The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 is a Soviet-built fighter-interceptor and one of the most widely exported aircraft in the world. Called the "Fishbed" in the NATO reporting system, it was first flown in 1955. With the exception of the Falklands War, the MiG-21 has seen use in just about every aerial conflict since it was introduced.
The "Fishbed" has a long and narrow body fitted with two delta wings and a single afterburning turbojet fitted with single exhaust. It is fitted with a bubble canopy. The MiG-21 is capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2.
The Fishbed has come out in fifteen different versions, the most advanced of which is the MiG-21bis. Around 3000 MiG-21 variants still serve in air forces around the world.
The MiG-21 has four underwing pylons for stores, and most variants carry a 23 mm cannon under the fuselage. The MiG-21bis can carry the relatively advanced AA-8 Aphid air-to-air missile.
China builds the MiG-21 under the name of the J-7. Production of the J-7 was licensed by the Soviet Union in 1961. The aircraft will be replaced by the J-8.
The MiG-21 entered operational service with North Vietnam in early 1966, a year after the MiG-17, but over the course of the war shot down over twice as many American aircraft (46) as its subsonic companion. Like the MiG-17, the MiG-21 was more maneuverable than the American fighters it faced, but had relatively poor avionics (although they were an improvement over the MiG-17’s). Thirteen MiG-21 pilots became aces (according to Vietnamese records), and the three top-scoring North Vietnamese aces were Fishbed drivers. The Vietnamese top gun was Nguyen Van Coc, with nine confirmed victories, including three F-105 Thunderchiefs and three F-4 Phantoms.
The MiGs typically used hit-and-run tactics, rushing in at high speed, firing their missiles, and escaping before the American escorts could respond. Even when the missiles failed to score, the bombers often had to jettison their payloads to evade the attacks, making the sorties pointless. In Operation Bolo, on January 2, 1967, USAF Phantoms downed seven North Vietnamese Fishbeds, approximately a third of their MiG-21 force, dealing them a serious blow. The remaining MiG-21s were temporarily withdrawn to wait for replacements and revise tactics. On April 30 of that year, the MiG-21s returned to the fight in a big way, downing three, possibly four, F-105 Thunderchiefs for no loss. One of the MiG pilots was Nguyen Van Coc, who scored his first kill in this action. Among the American pilots lost was Medal of Honor winner Leo K. Thorsness, who spent the rest of the war as a POW.
When Operation Rolling Thunder ended, the air war entered a lull. By the time bombing of the North resumed two years later, the Vietnamese People’s Air Force had re-equipped many of its MiG-17 units with MiG-21s, and 1972 saw 24 American planes lost to North Vietnamese Fishbeds. Most of the downed planes were Phantoms, but MiG-21 pilots also claimed to shot down two B-52s during Operation Linebacker II. For their part, the Americans had improved their tactics, revised their training, and removed many of the restrictions that had handicapped them in Operation Rolling Thunder, and MiG losses were high. American fighter pilots downed over 45 MiG-21s in 1972.
Arab Israeli conflicts
The MiG-21 was the premier air superiority fighter in the Arab air forces from the mid-60s to the early 80s, and was prominent in the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 fighting in Lebanon. The MiG-21 was equal to the most advanced Israeli fighter of the time, the Mirage III, and Israeli intelligence placed a high priority on obtaining one for analysis. On August 12, 1966, a Christian Iraqi pilot flew his MiG-21F to Israel in a defection arranged by a Mossad agent. The MiG was used in dis-similar combat training with Israeli Mirages, allowing the pilots to learn about the Soviet plane’s strengths and weaknesses. This training proved its worth on April 7, 1967, during fighting between Syrian and Israeli forces in the Golan Heights. An air battle developed between Israeli fighters and twelve Syrian MiG-21s, resulting in six MiGs downed for no loss to the Israelis.
In the Six Day War, the initial strikes destroyed most of Egypt’s MiGs on the ground, and the few that were able to get airborne were outnumbered and usually outflown. Six MiG-21s were lost in aerial combat on the first day, and they downed only one aircraft in return, an Israeli Mirage. The Syrian Air Force had the advantage of warning, since attacks on Syrian airfields weren’t scheduled to take place until the afternoon, and the war on the eastern front began when Syrian MiG-17s struck the oil refinery at Haifa with MiG-19s and MiG-21s as escorts. In spite of a combat air patrol over Syrian airfields, the Israeli strikes went ahead as scheduled and destroyed over half the Syrian Air Force’s planes. With the IAF in almost complete control of the air, Egyptian and Syrian MiGs were used in mainly ineffectual hit-and-run attacks for the rest of the war.
After peace with Israel, Egypt's relations with some of its fellow Arab states detoriarated, and Egyptian MiG-21s were called into action again in 1977 during the brief Libyan-Egyptian War, when they escorted strikes on Libyan army outposts, radar stations, and air bases. The Egyptian campaign was reasonably successful, but even after the ceasefire, there were occasional skirmishes. In 1979, two Libyan MiG-23s engaged two Egyptian Fishbeds which had been modified to carry American Sidewinder missiles. In a turning battle, in which the more maneuverable MiG-21 had the advantage, one Flogger was shot down by Egyptian pilot and veteran Major Sal Mohammad.
MiG-21s still formed the lion’s share of Iraqi fighter strength at the start of the war, but they were outclassed by the planes of the Iranian Air Force, especially the F-14 Tomcat, which was a full generation ahead of the MiG. The poor avionics of the MiG meant that pilots were often not aware of the enemy’s presence until the first plane was hit. Fishbed pilots claimed some successes, particularly against the less sophisticated F-5s flown by some Iranian units, but the engagement on September 25, 1980, in which twelve MiGs intercepted a force of Phantoms returning from a bombing raid, was more typical. Five MiGs were lost, and only two Phantoms even suffered damage. Not only were the Iranian planes usually better equipped, the Iranian pilots had generally better training, some of them having been to programs in America or Israel.
In early 1981, with French help, the Iraqis revised their tactics and modified their Fishbeds to carry French-built Matra heat-seeking missiles (The Soviet-built Atolls that the MiGs usually carried were notoriously unreliable). In April, the Iraqis began an aggressive air campaign with MiG-23s and the updated MiG-21s. Within a week, the MiGs had downed five Iranian aircraft, including two Phantoms, for the loss of one Fishbed. The next week resulted in four more kills for one MiG lost, and the Iraqis had achieved local air superiority, much to the surprise of the Iranian Air Force high command. The situation changed, however, when Iran redeployed F-14s to the area. Iran’s Tomcats were vastly superior to the improved MiGs, and the IrAF was forced back on the defensive.
The Soviets were slow in replacing Iraqi losses, so Iraq turned to China and its J-7 fighter, which was very basic, but cheap, and allowed the Iraqi Air Force to build back its strength. In response, Russia began supplying the superior MiG-21bis. However, even the best Fishbeds were not going win control of the sky back from Iran, and the MiG-21 was edged out by more advanced planes from Russia and France, although it continued to play a role through the end of the war.
By the time of the Gulf War, MiG-21s still made up a significant portion of the Iraqi Air Force, and were involved in at least one serious attempt to counter the American air strikes. On January 17, 1991, the first day of the war, Fishbeds went aloft to stop a strike by US Navy planes. Four MiGs acted as decoys, successfully drawing the attention of the escorting F-14s, while two others attempted to hit the strike planes. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a section of US Navy Hornets, and both were shot down. The Hornet pilots hadn’t even jettisoned their bombs for the engagement, and went on to complete their part of the attack mission.
After the first days, resistance by the IrAF markedly decreased. On February 6, 1991, F-15 pilot Captain Thomas Dietz of the 53rd Fighter Squadron shot down two MiG-21s that were trying to escape to Iran.
Soviet and Afghan MiG-21s saw service in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, mainly in the fighter-bomber role. Several were lost to ground fire, and at least one Afghan pilot defected with his plane to Pakistan. Many Fishbeds survived the fall of the Soviet-backed government, but by the time the Taliban came to power in 1996, only a few were still operational due to shortage of spare parts. It is unknown if any survived the American airstrikes of 2001.
The Horn of Africa
In 1977, war broke out between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Ethiopian province of Ogaden. Somalia had been a Soviet client for many years, so MiG-21s formed the backbone of its air force. Partly due to lack of ground-based radar support, Somali Fishbeds had a poor record during the war, with most of them being shot down by ground fire and Ethiopian F-5s. Although the Ethiopian government denied it, it is widely believed that the Ethiopian planes were flown by Israeli pilots (who had a wealth of experience in downing MiG-21s).
India has flown MiG-21s since 1965. On August 10, 1999, a few weeks after the end of the Kargil War, two Indian Fishbeds intercepted a Pakistani Navy reconnaissance aircraft near the border and shot it down. All sixteen officers and men aboard the Pakistani plane were killed. The Pakistani government claimed they were on a training mission in Pakistani airspace, while the Indian government said that the plane was over Indian territory on an intelligence mission when it was intercepted and that it was shot down when it tried to run for friendly airspace.
MiG-21 in Media
- MiG-21 at GlobalSecurity.org
- North Vietnamese Aces
- MiG-21 Units of the Vietnam War, by Istvan Toperczer, Osprey Publishing, 2001
- Vietnam People’s Air Force
- Stealing a Soviet MiG
- Arab MiG-19 and MiG-21 Units in Combat, by David Nicolle and Tom Cooper, Osprey Publishing, 2004
- Libya & Egypt, 1971-1979
- F-15C Eagle Units in Combat, by Steve Davies, Osprey Publishing, 2005
- The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, ed. by Chris Bishop, Aerospace Publishing, 2001
- Ogaden War, 1977-1978
- Can’t Stop the Madness, Time magazine