MiG 21 and IAF: A Developmental Perspective

air power asia, MiG-21, Developmental History

This is a story that traces MiG 21’s history with Indian Air Force (IAF) and impact from a developmental perspective rather than an operational one. How the legend was born into IAF. Due to the large number of types inducted, IAF had an important role in developmental cycle of the plane and hence, had impact on the planes supplied worldwide by USSR.

Three Type 77 MiG 21FL Interceptors and two Type 66·400 MiG 21U trainers of the Indian Air Force. Image Source: MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Yefim Gordon

How It All Began

It was on 13 June 1956, when Pakistani Air force had received first of its 102 North American built F 86 Sabres under an aid programme by the US, which had earned itself quite a reputation in the Korean War (1950 -1953). The introduction of Sabres would have given the PAF a significant edge over the IAF. IAF started looking for possible acquisitions from the West, which it still enjoyed good relations with, to match this ‘Jet Gap’. Britain and France having equipped the force quite recently with their products.

To maintain parity, India wished to acquire some planes from Britain, which was its traditional source of military equipment, especially in terms of air defence. In 1954, India had already begun negotiations to acquire arms from Britain, that included Hawker Hunters and English Electric Canberra bombers. In 1955, Soviets had offered their Il 28 jet bomber to IAF, which was comparable, and a bit similar, to the Canberras under discussion but rather cheaper and easier to maintain. Anthony Eden (then PM of UK) seeing this, personally stepped in and offered Canberras to IAF at a heavily discounted price (McGarr). On the home front, Lord Mountbatten applied pressure on Nehru to maintain “IAF’s buy-British” policy. Nehru obliged (McGarr).

After getting the planes IAF wanted, Nehru then wrote to the British Prime Minister, a letter, promising to consult the British before deciding on any future purchases of planes from elsewhere. However, as was Nehru’s trademark style in diplomacy, he also insisted in the same letter that India does reserve the freedom to buy equipment from the source of its choice and Britain now didn’t have first say in the matter (Graham).This letter had important consequences. British were now worried about losing their monopoly.

By 1957, IAF made a choice and displayed interest in British Hawker Hunters. Lord Home, then Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, said that he hoped Indians lacked money to pay for them, so that they(British) can lend it to them(Indians) and hence could ensure that India doesn’t go to USSR to satisfy its needs (McGarr).

Four years later, in Summer of 1961, some western reports came out suggesting India was buying a couple of MiG 19 “Farmers” from USSR. This rang alarm bells both in the USA and Britain. The reports were quickly denied by the Indian MoD, saying India wasn’t buying the Farmers but rather was looking for 6 VK -7 engines [1], to be used in the first indigenously designed and developed aircraft, the HAL HF-24 Marut (Graham). HF-24 was earlier equipped with the British Bristol Siddeley Orpheus 703 turbojets (same ones powering the nimble Gnats of IAF) and their performance on the plane was concluded to be unsatisfactory. The engine change, was hoped, would resolve the issue. But in October of the same year, Defence Minister Krishna Menon told the defence correspondent of the Manchester Guardian that no decision had been made to buy a Soviet engine for the HF-24 (Graham).

A New Bird Takes Shape

We roll back a few years, in erstwhile USSR, in the fall of 1953. Kremlin issued its requirement for a new fighter based on experience gained from the Korean war, where the face-off between MiG 15 and F 86s happened. MiG OKB[2], among others like LavochkinSukhoi and Yakovlev, stood ready with multiple experimental prototypes. Some of them derived from MiG 17s, some from MiG 19s, others fresh, but all aimed to go supersonic. MiG OKB was ready to meet the demands put forward by Frontovaya Aviatsionnaya (Frontal Aviation). The official requirement was interesting as there was no extensive list of qualitative requirements but rather called only for a level speed of Mach 2 at an altitude of 20km (65,600ft) whilst carrying guns and a simple radar-ranging sight, and later with the ability to carry AAMs, in each case operating under close ground control by the ‘Markham’ radio network (Gordon and Gunston).

The development was started by various bureaus, and the Central Aerodynamic and Hydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) started working with various wing configurations for optimal results, with focus being on Delta and Swept wing designs. Both Sukhoi and MiG were working closely with TsAGI on further development. On a side note, the Sukhoi’s development from these requirements saw relative success in forms of Su 9Su 11 Fishpot with Delta configuration and Su 7 (Fitter) with a swept wing configuration. Both were heavier than MiG’s prototypes and were using bigger engines. MiG OKB went with a single lighter Mikulin AM-5A engine, and so the first prototype was born in the form of Ye -1[3]. Out of Ye -1 grew four more prototypes, with little changes, Ye -2 and Ye-2A, with swept wings and Ye -4 and Ye -5 with delta wings. Both the development lines were parallel, with 2A differing from 2 in terms of engine, utilising an AM-11 instead of an AM-9B and similarly in Ye-4 and 5, with the latter having AM -11 (Gordon and Gunston).

Ye 2, a swept wing prototype of MiG 21. Image Source: MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Yefim Gordon

The 2 developmental lines were performing fittingly, with Soviet Ministry of Aviation Industry (MAP) displaying so much confidence in them, that they allocated series designations to them, MiG 21 to the delta version and MiG 23 to swept wing designs[4] well before the designs matured and would be ready for production (Gordon and Gunston). But with the ultimate demise of the MiG 23, the successor of Ye-4/5, MiG 21 and its variants would go on to rule the skies of the world, and in our context, of the subcontinent. MiG 23 would take another avatar a few years later.

By the end of 1956 both Ye-5 prototypes had been flown, and Plant №31 at Tbilisi had built live pre-series ‘MiG-21’ aircrafts for further testing. Next generation of prototypes came in form of Ye- 6/1/2/3, having major difference from Ye 5s in form of a different engine, Tumanskii’s R-11F-300 and with other minor differences, being regarded as pre-production and probably last in terms of prototypes[5]. First of these planes, Ye-6/1 crashed during one such test flight and its pilot Nefyedov died in hospital from severe burns. On the second frame, weapon tests of NR 30 autocannons, ARS-57M air to ground rockets, ARS-240 rockets, FAB-50 to FAB-500 bombs were completed. Ye-6/2 and Ye-6/3 completed OKB testing in 61 flights and were cleared to be flown by a normal pilot. The aircraft was put into series production at two factories, №21 (GAZ — 21) at Gorkii/Gorky for the VVS and, later for export customers, at (G)AZ — 30 MMZ ZnamyaTruda in Moscow. Both these factories produced the single seater variants and the Tbilisi factory, T(G)AZ — 31 that was used for production of prototypes, would later produce twin seater trainer variants (Mladenov).

Interestingly, in 1958 during the beginning to flight test of Y-6 family, MiG was made aware of the development of a new short range AAM, a copy of American AIM-9 Sidewinder, was going on. In 1960, Ye-6/2 was modified to make MiG 21 compatible to this missile (Gordon and Gunston).

The production of this much awaited aircraft began in 1959, with series aircrafts receiving the designation MiG-21F, not the expected simple “MiG 21”. That year Gorkii built 30 aircrafts, and 69 in first half of 1960. The MiG 21Fs were powered by Tumanskii’s R 11F-300 turbojet, equipped with Sirena-D RWR, SRO-2 Khrom IFF, ASP-5ND gunsight and carried 2 internal NR — 30 autocannons. The underwing pylons could carry FAB family of dumb bombs or A2A/A2G rockets. Then production was halted for a small time and a new and improved version, compatible with the newly built and above-mentioned K — 13/R — 3 (NATO: AA-2 Atoll) AAM, the MiG 21F-13 entered production. This was the last plane in “first generation” of MiG 21s. The main difference between MiG 21F and MiG 21F-13 was removal of one internal NR 30 and addition of under APU-13 pylon to fire the above-mentioned K-13 family of missiles. It also saw an increase in fuel capacity from the earlier version.

The MiG 21F-13 was exported to China too, under licence manufacturing, where it became the famous Chengdu J 7. The Chengdu line after Sino-Soviet split would go on to mature and would spawn a whole family of fighters on its own and would equip the PAF. MiG 21F received the OKB designation of Type — 72 and MiG 21F-13s received Type — 74 (Gordon and Gunston).

A Type 74 MiG 21F 13 of Indian Air Force. Image Source: MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Yefim Gordon

This variant would be the first-contact between Indian Air Force and MiG 21s. Gorkii produced 132 MiG 21F-13 in 1960, 272 in 1961 and 202 in first half of 1962. Again, a halt in production and an improvement was done in form of MiG 21PF (Type — 76). The biggest shortcoming on F-13 was reported to be endurance being very low and lack of a search radar. The search radar issue was solved with the PF with the introduction of a new radar, RP-21. The PF, due a new design philosophy (mentioned below), lacked any internal cannon and only relied on AAMs. The PF also saw introduction of a newer and better engine, in some sense to mitigate the first issue in form of R 11F2–300 (Gordon and Gunston).

Changing Neighbourhood

In 1961, US promised Pakistan 2 squadrons of the famous F-104 Starfighter and by mid-1961/1962[6] (most probably early 1961) saw first of 12 F-104As (and 2 F104B trainers) landing at Sargodha Airbase, Pakistan. These would only constitute one (№ 9 “Griffins”) squadron worth, and would remain as such. These would only serve for a decade, due to increasingly high maintenance coupled with sanctions during 1965 war, and were retired by 1972.

A Starfighter (Tail №56–803) of PAF. Image Source: https://www.i-f-s.nl/accidents-incidents-1964

When India saw F-104s in its backyard, the long-standing demand of IAF for newer supersonic fighters was finally approved. The government, almost like waking up from a slumber, rushed to buy fighters, although it lacked critical infrastructure to support them properly.

By 1962, US Congress received reports that India was planning to buy at least 2 squadron worth of latest MiG fighters. Their concern was genuine, as the delivery of F 104s would have raised flags in Indian Ministry of Defence, and Indians wouldn’t want to be left behind in this “Jet age’s” arms race (Chari). India quietly started moving forward with the MiG deal. The deal was initially about acquiring just 2 frontline squadrons of supersonic fighters, but later evolved to indigenous production of the type in India.

Some US congressmen were worried that if this purchase goes forward, later it might turn to a large-scale military dependence on Soviet Union, which in hindsight seems a very plausible and downright a correct assessment. They were worried that there might be tempting terms of contract for MiG 21s from Moscow, tilting India’s non-aligned status. India has long had a dream of self sufficiency in weapons, which hasn’t come completely true to even this day, but is surely the closest we’ve ever been. This dream has prompted India to bring the question of local production of equipment under dealings every now and then, and if Soviet Union would somehow help in this dream, by either allowing licence production or maybe help in development of newer arms, serious considerations would be made by Indian side on looking towards Soviet Union more often.

This meddling in the Indian local industry by the Soviets, if and when finalised, would have also been a big concern for the British, as they believed the Russians accompanying the MiGs might learn secrets of British equipment under licenced manufacture in India. The passive concern was obviously about emerging competition in a dominated market.

As the discontent from America regarding the purchase grew, Menon gave a bold statement, “We have the right to purchase any equipment or arms from anybody we like.” Though it was also dependent who wished to sell what. Menon wanted to close the ‘jet gap’ which was growing and at home it became a political issue as well, “Was India going to give in to the Western Blackmail?”. Indian Left made a big issue out of this. They also opposed the planned 1963 Joint Air Defence Exercise with the British, the Americans and the Australians (Graham).

From an economic perspective Soviets did try to sweeten the deal, allowing payments in Rupees giving a big relief to country which was always short on forex. Logistically, according to Nehru, who was PM, MiGs were ‘stout and simple’ and easier to manufacture than “sophisticated and complicated” western ones. Nehru, although, also admitted that any such deal would adversely affect relations with the West and subsequently affect the aid they gave (Graham).

It was at this time, British realised just how much grip they had lost or might lose on one of their traditional markets if they didn’t pull up their socks. They brought up their wild card, the letter Nehru wrote. It was hoped it would be their saving grace in a situation seemingly slipping out of hand and like half a decade ago would bring India back in its fold. Nehru obliged. He told Rajya Sabha, that although India still preserves the right to buy from source of its choice and won’t be deterred by “pressure tactics and veiled threats about cuts in aid”, he’s decided to give British a chance before making any final decision regarding the MiGs (Graham).

Initially things seemed to move in their favour, reports came out in June 1962 where “informed sources” claimed Indian MoD was “inclined to shelve MiG deal indefinitely or at least until a team goes to Britain late next month to see what plane offers the British might make”. On July 7, 3 top ranking IAF personnel left for Britain, to take them up on their offer, led by Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh. British offered the famous ‘over and under shotgun’, the English Electric Lightning; or more precisely the export model, BAC Lightning (Chari) (Graham). Had IAF accepted the type, they would’ve become its first export customer, with the next export customer, Royal Saudi Air Force getting the type only in 1967. The British also tried to sweeten the deal by offering it at half its market price. The team, according to long standing national wish of indigenous manufacturing rights, brought up the question of manufacturing the type back in India. It was then the talks failed (Chari). It would be appropriate, I think, at this time to bring up that it seems it wasn’t the Indians who raised the question about acquiring MiGs initially, but rather the other way around. Apparently, it was the Russians who popped the question and tried to demonstrate MiG 21s’ capabilities to the team who went there looking for engines for HF-24 in 1961 (Graham). The MiGs only became an option after the post-trip reports from these officers were studied.

HF 24 Maruts. Image Source: https://www.spansen.com/2020/06/iaf-hf-24-marut-fighters-indian-air-force.html

Since the British couldn’t finally reach an agreement with Indians, an evaluation team was sent to Moscow immediately and a formal agreement with Soviets was reached regarding the purchase of 12 MiG-21s, and their assistance for manufacture of the type in India as soon as August 1962. A surprising fact about the deal is that at least initially, it was being used as a bargaining chip by the Indians with the Americans, for the manufacture of F-104s in India (Chari). In May 1964, a bid was made with the Americans to procure 3 squadrons worth of F-104s, which ultimately failed. The plan would’ve been to shelve the MiG deal as soon as Americans would’ve folded and allowed production. But it didn’t happen, and Soviets also seemed only to release a statement of intent and were not fully committed for the sale of the planes to India, pushing it as a “future” option than anything. But the two years between the Statement of Intent and delivery, the deteriorating Sino-Soviet relations seemed to have made them more committed to this delivery and furthering the programme (Chari). After the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict was over, then Defence Minister Y B Chavan sought to acquire Western equipment for Indian Navy and Indian Air Force, primarily from US and UK, not being sure whether France would even consider selling things to India. Replies received from both were negative (Chari). The offer with Soviets was now the only option.

IAF Gets a New Fighter

In February of 1963, first 4 MiG 21F-13s were delivered and locally assembled, 4 more were delivered by the end of the year. USSR, by 1964, had delivered the first and last of MiG 21F-13s (Type -74). IAF only ever operated around 10[7] of them, receiving 8 in 1963 and 2 in 1964. Every MiG 21F-13 supplied to IAF was manufactured at ZnamyaTruda plant, which specifically catered for export orders (Gordon and Gunston).

Another source claims that the №28 Squadron, which formed the first supersonic squadron of IAF, was actually equipped with 6 MiG 21F-13s (Type — 74s) and 6 MiG 21PFs (Type — 76s), receiving F-13s in 1963 and PFs in March- April 1965. All the sources do agree that IAF did receive some small initial lot of PFs, but as usual numbers are contested, with more weight behind the initial lot of 12 MiG 21s (6 F — 13s and 6 PFs) claim. These initial lots were the only F-13s and PFs that ever served with IAF, as the discourse changed to mass production, another Second-generation variant, like the PF, was to become the backbone of IAF. Other than the supplying the MiG 21s, the deal also came with an agreement that included Soviet Union supplying and manufacturing the engines for HF-24 in India (Graham).

In mid — 1963, Government of India made a final decision regarding the location of plant that was to manufacture the Russian aircraft. Who was to know that half a decade later, the same plant would still be churning out large amounts of top of the line Russian aircrafts tailored for IAF. Nasik was chosen as the location for MiG airframe factory and Koraput, for producing engines. The final assembly and flight testing were also supposed to happen at Nasik. The AAMs and airborne radar and equipment were to be produced at Hyderabad (Gordon and Gunston). Production would begin in 1965, but not of above-mentioned variants, rather a new one tailored for IAF. By 1964, the motivation and direction of program had changed, with familiarising the Indian pilots with as few as 8–12 imported aircrafts and manufacturing in large numbers locally (Chari).

In Russia, by 1964 Gorkii had switched to production of yet another modified variant, the MiG 21 PFM, which initially received designation of Type — 77 but was later changed to Type — 94. PFM was equipped with same engine as PF (Type — 76), R 11F2–300 engine, a new radar R2L/RP-21M (NATO: Spin Scan-B), SRO-2M IFF and a Sirena-3M radar warning among other changes (Gordon and Gunston).

How The Design Changed

Before going forward, one must be aware of a certain design philosophy regarding planes in the 60s. There were apparently polarising views in the world regarding the future of air defence and air to air combat, amongst others at the time. Views like “manned fighters were obsolete” were gaining popularity, piggybacking on the belief that guided missiles are the future. And even if one didn’t consider manned fighters to be obsolete, due to advent of guided AAMs, the role of autocannons, or any kind on internal cannons, on aircrafts was appearing pointless. A full generation of Western aircrafts were built lacking any kind of internal guns (like F102, CF105, F104,F106 etc). In Soviet Union also, this latter viewpoint was gain popularity and then interceptors in production, and in our context, MiG 21P, subsequently lacked any internal canons. The most used and available cannon in USSR at the time was NR-30, which were last equipped in MiG 21F-13s. Although the design philosophy had changed in the OKB, even Soviet pilots weren’t happy with this decision and because there was very little communication between them, it remained a problem.

The problem wasn’t limited to just MiG 21s, none of the heavy radar equipped interceptors being designed and developed for IA-PVO, namely MiG 25Ps, Su 9s, Su 11s, Su 15s, Tu 128, and Yak 28Ps, were equipped with any internal guns. Later, by Vietnam war, USAF was also realising that internal cannons were indeed necessary, for multiple reasons including, firing warning shots where firing bullets was considered to be the “cheaper” option, or aircrafts lacking any kind of self-defence after all the missiles were fired, or even close-range engagements favoring guns. Indian pilots first felt the need during the 1965 war with Pakistan, where a famous recount by Air Marshall MallyWollen, then CO of №28 Squadron(“ First Supersonics”) who was conducting CAPs over Pathankot, fired his K 13 AAMs from his MiG 21PF (Type — 76) but couldn’t hit and claimed it would’ve been a kill had the aircraft been equipped with an internal cannon (Ganapathy). Later in the war, the squadron also lost 2 Type — 76s on ground to a strafe by an F 86. Such events cemented the Indian need for an internal cannon. Up until early versions of MiG 21PFM, this problem continued, and since there was no way for Soviet pilots to forward their suggestions to the design bureau, and it was on the request of export countries like India, that they reintroduced cannons to these machines (Gordon and Gunston).

In the same year, another revolutionary and iconic product was to take birth. V P Gryasev and AG Shipunov, around that time, delivered a new twin barrelled, self-powered and electrically fired gun design that was chambered in 23mm, the GSh — 23. This product was to solve the above-mentioned problem and replace the old NR 30 as standard. The next task was to integrate this new gun on the MiG 21s. Any integration would’ve required redesigning of the airframe to a moderate degree, and hence a temporary solution was derived in form of the GP — 9 gunpack. The gunpack was developed specifically on the request of IAF, in 1968 (Mladenov). GP-9 was a quickly attachable and removable gun pack consisting of a GSh — 23, 200 rounds of ammunition, cooling unit and a control system that could be externally attached to the underside of mid-fuselage (Gordon and Gunston). The problem was permanently solved from third generation (Type 96 onwards) MiG 21s when GSh — 23L was finally fitted in the airframe (Mladenov).

The Indian Fishbeds

The first contractual construction in India was to happen of the MiG 21FL, a second-generation MiG 21. It received the OKB designation Type — 77 and was a simplified version of the MiG 21PFM (Type — 76A) (Gordon and Gunston), but it did retain some features of MiG 21PF (Type — 76) like forward hinged canopy etc. It was equipped with an older and less powerful R 11F-300, simpler R-2L radar, lacked SPS flaps or RATOG but had more fuel capacity of around 2900 litres (Gordon and Gunston). It wasn’t compatible with either RS-2US beam riding missile or the 240 mm rockets (Mladenov). It had a broad chord vertical tail surfaces and brake parachute was housed at base of the rudder. FL like early versions of PFM lacked an internal cannon and GP — 9 was externally mounted under the body. The gunpacks were installed on the Type — 77s by IAF Base Repair Depots.

A Type 77 MiG 21FL with an underbelly GP9 gunpod. Image Source: http://aviadejavu.ru/Site/Arts/Art6526.htm

Initial lot of FLs came in form of CKD kits for assembly and local production finally took place between 1966 and 1973 (Gordon and Gunston). IAF received in total about 241 MiG 21 FLs (Type — 77s) over the years of production (IAF Aircraft Database — Types, Serial Numbers, Fates) with HAL Nasik receiving the first 54 Type — 77s in CKD kits, which were surprisingly built at GAZ — 21 Gorkii and not at (G)AZ — 30 Moscow (Mladenov).

Servicing a Type — 77 MiG 21FL. Image Source: MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Yefim Gordon

In September of 1964, another deal happened as the talks of production of FLs was in the initial phases, for approximately 6 MiG 21U Type — 66–400 Mongol A twin seat trainers. All the trainers for IAF, MiG 21U/UM/US variants were manufactured in USSR. Although Factory №31 at Tbilisi, Georgia, produced the twin seater variants for VVS, it was (G)AZ-30 MMZ ZnamyaTruda, Moscow, which produced MiG 21Us for export orders in 1964–68, which must’ve included first Indian trainers.

The production of MiGs in India happened in 3 stages, in first stage aircrafts were constructed from imported assemblies, in second, they were assembled from subassemblies and details and in the third, manufacturing happened from indigenous components (Chari). By 1972, indigenous content on MiG 21s reached as high as 60% (Chari). When the FLs were inducted, one source says older Type — 74s were returned back to Russia, much like Su 30Ks were when Su 30MKIs finally became available for the IAF (Hush-Kit) but atleast one example of MiG 21PF can be spotted at Nasik and a F13 at AFTC Jalahalli, so maybe they weren’t returned but rather retired as with tradition.

First HAL built Type 77 MiG 21FL in 1966. Image Source: MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Yefim Gordon

In the second half of 1960s, MIG OKB was working on a reconnaissance version of MiG 21, the one that became MiG 21R (Type — 94R), part of next (3rd) generation of upgrades. From the success of MiG 21R, OKB decided to use it as a base for another upgrade of frontal fighter, in the form of Type — 95, MiG 21S. MiG 21S had a newer, more powerful and more efficient engine from Tumanskii, the R-13–300. The aircraft was also put for export under the banner of MiG 21M Type — 96. As with the other export models, Type — 96 didn’t receive this newer and better engine and was rather still equipped with the older R 11F2S-300. It also didn’t receive the newer RP — 22 Sapfir radar but the older RP — 21MA but coupled with an improved ASP-PFD 21 gunsight (Gordon and Gunston). However, the biggest improvement it did receive was in the form of internalisation of GSh — 23L cannon in the airframe, which was a persisting issue up until now, at least for the pilots of IAF, freeing up the underbelly of fuselage. This is an important point as MiG 21s were designed for high altitude combats, due to lessons drawn from the Korean war, but in later conflicts like Arab-Israeli wars or Indo-Pakistani wars, it was seen that combat was happening on Mid to Low altitude levels. At these altitudes, MiG 21s, which already suffered from lower fuel carrying capacity, burnt a lot of fuel, effectively reducing both their range and on station time and affecting their performance in general. Freed up centreline underbelly pylon would mean an extra fuel tank could be attached thus mitigating this issue to a certain extent.

While the production of MiG 21FLs was going on at Nasik, Indian Government in 1971 signed an agreement with Moscow for the licenced production of the third generation MiG 21M Type — 96. India would also go on to procure some MiG 21MF (Type — 96 A) and locally produced variant of MiG 21M would be designated Type — 88. The usage of MiG 21M and MF is very muddled in IAF history with the types being collectively referred to as M/MF and distinction between Type — 88 and 96 not much within IAF (Chari).

First Type 88 MiG 21M built by HAL in Feb 1973. Image Source: MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Yefim Gordon

The fuel consumption at altitudes was still taking toll, Tumanskii developed another new engine, R 25–300, as a bolt-on replacement for older engines to specifically address this issue. Even though it could’ve been retrofitted on the older aircrafts, it wasn’t. MiG went on to develop a whole new variant to take this engine and thus, MiG 21bis Type — 75, came into being. The development started in 1971 and entered production in 1972 (Mladenov). This new variant was supposed to do it all, be the paramount interceptor of the age, final addressing all the issues encountered. The dorsal spine of the plane was changed again to optimise the fuel capacity, increasing it from the Type — 96A. The radar installed was again RP-22 Sapfir S-21 but now with an improved ‘look down’ capability and received the improved ASP-PFD-21 gunsight (Mladenov). The short-range navigation system and landing systems were improved, allowing the interceptor to take off in very bad weather conditions and under very low visibility. An engine bay surveillance and Built-in-test equipment was added to greatly improve maintenance times (Gordon and Gunston). Almost all the avionics remained same, but there were two subvariants MiG 21bis LAZUR Type — 75 A, which indicated LAZUR beacon receiver being installed and MiG 21bis SAU Type — 75B, which had SAU 21 autopilot installed (Gordon and Gunston). The frame had, approximately over two decades, gone through so many structural changes that the Type — 75 felt very different in operating than the original Type — 74, with pilots noting that Type — 75 was much less agile than the Type — 74 or even Type — 76s, even after so many improvements (Mladenov).

The production of bis was different too, with all the planes, even for export, being made at GAZ — 21 Gorkii, some of these frames received by HAL Nasik in form of CKD when the deal for Type — 75 happened for IAF. A licence to manufacture was acquired by India, with production starting in 1979 and continued till mid 1980s (85/87[8]). The initial OKB designation for India specific variant was reported to be Type — 75L but now is referred by only Type — 75 (Mladenov). First lot of 6 Type — 75s for IAF came completed with further 65 in CKD kits and finally local production of about 220 built in India (Mladenov). After entering the service, MiG 21bis was to assume the mantle of primary air defence.

MiG 21bis was equipped with an internal GSh — 23L cannon like its predecessors with an increment in round count from 200 to 250 in later frames and was equipped with R — 13M, R — 50 AAMs. It was also made compatible with the newer R — 60/M short range AAMs over 4 underwing pylons.

Final assembly of Type 75 MiG 21bis at HAL, Nasik. Image Source: MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Yefim Gordon

The Ultimate MiG 21: Bison

With MiG 21bis being the final MiG 21 form, the development of the plane from OKB’s side was over, having moved on to different planes like MiG 29 in 80s. In the 90s, the older airframes were nearing the ends and various upgrade programs had come up. MAPO — MiG (Moscow Aircraft Production Association and MiG OKB) were offering MiG 21–93 package. They were initially going to offer it for M/MF and bis variants but later decided on offering it for Type — 75 only (Gordon and Gunston). Meanwhile IAF was in the mood to replace Ajeets and older MiG 21s with the indigenous LCA program (Which finally came to fruition in later 2010s) which had an initial deadline of 1997. Seeing the ball so far from goalpost, IAF decided to go with upgrading their Fishbeds. The MiG 21–93 program was to increase TTL of Type — 75s, upgrade and installation of new avionics, both western and Indian, some airframe changes, radar changes and even a proposed engine change. The first proposal was submitted in September 1991 by MiG for upgrade of MiG 21bis. The first contract for upgrade was signed between Indian Government, HAL, and MiG in April 1993. It was initially supposed to be 100 (+70) but changed to 125 (+50) in May 1994 (Pillarisetti) (Gordon and Gunston). Russia announced the Sokol plant at Nizhniy Novgorod was to undertake upgradation, at least initially and later by HAL.

Wing Commander AbhinandanVarthaman VrC with his MiG 21 Bison. Image Credit: Sanjay Simha

First 2 airframes were sent to Russia only by May 1996 and the IAF team reaching by October of the same year (Pillarisetti). MiG-MAPO’s philosophy behind this upgrade was to include packages from MiG 29 in MiG 21bis. One of the major changes was in the form of radar, being switched from Sapfirs to Fazotron/Phazotron’sKopyo (Spear). Newer weapons were also made available in form of R-60M/MK, R-77, R-73E etc (Gordon and Gunston). Avionics were upgraded in form of inclusion of an RWR, HUD and CRT displays, HOTAS etc. Structural changes included a new nosecone, new bubble canopy etc. The plane also received a sophisticated EW suite. Like every other Russian-Indian joint programme, this was also plagued with delays, cost overruns etc. Both above-mentioned airframes did their first flight after upgrade on 6 October 1998. Further successful trials of firing of the newer R-73RDM2 and R-77 were conducted in February 1999 and they returned home in July 2001. Then commenced HAL’s upgradation of airframes from supplied kits, with the first HAL upgraded aircraft coming out in August 2001 (Pillarisetti). The first unit to be equipped with this type was the №3 Squadron based in Delhi. The tail numbers of all such upgraded planes was changed from C to CU to differentiate. Initially the program was labelled MiG 21UPG but by 2002, IAF had decided to give the upgrade program the official designation of MiG 21 BISON.


To teach the pilots about the Fishbed, IAF had acquired the MiG 21’s dedicated trainers. The initial lot of MiG 21U Type — 66–400, Mongol A, were acquired in small numbers and later a larger number of Type — 66–600 were ordered. Further along the line, IAF had received some MiG 21 US Type — 68 and MiG 21UM Type — 69 Mongol B, either procured directly from Russia or from some eastern European countries. IAF had operated around 100 of these trainer variants over the years.

With this large amount of MiG 21s in service, a separate unit was envisioned to be formed to provide operational training to fighter pilots on the type instead of limited quantity and quality Stage 3 training on aging transonic Hunters. MOFTU, or MiG Operational Flying Training Unit, was formed on 15 Dec 1986 at Tezpur to impart Stage 3 (operational) training on MiG-21 aircraft to IAF pilots. MOFTU was largest fighter-flying establishment of IAF. It had the motto “Sarveyudhhavisharda (All skilled in Warfare)”. Before MOFTU the same task was undertaken by Tezpur based № 8, 28 and 30 squadrons. After the recommendation of La Fontaine Committee and when №28 squadron converted to MiG 29, a central conversion and training unit in form of MiG Operational Conversion Unit was established which later became the MOFTU. It was because IAF lacked an AJT or Advanced Jet Trainer, the Stage 3 training had to be done on MiG 21s itself, the unit utilising both the Mongols for initial training and Type — 77s for later solo flight and live fire training before the pilots went to frontline units serving various commands. The unit was operationally deployed twice too, initially during Operation Brass Tracks in January 1987 and later during Operation Parakram in May 2002 (Camp and Watson). It was disbanded on 22 June 2003 as an independent establishment and was divided in two sub units, MOFTU Alpha and Bravo.


With serving almost about half a century, MiG 21 FLs were the first to be withdrawn in December 2013 and PF being retired the next month, January 2014. Further retirement of the type happened over the years, with a unit retiring in 2018 along with MiG 27 units. Five squadrons of MiG 21s equipped with bis, BISONs and M/MFs are still operational and are to serve till 2025.

The MiG 21 is a versatile platform, capable of performing many roles and IAF has utilised its MiGs to their last drop. The Type — 77s were the initially acquired as air defence interceptors inducted in large numbers, with ground attack variants coming later in form of Type — 88/96. The MiG 21M/MF were the choice of IAF for multirole ops when MiGs were considered, having used the type in ground attack, photo-reconnaissance and even electronic warfare. The dedicated MiG 21Ms of No 35 squadron, which were equipped Swedish EW pods, were the go-to unit for such roles until the induction of Mirage 2000s in the 80s. The unit not only served the dictated offensive roles but was also involved in developmental roles of EW systems in conjunction with DRDO and training of IAF pilots with such systems. One more squadron in form of No 108, which was also equipped with MiG 21Ms was assigned the role of strike interdiction, photo reconnaissance and air defence (№108 Squadron “Hawkeyes”). That is not to suggest that only M/MF versions are used for multirole ops, rather every variant since including bis and BISON have been used for such roles. The BISON is described by IAF as a ground attack/multirole ops plane, and as we all know from February 27 engagements, they were used for point defence.

IAF in total over its history has operated around ~874 MiG 21s spanning over 4 generations (5 if you include BISON as a different generation, which I think isn’t a totally wrong assumption) of MiG 21s. HAL has manufactured ~657 frames in India over three generations MiG 21FL (77), MiG 21M (88), and MiG 21bis (75) and the last MiG 21bis left Nasik line by 1985 when the production was switched to MiG 27 Floggers, with approximately 225 Type — 75s manufactured. These were by far the largest numbers of any type operated by IAF, even till now.

Image Source: CIA Report

Thus, this story of MiG 21 and IAF, which not only shaped Indian Air Force as a whole, helped quite literally to develop the plane’s variants and quite possibly entrenched the political and military relations between Russia (erstwhile USSR) and India, a relationship that changed the course of history in 1971 war, comes to its conclusion. The planes don’t have much life left and are running on fumes. They will retire soon and these magnificent beasts will become part of history, with only tales of their exploits to tell.

About the Author: Shwetabh Singh ia a military observer with a special interest in aviation. He is a Senior Editor at Indian Defence @IndianDefenceRA His Twitter handle is @singhshwetabh71 The views expressed are the author’s own. The article was first published in authors medium

Picture Credit: english.mathrubhumi.com


Different types of MiG 21s operated by IAF over the years of different generations:

· MiG 21F-13 — Type 74 — 1st Gen

First Generation. Image Source: http://www.mig-21.de/english/technicaldataversions.htm

· MiG 21PF — Type 76 — 2nd Gen

· MiG 21FL — Type 77 — 2nd Gen

Second Generation. Image Source: http://www.mig-21.de/english/technicaldataversions.htm

· MiG 21M — Type 88 (HAL) — 3rd Gen

· MiG 21MF — Type 96 — 3rd Gen

Third Generation. Image Source: http://www.mig-21.de/english/technicaldataversions.htm

· MiG 21bis — Type 75 — 4th Gen

Fourth Generation. Image Source: http://www.mig-21.de/english/technicaldataversions.htm

· MiG 21 Bison

These generations are not aircraft generations but rather generations of MiG 21s. MiG 21s are generally considered to be 3rd gen aircrafts themselves.

MiG 21 Types. Image Source: MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Yefim Gordon


[1] MiG OKB was experimenting with this engine on MiG 19, the only prototype was I-370. Both, the engine and prototype, were later axed

[2] Opytno-KonstruktorskoyeByuro — Experimental design bureau

[3] Ye stands for Yedimtsa or ‘Single unit’, implying prototype.

[4] these “MiG 23/ Type — 63” were to be produced by Plant 21 at Gorkii and 5 “MiG 23”s were indeed built by 1957. But this program was cancelled in 1958. All built units were then used as testing platforms. Then the series designation was awarded to what we now know as “Flogger”.

[5] Almost all prototypes’ flight testing was done at famous Zhukhovskii/ Zhukhovsky.

[6] Dates are disputed.

[7] Again, the numbers are disputed, ranging from 6–10.

[8] Based on different sources.


Camp, Phil and Simon Watson. The MiG Operational Flying Training Unit. n.d. November 2019. <https://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Galleries/Special/Features/MOFTU/&gt;.

Chari, P. R. “Indo-Soviet Military Cooperation: A Review.” Asian Survey Vol 19.No 3 (1979): 230–244. JSTOR. 2019. <www.jstor.org/stable/2643691>.

Ganapathy, P. R. No 28 Squadron. 2017. Online. 10 October 2019. <https://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/units/squadrons/28-squadron-first-supersonics.html&gt;.

Gordon, Yefim and Bill Gunston. MiG-21 “Fishbed”: The World’s Most Widely Used Supersonic Fighter. Aerofax, 1996.

Graham, Ian C. C. “The Indo-Soviet MIG Deal and Its International Repercussions.” Asian Survey Vol 4.No 5 (1964): 823–832. JSTOR. 2019. <www.jstor.org/stable/3023476>.

Hush-Kit. Flying & fighting in the MiG-21: Interview with Group Captain MJA Vinod. 29 October 2019. <https://hushkit.net/2019/10/29/flying-fighting-in-the-mig-21-interview-with-group-captain-mja-vinod/&gt;.

IAF Aircraft Database — Types, Serial Numbers, Fates. n.d. Online. 10 October 2019. <http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Database/Aircraft/listing.php?qacid=50&gt;.

McGarr, Paul M. “ The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945–1965.” McGarr, Paul M. The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945–1965. 2013.

Mladenov, Alexander. “Mikoyan Gurevich MiG -21.” Osprey Publishing, 2014.

№108 Squadron Hawkeyes. n.d. Online. 18 December 2019. <http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Database/Units/108%20Sqn&gt;.

Pillarisetti, Jagan. The MiG-21 Bison Upgrade Programme. n.d. Online. November 2019. <http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Aircraft/Current/605-Bison.html&gt;

Published by Anil Chopra

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

5 thoughts on “MiG 21 and IAF: A Developmental Perspective

  1. As a fellow military aviation enthusiastic I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. It’s amazing how detailed you were able to make it. Would love to read more pieces on some of IAFs iconic fighters like Mirage 2000 or MiG-29 or even SU-30MKI.

    Liked by 2 people

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