Perennial Bad Guy: The MiG-21
65 YEARS OLD AND STILL KICKIN’ BUTT
65 Years Old and Still Kickin’ Butt
If the United States has developed fighters that have staying power over many years—the venerable F-4, F-15, and F-16 come to mind—then the Russian MiG-21 must surely share that space. The MiG21 made its public debut in a Soviet air display in 1956. Known as an air-to-air missile fighter, the MiG-21 can also wage war with an internally mounted 23mm cannon. Some like to call the MiG21 the “AK-47 of jet fighters.” Like the famed short Soviet rifle, the MiG-21 has proven to be both lethal and long-lived around the world.
Just as avionics and weapons updates have kept the F-15 and F-16 potent into the 21st century, the venerable MiG-21 has been the subject of upgrades that keep it in contention today. The Soviets readily exported MiG-21s to many nations, from
Europe to Asia. MiG-21s still serve at least 15 countries worldwide, ranging from Cuba to Croatia and Romania.
The basic MiG-21 was conceived as a short-range interceptor relying on ground radars for vectoring to its aerial target. Under these circumstances, the MiG-21's prominent shock cone nose inlet, which inhibited the use of long-range onboard radar, was not viewed as a detriment. The MiG-21 is a lightweight fighter that achieves Mach 2 and enjoys good maneuverability. It is sometimes compared to the F-5 and F-104 in performance.
THE MIG-21 IS A LIGHTWEIGHT FIGHTER THAT ACHIEVES MACH 2 AND ENJOYS GOOD MANEUVERABILITY. IT IS SOMETIMES COMPARED TO THE F-5 AND F-104 IN PERFORMANCE.
The progenitor of all MiG-21s the prototype called “Ye-2,” an ambitious jet with a swept wing. It first flew on a February day in 1955. Performance fell short of the intended Mach 2 speed, and the design evolved into a delta-wing planform, retaining a traditional horizontal tail as well. Subsequent test iterations up to Ye-6 yielded the basic MiG-21 form. By 1959–60, the Soviet Air Force was flying a small batch of MiG-21F variants armed with two 30mm cannons. This model carried the Soviet Air Force designation “Type 72” and the NATO identification name of “Fishbed B.”
By 1962, Warsaw Pact nations were receiving deliveries of the improved MiG-21F-13, Type 74 (Fishbed C), featuring an enlarged ventral fin and a change in canopy design. The C model carried only one cannon but had two underwing hardpoints that could load air-to-air or air-toground missiles; this would prove to be a fortuitous advancement for the aircraft. Iterations of the MiG-21F set the tone.
The MiG-21PF (Fishbed D) enlarged a number of airframe features, including the nose cone and ventral fin, to accommodate radar developments and fuel tankage, respectively. In parallel with U.S. doctrine of the era, the Soviets built some of this model without an internal cannon, relying solely on missiles. The Fishbed F introduced a side-hinging canopy and blown flaps. Some Fishbed F models could mount an external gun pod ventrally.
An old aeronautical engineering truism is the pound-a-day diet, the rate at which aircraft designs seem to gain weight to meet evolving mission requirements, sometimes at the sacrifice of performance. The MiG-21 was not immune from this phenomenon, and versions of it built into the 1970s included the MiG-21M (Fishbed H) and MiG-21MF, with more fuel capacity and more ordnance hardpoints. In 1980, during the Iran-Iraq War, a MiG-21MF was credited with downing an Iranian F-14.
An unpopular attempt at increasing fuel capacity was the development of the large dorsal saddle tank of the MiG-21SMT (Fishbed K).
This Soviet Air Force model had degraded flight qualities, and some were later converted to ones with a smaller dorsal spine and identified as “MiG-21ST,” externally similar to the subsequent MiG-21bis.
MiG-21bis variants (Fishbed L and N) were produced in the early 1970s, and powered by
the Tumansky R-25-300 turbojet engine.
Ever-improving avionics and fuel capacity produced MiG-21 variants up to the Fishbed N. Soviet production of the MiG-21 ended in 1985, with more than 10,600 having been built. Chinese Chengdu variants rolled off the assembly line from 1966 until 2013, adding about 2,400 more airframes to the tally, and India constructed 657 license-built MiG-21s, while Czechoslovakia built 194 of the fighters.
The MiG-21 Goes to War
While American military planners studied the MiG-21 as a potential adversary in the event of direct conflict with the Soviet Union, the MiG-21 in real-world skies made headlines over Vietnam, the Middle East, and India-Pakistan.
The MiG-21 has a wingspan of 25 feet and a length of 55 to 57 feet, depending on the model. The Northrop F-5A spans 25 feet 3 inches and has a length of 47 feet 2 inches. The F-4 Phantom II spans 38 feet 5 inches and has a length of 63 feet. And while the MiG-21 can achieve speeds beyond 1,300mph compared to the
F-5A’s 945mph best, the MiG and the Phantom are close rivals in the top end of the speed range.
Classic MiG-21 performance is provided by a single Tumansky turbojet engine producing 12,000 to 16,000 pounds of thrust, more than the airplane’s empty weight in some instances. The MiG-21 is characterized by those who flew it as agile, with a low radar signature. The MiG-21 could be decidedly harder to see than larger fighters. A good thrust-to-weight ratio enhanced the MiG-21’s acceleration. Top speed is generally listed at about 1250–1350mph for various models.
The MiG-21’s embracing of the Soviet “Atoll” infrared guided missile was a lethal marriage.
The Atoll is a Soviet copy of the American
AIM-9 Sidewinder. “Atoll” is its NATO designation; its nomenclature is listed as K-13 or AA-2. Its reverse engineering is the stuff of Cold War cliffhangers in popular literature. The prevailing story says that a Taiwanese F-86 purportedly launched a Sidewinder at a communist Chinese
aircraft over the Taiwan Strait in 1958. According to the story, the missile did not explode and remained lodged in the communist airframe. The Chinese turned it over to their Soviet allies, and its secrets were plumbed and copied. (Additionally, a Swedish spy is said to have furnished Sidewinder details to the Soviets, but the reverse-engineering story prevails in some popular accounts. Evidently lost to popular history is the name of the adroit person whose task was the removal of the presumably armed Sidewinder from the Chinese airframe.)
The Atoll proved as lethal as the American missile that gave rise to it, as American fliers learned to their dismay over Vietnam. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) and U.S. Navy (USN) quickly had to go to school to master ways of defeating North Vietnamese fighters, including MiG-21s. Combat rules of engagement imposed on the U.S. warplanes included visual contact with the enemy, which negated some of the advantages of American long-range missiles. The size of the MiG-21 fleet was never very large at any one time, and North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots perfected a hit-and-run stern attack in which they launched Atoll missiles and departed quickly.
The USAF produced a running-narrative synopsis of the war as it unfolded, called “CHECO,” or Contemporary Historical Evaluation of Combat Operations. An entry for November 1967 tersely describes the scene: “Three F-105s and one F-4 were shot down by MIG-21s in the vicinity of Yen Bay. All of the MIGs used similar tactics, each attacking from the rear with a single hit-and-run firing pass.”
A serious setback to North Vietnam’s MiG-21 operations came in January 1967 when USAF Col. Robin Olds performed a masterful feint in which missile-armed F-4s mimicked the expected actions of F-105 bombers, thereby luring MiG-21s to engage. The USAF mission was called “Operation Bolo.”
In the ensuing melee, the North Vietnamese Air Force lost nearly half its operational MiG-21 inventory, with USAF Phantoms reporting no losses of their own. The numbers are sometimes
disputed, but North Vietnam had about 16 MiG21s in its inventory at that time, and anywhere from 11 to 14 of them were involved in the battle that day. The USAF logged seven MiG-21s downed; North Vietnamese sources claimed only five of their supersonic interceptors were lost.
The feint caused a stand-down in North Vietnamese MiG-21 operations; clearly such losses could not be sustained repeatedly. By the time the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, the USAF had downed 68 North Vietnamese MiG-21s in aerial combat, as attrition was replaced by more of the Soviet fighters over time. USN pilots in F-8 Crusaders accounted for four Fishbeds, while Navy F-4 fliers were victorious over 14 MiG-21s.
India became the third largest operator of MiG-21s, with more than 1,200 in service to that country over the years. During its conflict with Pakistan in 1971, Indian MiG-21s downed a number of aircraft, including a Pakistani F-104 Starfighter. As recently as 1999, Indian Air Force MiG-21s downed a Pakistani Breguet Atlantic patrol plane that had apparently entered
MiG-21s found their way to the United States during the Cold War, including an example furnished by Israel in 1967. The then-secret evaluations of the MiG-21 against U.S. fighters were undertaken over vast and remote Nevada test ranges. To minimize the likelihood of knowledge about the MiG-21 tests going public, the Fishbed was given the U.S. nomenclature “YF-110,” which had originally been applied to USAF Phantoms before they were redesignated as “F-4.”
Fishbeds over the Middle East
Israel gained valuable information about the MiG-21 when, in August 1966, an Iraqi pilot defected with his fighter, which the Israelis later made available to the United States.
In April 1967, an aerial altercation over the Golan Heights saw Israeli Dassault Mirage IIIs down six Syrian MiG-21s without loss of their own.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War (Six-Day War) saw combat involving MiG-21s. Perhaps better trained, Israeli pilots in Mirage IIIs continued to hold their own against Egyptian and Syrian MiG21s. During some 25 encounters between Mirages and Fishbeds, homing missiles were disappointing. Israeli victories at that time were mostly accomplished with cannon fire.
Lists of Israeli aerial victories have been compiled, indicating that more than 400 MiG-21s were downed by Israeli pilots between 1966 and 1982. According to researcher Jan J. Safarik, the Israeli fighters involved in those combats have ranged from Mirage IIIs to the Super Mystère, an aged Ouragan, the potent F-4E Phantom II, Nesher (Mirage V), F-15, Kfir (in a victory claim shared with an F-15), and F-16.
Countries in the region that operated MiG-21s most often involved in these combats were Syria and Egypt. In an unusual twist, two Israeli claims of victory over MiG-21s represented North Korean jets that were deployed to help Egypt during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
In July 1977, Ethiopian Air Force Northrop F-5s battled Somali MiG-21s over disputed territory. This classic combat matchup of two similarly capable export fighters saw the Ethiopians’ Northrops emerge victorious. Some accounts say Ethiopian F-5s downed nine MiG-21s and a pair of MiG-17s while suffering no losses.
When Iraq went to war with Iran on Sept. 22, 1980, the Iraqi Air Force had MiG-21s to combat Iranian aircraft, which included F-5Es. Two days later, the two types of fighters met, and an Iraqi MiG-21 went down. Iran began using its F-5s as fighter-bombers in an effort to destroy Iraq’s oil-derived income. Over the next three years, Iraqi MiG-21s and Iranian F-5s occasionally challenged each other, with both sides achieving victories.
In the first Gulf War, which the United States waged against Iraq in 1990–91, Iraq still mustered some MiG21s into the fight. On January 17, 1991, two USN F/A-18s from squadron VFA-81 downed a pair of MiG-21s that challenged the Hornets during a bombing mission. One MiG-21 succumbed to an AIM-7 missile, the other to an AIM-9. Then on February 6, a single USAF
F-15C shot down two Iraqi MiG-21s by firing AIM-7 missiles at them. The MiGs were providing fighter escort for Su-25 ground-attack aircraft.
MiG-21s in the 21st Century
The post–Cold War Romanian Air Force, now aligned with NATO, faced funding shortages and had old Fishbeds that seemed insufficient to meet 21st-century air-policing duties. Romania sourced an upgrade produced by Israeli contractors that generated the MiG-21 LanceR out of more than 100 of the aging MiG-21s.
Western avionics for adverse weather and night flying were added, as were a radar-warning receiver and HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) controls. HOTAS makes many of the fighter’s functions accessible via buttons on the control stick and throttle, allowing the pilot to keep both hands on those primary controls without removing them and searching the cockpit for controls located elsewhere. This can be a game changer in the fog of battle. The Romanian LanceR pilot is also capable of using a helmet-
mounted display, further bringing the MiG-21 into the 21st century.
The Romanian MiG-21 LanceR-A model is optimized for ground attack and takes advantage of the Rafael Litening targeting pod, which offers FLIR (forward-looking infrared) and TV HD color camera imagery. The Romanian C model shoulders the air-to-air mission, sporting a new Elta EL/M-2032 pulse Doppler radar in the MiG’s characteristic air-intake spike.
Romania has drawn down its remaining fleet of MiG-21s, with used F-16s coming on line.
In the United States, Draken International of Lakeland, Florida, amassed more than two dozen late-model MiG-21 fighters from Poland as part of their fleet of jet fighters from international sources. Draken makes aircraft available for research and simulation projects. A quick review of recent Draken support operations indicates the company’s other aircraft, including A-4 Skyhawks and L-39s, have shouldered much of those duties.
In Mojave, California, the civilian National Test Pilot School (NTPS) took delivery of a two-place MiG-21UM in January 2018. The jet will provide varied third-generation jet-fighter capabilities to the instructors and students at the school. It is a former Czech Air Force aircraft, circa 1972.
The Mojave MiG was expected to fly with students by October 2018, following a lengthy maintenance and FAA airworthiness certification process. Instructor pilot Jim Brown’s previous experiences include service as an F-5 aggressor pilot, during which he used his jet to simulate the MiG-21. Now, flying the real deal MiG-21, Brown says, “It flies very similar to the F-5.”
Brown says that most students currently in
test-pilot training have operational experience in fourth-generation fighters, like the F-16 or Eurofighter Typhoon. These jets’ sophisticated flight-control systems can tame some of the rough edges that the older MiG-21 still exhibits in flight. “They’ve never flown an airplane that flies lousy,” Brown explains. Not that the MiG21 is lousy, he says, but “it requires more finesse. You can put it out of control quite easily.”
The Mach 2+ MiG-21 of NTPS will share the same supersonic airspace corridors used by nearby Edwards Air Force Base. “We have a need to teach students what an airplane does as it transitions from subsonic, through transonic, to supersonic,” Brown says. Plus, this is a classic Soviet-era jet. “Some of the design philosophies are different,” Brown explains, and that gives test-pilot students valuable insight into how to do their craft.
The manual MiG requires varied control inputs to maintain longitudinal and lateral stability throughout its flight range, and testpilot students must learn how to quantify those control inputs if they are to conduct meaningful test research. It’s not enough to just yank and bank; test pilots must use an esteemed tool of the flight tester, the Cooper-Harper rating scale, which enables a test pilot to give numerical value to the way an aircraft handles. Students will learn to do that in the MiG-21.
If the MiG-21 is an aging Cold War relic, don’t tell that to the pilots who fly it in air forces around the world—or to their potential adversaries, who must keep a healthy respect for the fighter today.
John Dibbs traveled to Bulgaria last year, where he captured its fully armed MiG-21s, since retired, in all theirSoviet glory. The type has been the “the enemy” for many generations of fighter pilots. (Photo by John Dibbs/ planepicture.com)
Along with the AK-47, theMiG-21 captures the essence of brutally lethal simplicity, making it the perfect low-dollar fighter for small countries. (Photo courtesy of Barrett Tillman)
Rat-racing Romanian MiG-21 and U.S. Alabama Air National Guard F-16 turn classicCold War tensions into the camaraderie of newfound allies. The realistic training took place near CampiaTurzii, Romania, in October 2015. (USAF photo by SSgt. Matthew Bruch, courtesy of Johnsen Collection)
The Iranian Air Force initially purchased MiG-21s from Germany, but politics prevented their delivery, so they purchased a Chinese derivative: the ChengduF7. (Photo courtesy ofTom Cooper)
The Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) operated a number of MiG-21s, but it is reported they never numbered more than several dozen. (Photo courtesy of Barrett Tillman)
There have been reports that Russians and/or Chinese pilots manned some of the VPAF MiGs. (Photo courtesy of Barrett Tillman)
One of the first things mentioned by Western pilots who have flown the MiG-21 is the lack of forward visibility, which is obvious in this view. The gunsight is surrounded by flight gauges severely hampering the pilot’s vision. (Photo by John Dibbs/ planepicture.com)
Much smaller than most of its adversaries, the MiG-21 nonetheless takes “simple” to a lethal level. (Photo by John Dibbs/planepicture.com)