Abhinandan Varthaman's MiG-21 Squadron retiring by September end
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is planning to retire a major squadron of MiG-21 fighter planes soon. The Srinagar-based MiG-21 Squadron "Sword Arms"—which former Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was once part of—will reportedly be decommissioned by the end of September. Varthaman was a member of it when he shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet after the Balakot airstrike in February 2019. Here's more.
- The MiG-21 is a Soviet-era single-engine multi-role fighter aircraft that has been in service in India since 1963.
- There are only four squadrons of the aging MiG-21 fighter jets—which have been updated occasionally—remaining in the country.
- To note, over 400 MiG-21 planes of the IAF reportedly crashed over the last 60 years, with the aircraft earning grim nicknames like the "widow-maker" and "flying coffin."
Sword Arms, also called No. 51 Squadron, is a decorated Air Force squadron that took part in Operation Safed Sagar during the 1999 Kargil War. It was honored with a Vayu Sena Medal and received three Mention-in-Dispatches for its efforts. Following the 2001 Parliament attack, it was also entrusted with the vital mission of the Kashmir Valley's air defense during Operation Parakram against Pakistan.
The No. 51 Squadron also played a crucial part following India's Balakot airstrike targeting Jaish-e-Mohammed's terror training camps in February 2019. After the Balakot attack on February 26, Pakistan retaliated on February 27 by attempting to hit Indian military installations. Then, India dispatched Sukhoi Su-30MKI and MiG-21 aircraft to resist Pakistani jets. Varthaman's MiG-21 Bison also reportedly shot down Pakistan's state-of-the-art F-16 fighter aircraft.
On February 27, 2019, the Pakistani Army reportedly captured Varthaman and seized his MiG-21 when it crashed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) while downing the F-16. Nearly three days later—when Pakistan came under international pressure—he was returned to India. He received the Vir Chakra, India's third-highest wartime Indian military honor, in 2019. In 2021, Varthaman was promoted from Wing Commander to the Group Captain rank.
Reportedly, MiG-21 fighters were set to retire in the mid-1990s owing to age and accidents, but they were kept in service after being upgraded to the MiG-21 Bison standard. In the last six decades, over 400 MiG-21 aircraft crashed, per India Today. These crashes killed over 200 pilots and 60 civilians, which is why the aging MiG-21 is called the "flying coffin" or "widow-maker."