India is Eliminating its MiG-27 Fighters (They Were a Disaster)

David Axe

Key Point: The MiG-27 had a nasty habbit of exploding.

The Indian air force plans in December 2019 finally to retire its last few Soviet-designed MiG-27 Flogger fighter-bombers, bringing to an end 38 years of MiG-27 operations in India and leaving the Kazakh air force as the last operator of the 1970s-vintage, swing-wing warplane.

New Delhi’s last MiG-27 unit, No. 29 Squadron is based in Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Two other MiG-27 squadrons shuttered in 2016.

Pilots and planners probably won’t miss the speedy but volatile MiG-27, a ground-attack derivative of the MiG-23 interceptor. U.S. Air Force test pilots who flew a captured MiG-23 under the auspices of the once-secret Constant Peg program, literally were afraid of the plane owing to its tendency to explode in mid-flight.

"It would accelerate until it blew up," John Manclark, a commander of Constant Peg during the mid-1980s, said of the MiG-23. "The limit was 720 to 710 knots, but guys would look down inside and see they were going 850 to 880."

The Indian air force acquired the first of 165 locally-assembled MiG-27s starting in 1981. The type flew in combat during the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999. In essence, a simpler MiG-23 without that type’s air-to-air radar, the MiG-27 with its powerful R-29 engine at low altitude could accelerate to a top speed of around Mach one.

But the plane was complex and unsafe compared to Western types. Even other Soviet types were safer to fly than the MiG-27 was. The Indian air force lost at least 10 percent of its MiG-27s in crashes.

Sri Lanka’s experience was even worse. The Sri Lankan air force in the late 1990s acquired from Ukraine a batch of six MiG-27s plus a MiG-23 trainer. The Sri Lankan government at the time was at war with the Tamil Tigers rebel group. It wanted a fast fighter-bomber that also could operate at low level.

The MiG-27 arguably was a poor choice. It’s unsurprising that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s wartime defense secretary, later was accused of accepting bribes in exchange for approving the MiG buy. A newspaper editor died in an apparent assassination after reporting on the allegedly corrupt fighter deal.

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