MiG-27 Bows Out of IAF Service

 - January 2, 2020, 1:31 PM
A MiG-27 Bahadur fires its GSh-6-30 rotary cannon in a low-angle dive strafing run. (Photo: Indian Air Force)

The Indian Air Force has retired its last squadron of Mikoyan MiG-27s. The aircraft was formally decommissioned in a ceremony held at Air Force Station Jodhpur in Rajasthan, northwestern India on December 27, 2019. The last unit operating the type was No. 29 Squadron “Scorpios,” commanded by Group Captain KU Rao, which still had seven aircraft on charge on that day, five of which took part in a flypast.

The ceremony was presided over by Air Marshal SK Ghotia VSM, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief South Western Air Command, and was attended by large numbers of former MiG-27 aircrew. These included Group Captain Anupam Banerjee, who flew the MiG-27 during Operation Safed Sagar, the opening phase of the Kargil Air Campaign in 1999.

The Indian Air Force received about 165 MiG-27MLs between 1985 and 1994 and had a peak of seven MiG-27 squadrons. The MiG-27 was optimized as a high-speed, ultra-low-level ground attack aircraft and gained a reputation as a rock-solid and stable platform for strafe and rocket attacks. One IAF MiG-27 pilot called the aircraft a “20-tonne flying tank that could outrun a Mirage 2000 at low level.” The MiG-27 played a vital role in the 1999 Kargil war along the Line of Control in Kashmir, during which the aircraft strafed high-altitude targets on mountainsides.

The first 10 Indian MiG-27s were supplied from the Irkutsk factory and 80 were supplied as kits for local assembly before full licensed production began. The type was known as the Bahadur (Valiant) in IAF service. No. 222 Squadron, the last IAF Sukhoi Su-7 unit, was the first to convert to the MiG-27M. The new type subsequently equipped a number of former HAL Ajeet light fighter squadrons (Nos 9, 18, 22, and 2, while No. 10 converted from the MiG-23BN and No. 29 from the MiG-21.

Some 38 aircraft were upgraded to MiG-27UPG standards between 2003 and 2008, gaining a MIL-1553B digital databus, inertial navigation, and GPS, while the cockpit was extensively modernized, featuring a new head-up display and a full-color high-definition head-down display, a digital map generator, and a digital video recording system. The aircraft was fitted with a new laser rangefinder and marked target seeker, a new countermeasures dispensing system, and an Elta self-protection jammer, while radar warning receiver (RWR) antennas were relocated to prevent masking. The MiG-27UPG was given provision for a laser designator pod and a reconnaissance pod. The aircraft was also fitted with a data transfer unit to allow mission plans and RWR updates to be loaded before flight. Pilot workload was dramatically reduced, weapons accuracy was improved, and the aircraft gained meaningful night/all-weather attack and precision-guided bombing capabilities. However, the MiG-27UPG was considered difficult to fly, and three were lost in accidents during the final year of operations, the most recent on September 4. The pilots ejected safely in all cases.

The MiG-27UPG (sometimes designated as the MiG-27MU) equipped the two squadrons of No. 32 Wing at Jodhpur (Nos 10 and 29), while one unit at Kalaikunda (No. 18 Squadron) and the two squadrons of No. 16 Wing at Hashimara (Nos 22 and 222) soldiered on with non-upgraded MiG-27MLs until 2016 and 2017, when the ML variant was finally retired.

Last year has seen the final retirement of the MiG-27 in Sri Lanka (though the handful of aircraft still notionally on charge were grounded some time before that) and probably also in Kazakhstan, where about a dozen survivors served with the 11th Division’s 129th Fighter-Bomber Regiment at Taldy Kurgan. This is thought to have left the Indian Air Force’s No. 10 Squadron "Daggers" and No. 29 Squadron "Scorpios" as the world’s last operational MiG-27 units. No. 10 Squadron disbanded in March 2019, leaving a single unit to continue for a few months.

The disbandment or number-plating of the two remaining MiG-27 units means that the frontline combat strength of the IAF will shrink to 28 squadrons—far below India’s required 42-squadron total.