view mirror arrangement in the middle of the Perspex has been replaced with a clear bubble canopy which had semicircle rear view mirrors fitted to the rim, offering a much better view. The Conformal ECM Dispensing Systems, which are installed over the wingroot, are another distinguishing feature. Last is the RWR Antennae that have been put on the vertical fin. Something that we never got to see, but is another significant upgrade to the aircraft is the new Helmet Mounted Sighting System, which enables the pilot to launch an Air to Air Missile at off bore angles, simply by turning his head towards the target.

Since there was no flying scheduled for the day, it was decided to stage a mock ORP Scramble for the film team’s benefit – The Airfield is dotted with several Hardened Air Shelters. It was already near the end of the day – and nearing sunset. The filming did not take us much time. We got a look on how the ORPs are mounted and launched. The airfield had a network of Missile defences around. We had a chance to film these in action too.

We wrapped up the shots in about half an hour and bid good bye to the young men who will fly this old generation aircraft that has been given an extended lease of life for some years to come.

The Cobras 1942-2002, by Wg Cdr DP Sabharwal
The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report for 2001 –
Tribune India –
Aircraft Specifications at Bharat Rakshak Website

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