The Iconic MiG-21- Great Design – Most Produced Supersonic Jet – Fearsome Reputation – Unending Service

anil chopra, air power asia, Iconic MiG 21

Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman shot down a Pakistani F-16 while flying a MiG-21 Bison, on February 27, 2019 during a showdown between the IAF and Pakistan Air Force (PAF). It not only sent ripples across the world but also brought the MiG 21 in headlines again. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 (NATO reporting name: Fishbed) was designed as supersonic jet interceptor aircraft by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (OKB) of Soviet Union. Its nicknames included, “Balalaika”, because its plan-form resembles the stringed musical instrument of the same name. In Poland they called it “Ołówek”, Polish for pencil, due to the shape of its fuselage. Vietnamese called  “Én Bạc”, meaning “Silver Swallow”. MiG-21 was an airplane that hewed to the classic “perfect is the enemy of good enough” approach. Soviets wanted to fill the sky with thousands of simple, lightweight, reliable jets. After all, that strategy had worked splendidly with the AK-47 rifle. Fishbed was its randomly chosen NATO identifier. The Soviets hated it, just as they hated Fagot, Faithless, Frogfoot and other Western names for their fighters.

MiG 21 FL Image Credit: http://wp.scn.ru/

          Over 60 countries across four continents have flown the MiG-21, and it still serves many nations 65 years after its maiden flight on 16 June 1955 and first public appearance during the Soviet Aviation Day display at Moscow’s Tushino airfield in July 1956. It made aviation records, and became the most produced supersonic jet aircraft in aviation history (11,496), the most-produced combat aircraft after the Korean War and once the longest production run of a combat aircraft, now exceeded by both the McDonnell Douglas F-15 and the Lockheed Martin F-16. Its baby brother, the transonic MiG-15, holds the all-time jet record with around 18,000 units produced. The MiG-21 had a long production run from 1959 to 1985, and the airplane was thereafter updated and modified in India, Israel and Romania, and copied by the Chinese.

Chengdu J-7 PG. Picture Credit: Pinterest

          According to Russian data, in air battles the North Vietnamese, MiG-21s credited 165 air victories, with the loss of 65 aircraft (few by accident) and 16 pilots. The losses of the MiG-21 pilots were the smallest in comparison with all other airplanes they said. As per another source (migflug.com), 240 MiG 21’s scored 240 victories till end 2017.

Vietnam Peopl’s Air Force MiG 21 PF. Picture Credit: airliners.net

Initial Development and Design

          Development of what would become the MiG-21 began in the early 1950s, when Mikoyan OKB finished a preliminary design study for a prototype designated Ye-1 in 1954. The planned engine was underpowered. The redesign led to the second prototype, the Ye-2. Both these featured swept wings. The first prototype with delta wing was the Ye-4. It made its maiden flight on 16 June 1955 and its first public appearance  in July 1956. The MiG-21 was the first successful Soviet aircraft combining fighter and interceptor capabilities. It was a lightweight Mach 2 fighter, with a relatively low-powered afterburning turbojet, when compared to the American F-104 or F-5, or even the French Mirage III. The very characteristic shock cone in the front air intake was unique and peculiar, and left little space for a decent sized radar. Like many aircraft designed as interceptors, the MiG-21 had a short range.

Ye-4 the true progenitor of the MiG-21. Image Credit: aviastar.org

          The delta wing, was excellent for a fast-climbing interceptor, but in turning combat led to a rapid loss of speed. The light loading of the aircraft could mean that a climb rate of 235 m/s (46,250 ft/min) in case of a combat-loaded MiG-21bis, not far short of the performance of the later F-16A. Mig-21’s Tumansky R-25 jet engine had “Emergency Power Rating” (EPR) allowed the engine to develop 97.4 kilonewtons (21,896 lbf) of thrust at lower altitude. Use of this temporary power gave the MiG-21bis slightly better than 1:1 thrust-to-weight ratio. Given a skilled pilot and capable missiles, the aircraft could give a good account of itself against contemporary fighters. Aircraft G-limits were increased to +8.5Gs in the later variants. MiG 21s were replaced by the newer variable-geometry MiG-23 and MiG-27 for ground support duties. However, it was only the MiG 29 that ultimately replaced the MiG-21 as a maneuvering dogfighter to counter new American air superiority types.

F 16 and a Mig 21 Bison. Picture Credit: thedrive.com

          MiG-21’s simple controls, engine, weapons, and avionics were typical of Soviet-era military designs. The use of a tail with the delta wing aids stability and control at the extremes of the flight envelope, enhancing safety for lower-skilled pilots; this in turn enhanced its marketability in exports to developing countries with limited training programs and restricted pilot pools. It often faced, low production and maintenance costs made it a favorite of many nations.

General characteristics

          The aircraft had a length of 14.7 m (48 ft 3 in), Wingspan of 7.15 m (23 ft 6 in), and height of 4.1 m (13 ft 5 in). The Wing area was 23 m2 (250 sq ft). The aircraft could operate from semi-prepared surfaces. The max takeoff weight was 10,400 kg (22,928 lb) from paved runway with larger wheels and tyres. One Tumansky R-25-300 afterburning turbojet, produced 40.18 kN (9,030 lbf) thrust dry, 69.58 kN (15,640 lbf) with afterburner. The maximum permitted  speed was 2,237 km/h (1,390 mph) / M2.05 at 13,000 m (42,651 ft), and 1,300 km/h (810 mph) / M1.06 at sea level. The service ceiling was 17,500 m (57,400 ft). The aircraft armament included one GSh (Gryazev-Shipunov) 23 mm gun with 200 rounds. Aircraft had 4 hard-points with a capacity of up to 2,000 kg (4,400 lb) of stores, with provisions to carry combinations of bombs rockets and missiles or fuel drop-tanks. The rockets included combinations of 57 and 80 mm, and the larger S-24 (240 mm). The latest air-to-air missiles were the R-73, R-77 and R-27. It could carry the air-to-surface Kh-66 Grom and Kh-25. The aircraft could carry four 500 Kg bombs including the TV-guided KAB-500.

MiG 21 Bison with Weapons. Picture Credit: bharat-rakshak.com

Aircraft Production

          A total of 10,645 aircraft were built in the USSR. They were produced in three factories. One in Moscow (3,203 aircraft), in Gorky (now Nizhnie Novgorad) (5,765 aircraft) and Tbilisi (1,678 aircraft). Gorky built single-seaters for the Soviet forces. Moscow constructed single-seaters for export, and Tbilisi manufactured the twin-seaters both for export and the USSR. A total of 194 MiG-21F-13s were built under license in Czechoslovakia and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) built 657 MiG-21FL, MiG-21M and MiG-21bis (225). Due to the mass production, the aircraft was very cheap. The MiG-21MF, for example, was cheaper than the BMP-1. The American F-4 Phantom cost was several times higher than MiG-21.

MiG 21s Built in Russian Plants. Picture Credit: flickr.com

The Shenyang F-7B/Chengdu J-7

          In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet Union shared most of its conventional weapons technology with China. The MiG 21 was a contender. However, the Sino-Soviet split abruptly ended the initial cooperation, and by September 1, 1960, the Soviets withdrew their advisers, resulting in the project being stopped in China. Later Soviet Premier Khrushchev unexpectedly wrote to Mao Zedong in February 1962, offering to transfer MiG-21 technology. The Chinese viewed this offer as a Soviet gesture to make peace, but were suspicious. A delegation headed by the commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), himself a Soviet military academy graduate, went to Moscow. The technology transfer deal was signed. Several MiG-21s were sent to China, flown by Soviet pilots, and China also received some MiG-21Fs in kits, along with parts and technical documents. However, Chinese discovered at Shenyang aircraft factory that the technical documents provided by the Soviets were incomplete and that some of the parts could not be used. China then disassembled a few MiG 21s and began reverse-engineering the aircraft for local production. They succeeded in solving 249 major problems and reproducing eight major technical documents that were not provided by the Soviet Union. They even worked with American firm Grumman for a short while.  The F-7s were the very last production MiG-21s, and about 2,400 were manufactured, some as recently as 2013.

Chinese J-7G. Image Credit: Pinterest

Operational History India

          In 1961, the IAF opted to purchase the MiG-21 over several other Western competitors. As part of the deal, the Soviet Union offered India full transfer of technology and rights for local assembly. Since 1963, IAF inducted more than 1,200 different MiG fighters. In 1964, the MiG-21 became the first supersonic fighter jet to enter service with the IAF. Meanwhile factories were set up at Nasik (aircraft), Hyderabad (Avionics) and Koraput (engines) with Soviet assistance.  Due to limited induction numbers and lack of pilot training, the IAF MiG-21 played a limited role in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. However, the IAF gained valuable experience while operating the MiG-21 for defensive sorties during the war. The positive feedback from IAF pilots during the 1965 war prompted India to place more orders for the fighter jet and also invest heavily in building the MiG-21’s maintenance infrastructure and pilot training programs.

          The capabilities of the MiG-21 were put to the test during the1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The MiG-21s played a crucial role in giving the IAF air superiority over vital points and areas in the western theater of the conflict. The 1971 war witnessed the first supersonic air combat in the subcontinent when an Indian MiG-21FL claimed a PAF F-104A Starfighter with its GSh-23 twin-barrel 23 mm cannon. By the end of the hostilities came to an end, the IAF MiG-21FLs had claimed four PAF F-104s and two Shenyang F-6, and one PAF Lockheed C-130 Hercules. According to one Western military analyst, the MiG-21FLs had clearly “won” the much anticipated air combat between the MiG-21FL and the F-104A Starfighter. In the eastern sector, MiG 21s carried out the final strike over Governor House in Dacca paving the way for surrender. Because of the performance of India’s MiG-21s, several nations, including Iraq approached India for MiG-21 pilot training. By the end of 1970s, more than 120 Iraqi pilots were being trained by the IAF.

PAF F-104. Picture Credit: defence.pk

          However, the plane had been plagued by safety issues. Since 1970 more than 170 Indian pilots and 40 civilians have been killed in MiG-21 accidents. Nearly half of the 840 aircraft built between 1966 and 1984 were lost in crashes. The aircraft engine operates very close to its surge line in some regimes, and the ingestion of even a small bird can lead to an engine surge/seizure and flame out. On 11 December 2013, the MiG-21FL were decommissioned after being in service for 50 years. There are currently over 110 MiG-21s in service.

           One MiG-21 was shot down by a Pakistani soldier using a shoulder-fired MANPADS missile during the Kargil war. On 10 August 1999 two MiG -21FLs of the IAF intercepted and shot down a Pakistan’s Naval Air Arms Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft with an R-60 missile after it entered Indian airspace for surveillance, killing all on board. On February 27, 2019, a MiG-21 reportedly shot down a Pakistani F-16 before the Mig-21 was itself shot down. Pakistan denies the loss of an aircraft in this incident. The Indian Mig-21 pilot ejected, was captured by Pakistan forces and subsequently returned to India. The final Soviet-produced Fishbed was the MiG-21bis, manufactured between 1972 and 1985. This refined model corrected many of the failings of earlier variants.

Pakistan’s Naval Air Arms Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft. Picture Credit: vayu-sena-aux.tripod.com

MiG 21 Bison

          The ultimate MiG modification was the Indian Air Force’s MiG-21upgrade, and the aircraft named “Bison”. It had a MiG-29 bubble canopy and wraparound windscreen; far more capable radar; a helmet-mounted weapons sight; and beyond-visual-range, fire-and-forget missile capability. These and other modifications created a four-fold increase in the airplane’s capability and brought it up to roughly the level of the early F-16 variants.

MiG 21 Bison and F-16. Image Credit: mynation.com

The MiG 21 in Wars

          The aircraft first went to war in 1965, flown by Indian pilots against Pakistanis, though there was no actual air combat. The first-ever MiG-21 victory came in 1966 over Vietnam, when a North Vietnamese pilot shot down an American Ryan Firebee surveillance drone. The Firebee was cruising at 59,000 feet. The MiG-21 actually could intercept at up to 65,000 feet. It was in the Mideast, however, that they would first see all-out war. Israel was surrounded by MiG-21s. The Soviets had provided Egypt, Syria and Iraq with 194 MiG-21s. On June 5, 1967, Israel began the Six-Day War with a preemptive strike that wiped out most of the MiGs and other Arab jets on the ground.

MiG-21 fighters jets Shot Down over Syria. Picture Source: fighterjetsworld.com

Israel Studies MiG 21 Carefully

          Israel was desperate to know about the MiG 21 so that they could evaluate and refine the air-to-air tactics of its fleet of delta-wing Mirage IIICJs. Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency (Operation Diamond) recruited a disgruntled Iraqi MiG pilot to defect with his airplane, in exchange for $300,000 and Israeli citizenship for himself and his family. The Israel Air Force flew the Iraqi MiG enough to determine that it was a good high-altitude interceptor, was easy to fly and that, against a Mirage, pilot skill would determine the outcome. Israelis then painted the stolen MiG in a high-visibility color scheme, slapped on Star of David roundels and put the intriguing number “007” and parked it on an operational Readiness Platform for use in case of a fresh show-down which never actually happened. In 1968 the airplane was lent to the U.S. for its own testing and evaluation. The aircraft is presently at the Israeli Air Force Museum in Hatzerim.

Israeli Mossad aquires a MiG 21 through Operation Diamond. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

MiG 21s in Vietnam

          The MiG-21 became renowned for the very short ground-controlled interceptions (GCI) missions, that it was originally designed for in North Vietnam. The first MiG-21s were inducted in April 1966 in the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF). 13 of North Vietnam’s flying aces attained their status while flying the MiG-21. Vietnamese fighter pilot Pham Ngoc Lan had said that “The MiG-21 was much faster, and it had two K-13 missiles which were very accurate and reliable when fired between 1,000 and 1,200 meters. Fighter ace Nguyen Nhat Chieu who scored aerial victories flying both MiG-17 and MiG-21, felt that the MiG-21 was superior in all specifications in climb, speed and armament. He had scored four kills with the K-13. Although the MiG-21 lacked the long-range radar, missiles, and heavy bomb load of its contemporary multi-mission U.S. fighters. With its RP-21 Sapfir radar it proved a challenging adversary in the hands of experienced pilots, especially when used in high-speed hit-and-run attacks under GCI control. MiG-21 intercepts of F-105 Thunderchief strike aircraft were effective in downing US aircraft or forcing them to jettison their bomb loads.

VPAF MiG 21 against American F-4. Picture Source: Quora

          The GCI would position the MiGs in ambush battle stations for one pass attacks. The MiGs made fast attacks against US formations from several directions. After shooting down a few American planes and forcing some of the F-105s to drop their bombs prematurely, the MiGs would disengage. Despite US F-4 Phantoms having massive firepower, good on-board radar, better speed and acceleration, F-4s suffered higher losses. It led the US Navy to create their Naval Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) in March 1969. The USAF quickly began Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) in a program called “Red Flag”.

4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron MiG-21 F-13 Taxiing. Picture Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

          In 1972 the tally between American and Vietnamese planes stood at 201 air battles. The VPAF lost 54 MiGs and they claimed 90 U.S. aircraft were shot down. The MiG-21 shot down 67 enemy aircraft. On 26 December 1972, a VPAF MiG-21MF claimed the first aerial combat kill of a B-52 Stratofortress, launched two K-13 missiles from 2 kilometers, destroying one of the bombers flying in the three-aircraft formation. During the entire Vietnam war, the VPAF claimed 103 F-4 Phantoms were shot down by MiG-21s, and they lost 60 MiG-21s in air combat (54 by Phantoms).

MiG Strategy in Vietnam

          Most MiG-21s were lightly armed. Two first-generation heat-seeking missiles and just 200 rounds, a three-second 23 mm cannon burst. Often even this wasn’t needed over Vietnam, though. If a MiG threat could make an F-105 or F-4 punch off its stores, the attack was successful. The North Vietnamese could head home knowing they had forced the enemy to waste time, fuel and ordnance. Robin Olds, a 12-victory World War II ace who added four MiG kills in Vietnam, said “The best flying job in the world was a MiG-21 pilot. Hell, was the way we fought that war, if I’d been one of them (MiG 21 guys) I’d have got 50 of us.” F-105 fighter-bombers were the Fishbed’s favored target over Vietnam. MiG-21s did ended up shooting down 17 F-105s with no MiG losses to the Thuds.

Robin Olds. “Triple Ace”, 17 victories in WW II and Vietnam War. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Phantom Vs MiG 21 in Vietnam

          The MiG 21 was a little more than 40 percent the empty weight of a Phantom II, with a wingspan 15 feet narrower and a length 11 feet shorter. At comparable combat-loaded gross weights, an F-4 was four times as heavy as a MiG-21. In a head-on engagement, the MiG 21 was a mere dot in the sky suspended between two tiny wings, while a fat twin-engine F-4, smoking like a locomotive, announced its presence from miles away. The little MiG was far more nimble and tighter-turning than the big F-4, until American pilots learned to “fight in the vertical.” Rather than dog-fighting in tail-chase, F-4 pilots used their superior acceleration and thrust to climb vertically, away from the fight, and then to pull over the top and come back down full of altitude and energy. Over Vietnam, 91 percent of Spar­rows and 82 percent of Side­winders fired by F-4s failed to find their mark. 

Mig 21 and F4. Image Credit: combatace.com

Top Secret Operation Constant Peg 1977 and 1988

          In late 1970s the U.S. Air Force (USAF) established the 4477th Test and Evaluation Flight (later a squadron), as part of the top-secret Operation Constant Peg. At one point, Constant Peg was operating 17 MiG-21s out of a secret airfield near Tonopah, Nevada, in the mystery-shrouded Area 51. The airplanes were officially called YF-110s, since the Air Force now owned them. They had been acquired from scrap-yards and from foreign air forces that needed cash, and some given as gifts by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. and even bought new Chinese Shenyang F-7Bs (now Chengdu J-7s). Constant Peg pilots learned to read instruments in kilometers, and learnt to taxi using that bicycle like hand-brake. Constant Peg’s mission was to train American pilots to fight against a variety of Soviet aircraft, particularly the MiG-21 and 23s. The initial training involved simply letting a pilot see a MiG-21 in the air, up close. The MiG 21 was a fearsome opponent. Constant Peg closed in 1989 after generating more than 15,000 MiG-21 and 23 sorties against opposing fighter pilots, though the program wasn’t declassified until 2006.

4477th Test and Evaluation Flight. Picture Credit: airsoc.com

Egyptian–Syrian–Israeli conflicts

          The MiG-21s were extensively used in the Middle East conflicts. The MiG-21 first encountered Israeli Miarge IIICs on 14 November 1964, but it was not until 14 July 1966 that the first MiG-21 was shot down. Another six Syrian MiG-21s were shot down by Israeli Mirages on 7 April 1967. During this period, Syrian pilots flying MiG-21s also independently discovered the Cobra maneuver which became a standard defensive maneuver called “zero speed maneuver”. During the opening attacks of the 1967 Six-Day war, the Israeli Air Force struck Arab air forces in four attack waves. Egypt lost around 100 out of about 110 MiG-21s they had, almost all on the ground; Syria lost 35 of 60 MiG-21F-13s and MiG-21PFs in the air and on the ground.

          Between the end of the Six-Day War and the start of the War of Attrition, Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Mirage fighters had six confirmed kills of Egyptian MiG-21s, in exchange for Egyptian MiG-21s scoring two confirmed and three probable kills against Israeli aircraft. At the end of the War of Attrition, Israel claimed a total of 25 Syrian MiG-21s destroyed. The Syrians claimed three confirmed and four probable kills of Israel aircraft. Due to high losses, in March 1970, Soviet pilots and SAM crews arrived with their equipment. Soviet pilots flew many missions and Israel lost many F-4 and A-4E fighters in the coming days. Israelis changed tactics and planned air ambush using F-4s, shot three Soviet-flown MiG-21s. Totally, during March – August 1970, Soviet MiG-21 pilots and SAM crews destroyed a total of 21 Israeli aircraft (13 by MiG-21s) at a cost of 5 MiG-21s shot down by IDF, forcing Israel to sign a ceasefire agreement.

          During the Yom Kippur War (6 to 25 October, 1973), Israel claimed 73 kills against Egyptian MiG-21s (65 confirmed). Egypt claimed 27 confirmed kills against Israeli aircraft by its MiG-21s. On the Syrian front, Syrian MiG-21s claimed a total of 30 confirmed kills against Israeli aircraft; 29 MiG-21s were claimed (26 confirmed) as destroyed by the IDF. The 1982 Lebanon War started on 6 June 1982, and in the course of that war the IDF claimed to have destroyed about 45 Syrian MiG-21MFs. Syria claimed two confirmed and 15 probable kills of Israeli aircraft.

Syrian MiG 21 variants FL, MF, and Bis. Image Credit: britmodeller.com

MiG 21s with Other Air Forces

          Indonesia purchased 22 MiG-21s. Indonesian MiG-21s never fought in any dogfights. Right after the U.S. backed anti-communist forces took over the government, 13 Indonesian MiG-21s were delivered to the U.S. in exchange for T-33, UH-34D, and later, F-5 and OV-10 aircraft. All remaining MiG-21s were grounded and retired due to lack of spare parts and the withdrawal of Soviet maintenance support. During the Iran-Iraq War, 23 Iraqi MiG-21s were shot down by Iranian F-14s, and 29 MiG-21s by F-4s. However, from 1980 to 1988, the Iraqi MiG-21s shot down 43 Iranian fighter aircraft against 49 MiG-21 losses in the same period.

Iraqi MiG 21. Picture Credit: imgur.com

MiG 21s in Africa

Egypt was shipped some American Sidewinder missiles, and these were fitted on the MiG-21s and used in combat against Libyan Mirages and MiG-23s during the brief Libyan-Egyptian War of July 1977. In the ongoing Second Libyan Civil War on since 2014, both sides field small air forces. A number of former Libyan Arab Air Force (LARAF) MiG-21s were put into service with spare parts and technical assistance from Egypt and Russia, while a number of former Egyptian Air Force MiG-21s were pressed into service as well. MiG-21s have been used extensively to bomb forces loyal to the rival General National Congress in Benghazi.

          Both Somalia and Ethiopia operated MiG 21s and fought wars with each other. During the Ogden war of 1977–78, Ethiopian Air Force F-5As engaged Somali Air Force MiG-21MFs in combat on several occasions. Ethiopian MiG-21s were deployed largely in the ground attack role, and proved instrumental during the final offensive against Somali ground forces. Ethiopian pilots who had flown both the F-5 and the MiG-21 and received training in both the USA and the USSR considered the F-5 to be the superior fighter because of its manoeuvrability at low to medium speeds, its superior instrumentation and the fact that is was far easier to fly, allowing the pilot to focus on combat rather than controlling his airplane.

Angolan MiG 21 MF. Picture Credit: Pinterest

          During Angola’s long civil war, MiG-21s of the Cuban Air Force were frequently deployed to attack ground targets manned by rebel forces or engage South African Air Force Mirage F1s, conducting cross-border strikes. Most MiG-21 losses over Angola were attributed to accurate ground fire. Despite extensive losses to man-portable air-defence systems, MiG-21s were instrumental in success, and Cuban pilots became accustomed to flying up to three sorties a day. Both the MiG-21MF and the MiG-21bis were deployed almost exclusively in the fighter/bomber role. As interceptors they were somewhat unsuccessful due to their inability to detect low-flying South African aircraft. Contacts between MiG-21s and SAAF Mirage F1s or Mirage IIIs became increasingly common throughout the 1980s. Between 1984 and 1988, thirteen MiG-21s were lost over Angola.  The MiG-21MFs of the National Air Force of Angola flew ground sorties during the Second Congo war, sometimes being piloted by mercenaries. The Chinese-made F-7 Skybolt also saw combat with the Zimbabwe Air Force.

Yugoslavia, Romania, and  Bulgaria

                Yugoslavia purchased MiG-21s in 1962, and by early 1980s, had purchased 261 MiG-21s in ten variants. During the early stages of the 1990s’ Yugoslav wars, MiG-21s were used in a ground-attack role. Croatian and Slovene forces did not have air forces at that stage. Croatia acquired three MiG-21s in 1992 through defections by Croatian pilots. In 1993, Croatia purchased about 40 MiG-21s in violation of an arms embargo, but only about 20 of these entered service, while the rest were used for spare parts. Croatia used these in operations. Remaining Yugoslav MiG-21s were flown to Serbia by 1992 and continued their service in the newly created Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. During the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, 3 MiG-21s were destroyed on the ground.

          In 1962, Romanian Air Force (RoAF) received 12 MiG-21F-13, followed by another 12 of the same variant in 1963. By 1990, a total number of 322 aircraft had been acquired. Beginning in 1993, Russia stopped spare parts for the MiG-23 and MiG-29 for the RoAF, as a reaction for the modernization of the Romanian MiG-21s with Israel’s Elbit Systems. In 1995–2002, a total of 111 MiG-21s were modernized, of which 71 were M and MF/MF-75 variants modernized under the LanceR A designation (for ground attack), 14 were UM variant as LanceR B designation (trainer), and another 26 MF/MF-75 variant were modernized under LanceR C designation (air superiority). Today, only 36 LanceRs are operational for the RoAF. They use both Western and Eastern armament such as the R-60M, R-73, Magic 2, or Python III missiles. The Romanian MiG-21 LanceR fleet has maintained below 50% serviceability of late. In May 2020, Romanian F-16s and MiG-21s took part in a Bomber Task Force mission with American B-1 and B-1B bombers over the Black Sea.

Romanian MiG 21 LanceR. Picture Credit: You Tube

          The Bulgarian Air Force received a total of 224 MiG-21 aircraft, beginning September 1963, including 72 MiG-21bis. In 1982, three MiG-21UM trainers were sold to Cambodia and in 1994 another 10 examples. MiG-21UMs were also sold to India. Other training aircraft were removed from active service in 2000. The fleet was retired from service on 18 December 2015.

In Praise of MiG 21

          The MiG-21 has been called the AK-47 of airplanes. “Rock-solid airframe,” noted a former MiG 21 ground technician. “Really the thing only needs to be topped off with fluids and it just goes and goes.” When the U.S. Air Force operated MiG-21s as adversary aircraft combat trainers, they found them to be, in the words of one crew chief, “Just like your family car. As long as it’s full of fuel, you pull it out of the garage and start it up.” Maintenance typically consisted of changing the oil, brakes and tires after every 50 sorties. “With a set of home socket wrenches and screwdrivers, you could get a lot of maintenance done on the little jet,” said another crew chief. Even more important is the fact that a MiG-21bis can be had for $500,000. A secondhand F-16C can cost a small country $15 million.

MiG 21 Peculiar Features

          A pencil thin long fuselage with a highly loaded little delta wings. Mikoyan and Gurevich’s design bureau had chosen a single gaping nose air intake for the MiG-21’s engine because of its simplicity and efficiency, but this severely limited the airplane’s ability to carry its own radar. Only a small dish would fit into the airflow-slowing nose cone, and limiting search to no more than a few kilometers ahead, and the initial onboard radar was near-useless. The MiG 21 was roughly the size of a Northrop F-5, an airplane that was frequently used as a stand-in for the MiG-21 during dissimilar-types air combat maneuvering (ACM) training. With a long nose ahead of cockpit, the below nose view was poor. Vision aft from about 4 to 8 o’clock was nonexistent, and the view down was minimal. The initial canopies, hinged to the windscreen at the front, were part of the ejection seat package. They stayed with the seat during punch-out and provided the pilot with a protective shield. This mechanism proved to be complex and unreliable, so the MiG 21 was later provided with a more conventional side-hinged blow-off canopy. Designed to climb extremely rapidly to altitude, shoot down a single non-maneuvering bomber and return to base, it had just enough fuel for a typical 45 minutes’ mission. A MiG-21 could not do a dead-stick landing if fuel ran out even when near its airbase, due high descent rate.

MiG 21 Operators

          MiG 21s or their Chinese produced variants were flown in more than 60 countries. India is the only major country which has over a 100 upgraded MiG 21 Bison and will operate till 2024 or so. The few other air forces still operating this aircraft are small countries with very few aircraft. There were around 44 privately owned MiG-21s in the U.S. Draken International had acquired 30 MiG-21bis/UM, mostly ex-Polish, and was last known to be still operating them.

The MiG-21 Still A Great Fighter

          Robert Farley writes in historynet.com. The article originally appeared in the National Interest. Military aircraft have had notoriously short life spans, especially during periods of technological ferment. The most elite aircraft of World War I could become obsolete in a matter of months. Things weren’t much different in World War II. And at the dawn of the jet age, entire fleets of aircraft became passé as technologies matured. The advanced fighters that fought in the skies over Korea became junk just a few years later. But a few designs stand the test of the time. The B-52 Stratofortress first flew in 1952, yet remains in service today. New C-130s continue to roll off the production line, based on a design that became operational in 1954. But those are bombers and transport aircraft; they don’t fight one another. Fighters face a special problem of longevity, because they must compete directly with newer models. Thus, very few fighters have had long life spans, either in production or in service.

B-52 Stratofortress. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

          The MiG-21 was an exception. Initial suitability studies for the MiG-21 began in 1953. The success of the MiG-15 and MiG-17 suggested that Soviet aerospace engineers could compete with their Western counterparts, and with the MiG-19 the Soviets had their first supersonic fighter. The MiG-21 would exceed Mach 2.0, with an internal cannon and the capacity to carry between two and six missiles. Like most fighters, the MiG-21 would eventually serve in a ground attack role, in which it can carry a limited number of bombs and rockets.

          As with many of their fighters, the Soviets preferred to operate the MiG-21 from ground control, eliminating the need for bulky, sophisticated radar equipment. Altogether, the USSR would build 10,645 between 1959 and 1985. India would construct another 840 under a licensing and technology transfer agreement with Moscow, while Czechoslovakia built 194 under license. Under complicated and somewhat dubious circumstances, the People’s Republic of China acquired sufficient aircraft and technical documents to reverse engineer the MiG-21 into the Chengdu J-7/F-7. China produced around 2,400 between 1966 and 2013. The combined numbers make the Fishbed by far the most produced supersonic aircraft in world history.

          With the MiG-21, engineers sorted through a set of basic problems that future research could not substantially improve upon. Modern fighters don’t fly much faster than the MiG-21, or maneuver much more capably. While they do carry more ordnance and have more sophisticated electronic equipment, many air forces can treat these as luxuries — they simply want a cheap, fast, easy-to-maintain aircraft that can patrol airspace and occasionally drop a few bombs. The MiG 21 fits the bill. It has short legs, cannot carry a great deal of ordnance and lacks the space for sophisticated electronic equipment. The shape of its cockpit limits pilot awareness.

MiG 21 Bison at border airbase. Picture Credit: rediff.com

          During the Cold War, the United States came into possession of a number of MiG-21 variants (eventually purchasing a squadron of J-7s from China). Generally speaking, American pilots spoke well of the plane, and it performed more than adequately in aggressor training situations. Indeed, highly trained American pilots probably pushed the MiG-21 farther than most Soviet pilots could have done.

          In Vietnam, MiG-21s using their size and speed to cut through bomber packages before U.S. fighters could visually identify and target them. The size and maneuverability of the aircraft also allowed them to evade early air-to-air missiles. Finally on Jan. 2, 1967, when a group of F-4 Phantom IIs under the command of legendary pilot Robin Olds tricked North Vietnamese commanders into a disastrous engagement. The Phantoms shot down seven MiG 21s that day, including one flown by Nguyen Van Coc, who would survive the crash and accumulate nine kills over the rest of the war.

Vietnamese Fighter Ace Nguyen Van Coc. Picture Credit: rkka.es

          MiG 21s fought Israeli fighters in the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War, generally suffering badly at the hands of outstanding Israeli pilots. The success of Western aircraft against the MiG 21 in the Middle East, as well as in Angola, caused many to conclude that Soviet fighters were outclassed by their Western counterparts. However, pilot training issues make comparison difficult. The MiG-21 performed more than adequately in comparable pilot training contexts. For example, Indian MiG-21s flew in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, and achieved kills in the 1971 War. Aircraft also acquitted themselves well in air combat in the Iran-Iraq War.

          Some air forces continue to use the MiG-21 and its Chinese variants. China, Russia and Ukraine still carry out maintenance and update work on existing aircraft. The advent of 3D printing may make it even easier for current operators to keep their MiG 21s in service, as they can produce spares and upgrades in country. Many aircraft have been upgraded and today carry more sophisticated weapons, including the R-73 AAM, the Magic 2 and the Python III. Upgrades to their electronics have improved their radar and communications equipment, and have made possible the delivery of precision-guided munitions. China has ended production on the J-7, the last MiG-21 variant has rolled off the assembly line. Indian MiG 21 Bisons will stretch till 2022-23. Many of the J-7 and F-7 models remain of fairly recent vintage, and can stay in service for quite some time. Bangladesh acquired the last dozen F-7s in 2013, and won’t need a replacement anytime soon.

Bangladesh Air Force J-7. Picture Credit: Pinterest

          There may never be a 100-year fighter (although the B-52 bomber may quite possibly reach that number before final retirement). The MiG-21 have reached 65, and probably will reach 70 years. It remains one of the iconic fighters of the supersonic age.

Use as space launch platform

          Premier Space Systems in Hillsboro, Oregon, USA is conducting flight tests for NanoLaunch, a project to launch suborbital sounding rockets from MiG-21s flying over the Pacific Ocean.

Premier Space Systems flight tests for NanoLaunch using MiG-21UM. Picture Credit: flickr.com

MiG 21 Aces

          Several pilots attained ace status (five or more aerial victories/kills) while flying the MiG-21. Nguyen Van Coc of the VPAF, who scored nine kills in MiG-21s is regarded as the most successful. North Viet­namese were against the better-trained F-4 crews. Nguyen Van Coc, who was shot by an F 4, but survived the crash later had nine kills flying the MiG 21 over the rest of the war. This would mark Nguyen as the most successful MiG 21 pilot of all time, although other Vietnamese and Syrian pilots would achieve ace distinction while flying the MiG-21. Twelve other VPAF pilots were credited with five or more aerial victories while flying the MiG-21. Two with eight kills each, one with seven kills, seven pilots with six kills, and one with five kills. Additionally, three Syrian pilots are known to have attained ace status while flying the MiG-21. All three during the 1973–1974 engagements against Israel. The Egyptian and Syrian MiG pilots were fighting the more talented Israelis. Due to the incomplete nature of available records, there are several pilots who have unconfirmed aerial victories (probable kills), which when confirmed would award them “Ace” Status.

Great Era Closing to an End

          At least five formerly Indonesian MiG-21s became gate guardians or went to museums or display areas, including the aggressor-aircraft park at Nellis Air Force Base, in Las Vegas, known as the “Petting Zoo.” The MiG-21 will soon end its operational career, after around 65-68 years. Even today, Indians and Syrian air forces are flying them. MiG 21s can be seen on display at a large number of parks, schools, universities and city squares in India. There is no possibility thus of the MiG 21 approaching the Boeing B-52’s near-century of service when the Stratofortress stands down in 2050, but some ancient MiGs may still be flying in the hands of war-bird enthusiasts long after the last B-52 shuts down forever.  

Picture Credit: The Indian Express

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

10 thoughts on “The Iconic MiG-21- Great Design – Most Produced Supersonic Jet – Fearsome Reputation – Unending Service

  1. Does the IAF have a “The Boneyard” like the USAF where out of service/retired or like they say in the IAF decommissioned/number-plated aircrafts are sent [apart from being donated to colleges like IITs, NITs etc.]?

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      1. Sir, when the IAF says a squadron has been number-plated, does it mean that apart from all the aircraft in that squadron being retired, a metal number-plate is made for it and displayed somewhere like at the IAF HQs or at a public museum for retired IAF aircrafts?

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