The MiG-21 was undoubtedly the most successful Cold War fighter in terms of reach, operating in over 50 air forces around the globe and seeing production well past the 10,000 example mark. The aircraft was developed with lessons learned in the Korean War based on after-action reports and valuable pilot input. The end-product for the Mikoyan-Gurevich firm would be the pinnacle of MiG fighter development that began in 1938 during World War 2 and culminated in over a decade of research, testing and development to produce the exceptional MiG-21. Despite having limited range (common in many of the early thirsty jet-powered implements), the MiG-21 was none-the-less easy to operate, easy to maintain and cost-effective to the point that many-a-nation went on to field the type - some even to this day.
Mikoyan-Gurevich was formed in the relatively early stages of World War 2 by the Soviet government. The firm's initial production offerings became the modestly-successful MiG-1 and MiG-3 piston-engined fighters that helped to stave off the German advance into Russia. While not an overly spectacular aircraft - utilizing a basic conventional light airframe with a very powerful engine - it gave Mikoyan-Gurevich some level of successful to build a foundation on for developments to come. By the end of World War 2, the firm had produced their first production jet-powered aircraft in the MiG-9 "Fargo". While unspectacular in itself and very prone to accident, the Fargo was still produced in nearly 600 examples and set the stage for the firm's next success in the smallish MiG-15 "Fagot".
The jet-powered, swept-wing MiG-15 appeared as something of a surprise to UN pilots in their straight-wing Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars and Republic F-84 Thunderjets. It was not uncommon for UN piston-powered aircraft to square off against these silver-colored nimble machines as well. The MiG-15 proved more than a handful to her adversaries - especially when in control by Soviet airmen - to the point that a counteragent - the North American F-86 Sabre - was brought in to force a political and military "tie" to the conflict, an "uneasy peace" more or less. Over 12,000 MiG-15's were ultimately produced with a further few thousand more coming under license outside of the Soviet Union.
The MiG-15 was bettered in the development MiG-17 which was already in the works during the Korean War and made operational in the Soviet inventory in 1952. Though not utilized in the Korean conflict, it went on to see notable action in the Vietnam War and elsewhere. While an improvement over the MiG-15 in most regards, the MiG-17 was still a subsonic performer - that is, operating under the mach 1 speed ceiling. Production still topped over 10,000 examples.
Everything changed with the arrival of the much-improved MiG-19 "Famer" appearing in 1955. The aircraft was a second-generation, twin-engined jet fighter with similar wing sweep and gave Soviet airmen their first taste of sustained Mach 1 flight. Over 2,000 of the type were manufactured with license production occurring in China. Like the MiG-17 before it, the MiG-19 also later fought in the skies over Vietnam.
The Call Comes In
In the fall of 1953, the Soviet government issued a requirement for a lightweight Mach 2-capable interceptor fighter for its Frontal Aviation branch of the Soviet Air Force. The interceptor would have to make use of a radar-ranging sight for gun accuracy and have the capability to retrofit missile armament once the technology was made available while sustain an impressive rate-of-climb (this was to be an interceptor after all). Mikoyan-Gurevich jumped at the challenge and held something of an advantage in that the firm had already been experimenting with varied wing forms, airframes and available engines by this time.
A complex system such as the MiG-21 was born from a variety of prototypes and developmental flight models. This began with the Ye-1, a design study fitting the Mikulin (Tumansky) AM-11 turbojet engine. This spawned another "one-off" model in the Ye-50, essentially a Ye-1 mounting the AM-9Ye turbojet engine with a liquid-propellant rocket booster for added thrust. The Ye-2 became another design left waiting for an AM-11 engine to become available and was therefore fitted with the AM-9B as found on the MiG-19 "Farmer" instead. The Ye-2 also introduced large ventral strakes towards the rear of the fuselage. Another Ye-2 design was given the now-available AM-11 turbojet and became the Ye-2A. Two delta-winged designs became the Ye-4 (fitting the AM-9B turbojet) and the Ye-5 (fitting the AM-11 turbojet). All five of these prototypes were ordered built (Ye-1, Ye-50, Ye-2a, Ye-4 and Ye-5) and would feature the identifiable conical assembly in its nose intake, a single vertical tail fin, integrated ejection seat system, tricycle undercarriage and similar internal components.
The Ye-2 was ahead of the group in terms of development and went airborne on February 14th, 1955 with good results, albeit a little slow than expected. The similar Ye-4 followed suit on June 16th, 1955, though this prototype fitted a near-triangular, small-area pointed pair of delta wings along with conventional tailplanes along the empennage sides. These thin wings forced the design to take on "blisters" above and below the wing roots to fit the upright main landing gear wheels. Performance of the Ye-4 was only marginally improved over that of the preceding Ye-2. The Ye-5 and Ye-50-1 both went airborne on January 9th, 1956. Confident that production would soon follow on either design, Mikoyan-Gurevich had two company designations reserved for the two models - "MiG-21" went to the tailed-delta wing version while "MiG-23" was reserved for the swept-wing version (this MIG-23 not to be confused with the later development of the MiG-23 "Flogger").
It should be noted here that true delta-wing forms generally did not make use of tailplanes as their main wing systems of large surface area replaced the need for such. Delta wings offered excellent lift but poor maneuverability. Additional inherent benefits could include in-wing fuel storage and multiple underwing hardpoints when compared to a conventional swept-wing aircraft. Of particular note here is that MiG had little to no experience in dealing with delta-winged products to this point - hence the interesting approach in their design of the Ye-4 prototype. While the Ye-4 did use a delta-wing approach, these implements were smaller-area assemblies and the design still made use of tailplanes - these all-moving surfaces by the way.
Versions of each aircraft (the swept- and delta-wing prototypes) later appeared over the Moscow Tushino airfield during the annual Aviation Day celebration on June 24th, 1956. Western observers were quick to note the types and NATO immediately assigned the swept-wing version the codename of "Faceplate" while the tailed-delta design received the codename of "Fishbed".
Development continued at Mikoyan-Gurevich. Several more prototypes were produced with redesigned portions as dictated by testing. In 1957, three Ye-6 prototype appeared sporting the tailed-delta wing of the Ye-5 but with clipped wingtips and a redesigned nose cone (this among other changes throughout). Flight testing began on May 20th, 1958 of the Ye-6. the program hit a delay when prototype Ye-6/1 was lost to engine failure, resulting in the death of the test pilot from injuries received in the crash. The pilot valiantly tried to restart the engine to no avail.
Ye-6/2 did away with wing boundary layer fences in early prototypes (and these as found on the MiG-15, -17 and -19 before it). Instead, smaller wing fences were installed in their place to help with stability. Additionally, cannon armament was now officially installed in the Ye-6/2. The Ye-6/3 was the first prototype to feature a centerline fuel tank to help increase the design's endurance - a product limitation. The prototypes officially bested the required maximum speed goal of Mach 2 by hitting Mach 2.05. Production forms soon followed and a public appearance of the finished aircraft occurred in 1961, greeting many in the West who were convinced all along that the swept-wing MiG-23 "Faceplate" would become the Soviet Union's next frontline fighter.
The MiG-21 began deliveries to the Soviet Air Force in late 1957 and continued into 1958. The type was officially introduced as the MiG-21F in 1959. In the Soviet/Russian inventories alone, the aircraft served for decades until a viable air superiority replacement was finally found in the MiG-29 Fulcrum, to which led to the gradual retirement of the MiG-21 throughout the 1990s.
Production of trainers and fighters ran from 1959 through 1985 and was split between three major plants in Gorkiy, Moscow and Tbilisi. Gorkiy produced no less than 5,278 systems while Moscow accounted for 3,203. Tbilisi delivered some 1,660 aircraft. The official total topped 10,158 aircraft while overall totals ranged up to 11,496.
The Missile Solution
The missile solution for the MiG-21 was solved when an American AIM-9 Sidewinder was passed to the Soviet Union by way of China in their fight with Taiwan. The missile was dissected (reverse engineered) and eventually became a Soviet "rip-off" in the K-13 (NATO codename of AA-2 "Atoll"), an infrared homing short-range air-to-air missile. The missile promptly entered service with Soviet forces in 1960 and became standard use on the MiG-21 and the later swing-wing MiG-23 "Flogger" as well as the Sukhoi Su-17, -20 and -22 fighters.
The MiG-21 production Fishbeds were little different that the preceding prototype designs. Wings were of the tailed-delta configuration with both pairs swept and mid-mounted to the fuselage. The main wings were thin and near-triangular shapes with clipped wingtips. It was expected that later forms of the aircraft should be able to accept missiles as the technology became more entrenched and this was eventually made possible with the arrival of the AA-2 "Atoll". As such, the Fishbed had a set of pylons added to her wings and provision was eventually made for the aircraft to field up to four such missiles. While all other early MiG fighters (the MiG-15, -17, and -19) all made use of heavy boundary layer fencing along the dorsal side of the wings, the MiG-21 did away with these large implements and instead settled on two smaller fences placed just ahead of the ailerons - one to each wing. The fuselage was a near-circle form, capped at the front with a nose-mounted cone placed within the nose intake. Ductwork ran along the sides of the cockpit to feed the single engine. Like other MiG fighters before it, the fuselage was also designed to be detached at the base of the empennage for ease of maintenance and repair.
The cockpit in earlier Fishbeds offered up relatively good visibility thanks to its lower spine. Later models incorporating a raised spine from the rear of the canopy to the base of the vertical fin obscured the rear view but increased endurance. Also in original Fishbeds, the single-piece canopy was hinged to open forward while later models were issued a new two-piece system hinged to the right. The canopy was designed to eject with the ejection seat and pilot, affording the pilot a set time of protection while in the air (the canopy was directly connected to the top of the seat) and ultimately detaching itself from the pilot and seat altogether. Framing was apparent in the front windscreen and reminiscent of earlier MiG fighter designs.
The undercarriage was of a tricycle arrangement and featured a conventional layout of two main landing gears and a nose wheel system. All systems were single-wheeled with the nose wheel noticeably smaller than the main wheels. While the nose landing gear recessed forwards and up into the fuselage, the main landing gears operated in a distinct way. The struts folded forward and angled while the wheels remained upright during the entire process. Due to her thin wings, the main gears had to retract into the underfuselage sides. As such, slightly noticeable blisters above and below the wing roots became a standard design feature in the Fishbed.
Standard armament most always comprised of cannons mounted in an underfuselage pod rear of the forward fuselage but ahead of amidships. While early Fishbeds were fielded as such, others either deleted one of the cannons or deleted the entire armament station altogether. The addition of wing pylons in later production models expanded the Fishbeds role into both air superiority and ground strike making for one true multi-role performer.
The empennage was dominated by the large vertical tail fin, integrated at the base by the pipe fairing (or the raised spine in later models) running from the rear of the cockpit to the start of the swept-back fin surface. The vertical wing was of relatively large surface area and held the rudder. The horizontal tailplanes were all-moving and situated slightly above and behind the main wings and highly swept with slight anhedral (some models sporting anti-flutter devices at the tips). The large ventral strakes were clearly visible in all later development Fishbeds and ultimate production systems. The large single engine exhaust port completed the rear fuselage details.
While a bevy of Fishbed variants were eventually spawned from the initial production model, a few deserve note here. Also note the lack of sequential alphabetical use on the part of Soviet naming conventions in their aircraft - a very "un-Western-like" and sometimes confusing approach but effective nonetheless.
The base "MiG-21" was a basic clear-weather interceptor modestly armed with a pair of 30mm cannon. The similar MiG-21F ("Fishbed-B") was a pre-production form sporting the same armament but introducing the centerline fuel take for increased endurance of which some 40 examples were produced essentially becoming the first true production models. MiG-21F-13 were refined MiG-21F models with only a single 30mm cannon but underwing pylons for 2 x AA-2 "Atoll" short-ranged air-to-air missiles.
The MiG-21FL were export versions of the MiG-21PFS but without the blown flaps or provision for RATO (Rocket Assisted Take-Off). It also featured a down-spec radar and lower-rated engine. The MiG-PF was a limited-all-weather fighter fitted with RP-21 Sapfir search and tracking radar and a redesigned nose to fit the R1L radar. it also fitted an improved form of the R-11F2-300 series turbojet which, in turn, improved performance.
The MiG-21 "Mongols" were trainers and fitted with two-seat tandem cockpits for student and instructor at the cost of fuel and endurance, appearing in three main sub-variants. The MiG-21U ("Mongol") was a trainer based on the MiG-21F-13. The MiG-21US ("Mongol-B") followed suit as did the MiG-21UM (also "Mongol-B").
The MiG-21R ("Fishbed-N") became the tactical reconnaissance version based on the MiG-21PFM. The centerline fuselage position was taken up by a reconnaissance pod fitting SLAR, TV and IR sensors and cameras as needed. The Fishbed-N also was given a newer lighter form of the R-13-30 turbojet engine producing more thrust. The MiG-21RF was a reconnaissance version based on the MiG-21MF.
The MiG-21S was an improved variant and multi-role fighter fitted with the RP-22 radar, a ventral cannon pod and an enlarged dorsal "hump" for more fuel. This model also featured four underwing hardpoints for improved air-to-air lethality. The MiG-21SMT featured ECM capability.
The MiG-21L sported a redesigned nose fitting the new R1L radar, a moveable conical center body assembly for the front intake and the R-11F2-300 powerplant. The MiG-21MF ("Fishbed-J") were export products with improved R-13-300 series engines and an improved maximum take-off weight. It also featured the RP-22 radar system tied to air-to-air missile capability across four underwing pylons.
Perhaps the greatest leap in the Fishbed production run was the vastly superior MiG-21bis. This was a 3rd generation approach that featured improvements throughout and offered up true multi-role capabilities across its four underwing pylons. The MiG-21bis "Lazur" was a sub-variant of this class as was the MiG-21bis SAU, the latter leading to the export MiG-21bis model version.
Romania maintained the MiG-21 "LanceR" for air defense and produced these Fishbeds locally. Modernization came both Aerostar of Romania and Elbit of Israel allowing for ground attacks using smart guided munitions. The MJiG-21 LancerR-B was the two-seat trainer form of the base LanceR. The LanceR-C is a dedicated air superiority version fitting Elbit EL/M-2032 radar, helmet-mounted sight and twin liquid-crystal displays multi-function displays (MFD).
The MiG-21-93 was another modernized standard being offered that featured an upgrade package complete with Phazotron Kopyo Pulse-Doppler radar, improved avionics and flight control systems, a helmet-mounted target designator and dual-screen HUD (Heads Up Display).
Improved air-to-air capabilities were part of the MiG-21 "Bison", an updated export MiG-21 with Phazotron Kopyo radar. The MiG-21-97 was another upgrade package using the Klimov RD-33 engine with improved performance and air-to-air capabilities.
HAL of India produced the MiG-21M ("Fishbed-J") and MiG-21FL under license. China became the other major producer of the MiG-21 and brought it under their designation of Chengdu J-7 (F-7 for export). Czechoslovakia license-produced the aircraft as the MiG-21F-13.
The MiG-21 At War
The MiG-21's first test of combat came in the Indo-Pak War of 1965 where India squared off against Pakistan in a conflict lasting just 22 days. Pakistan fielded their British Hawker Hunters and American North American F-86 Sabres and Lockheed F-104 Starfighters against Indian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 Fishbeds. The MiG-21 performed adequately enough as her pilots were relatively new to the ins-and-outs of the aircraft. The Fishbeds first aerial kill would have to wait until the two nations met up again in the Indo-Pak War of 1971 - where a MiG-21 downed a Chengdu F - essentially the Chinese license-built MiG-19 "Farmer". In a bit of irony, the MiG-21's first kill came against another MiG product - a product the MiG-21 directly replaced. A trio of F-104 Starfighters were later downed by MiG-21 cannon fire in separate incidents (missile kills were still a mixed affair). An F-86 did go on to shoot down a MiG-21, proving that the more maneuverable fighters of old were a bigger threat than the newer top-line hotrods being thrown at her.
MiGs Over the Middle East
The primary adversary of Arab MiG-21s was the Israeli Dassault Mirage IIICJ. Essentially, these MiG-21s were primarily outclassed in their pilot training while still carrying on the inherent limitations of the design such as range and radar. Israel held an advantage not only in the training of her pilots but in the fact that they had secured a MiG-21 via a defected Iraqi pilot. This Fishbed was put through extensive testing and later handed over to the Americans for similar work. At least now, the Israelis had an intimate knowledge of what would await them in the skies as most of the Arab countries around her flew and maintained the MiG-21.
In the Six Day War, from June 5th through June 10th, the Israeli Air Force struck early at Egyptian and Syrian airfields, destroying some 300 on the ground to the loss of just 19 of their own. Experiences here led the Israelis to develop an in-house missile solution in the Shafrir I and, later, the improved Shafrir 2. Interestingly enough, each missile type bagged a MiG-21 as its first victim in combat.
The Yom Kipper War showcased Israeli McDonnell F-4 Phantom IIs against Syrian MiG-21s. The Egyptians held some early advantages but this quickly ebbed away resulting in close to 100 Syrian fighters destroyed by Israeli warplanes.
MiG-21s Over Vietnam
The North Vietnamese Air Force began operating the MiG-21 in early 1966. Their primary adversary became the McDonnell F-4 Phantom IIs operating in conjunction with strike fighters such as the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. Phantom IIs began MIGCAP operations in protection of their Thunderchiefs when F-21 Fishbeds took a low altitude approach to their interception sorties. At this low level, NVAF pilots could scan above them and maintain some element of surprise against the bomb-laden strike fighters. Once spotted, the F-105s were forced to drop their munitions load or face the consequences of the Fishbed and her cannon/missile armament. As a result, F-4 Phantoms began escorting F-105 flight groups, often times flying at low level underneath the Thunderchiefs to help counter the MiG-21 threat.
While the Phantom was a top-notch performer, early forms were produced without cannons as part of the American belief that missiles were the new king of the battlefield. Close-combat in Vietnam made the F-4s virtually useless as the dogfights evolved at close ranges well inside a missile's effective range. Additionally, the speed of the Phantoms was a limitation in a turning battle, where the MiG-21 held a distinct advantage. To add insult to injury, the MiG-21 was less than half the price of the complicated Phantom, a fact that Gurevich himself reveled at. Nevertheless, the Phantom maintained a better radar facility, better operational range and could be armed with both the short-range Sidewinder and the medium-range Sparrow. It should be noted, however, that homing missile technology at this time was still relatively in its infancy, leading to "duds", wide misses or missile systems that simply could not achieve a true lock-on.
The first air battle took place on April 23rd, 1966 but led to nothing of note. By the end of 1966, Soviet observers account for 47 air kills of American aircraft. Similarly, 1967 showed that 124 American aircraft were downed to the loss of 60 NVAF systems. From 1966 through 1970, the NVAF maintained a health kill ratio against American warplanes. In the later years of the conflict, however, the playing field seemed to even out and both sides were regularly claiming kills and disputing the other's findings. The Phantom F-4D proved to be the best American answer to the MiG-21.
The Vietnam War remains the only conflict in which a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress was lost to enemy fire, this coming from the missile of a MiG-21. Conversely, the conflict also signified the only occurrences of which a B-52 tail gunner downed enemy aircraft - this taking place on two occasions just days apart and involving B-52Ds and MiG-21s.
Between mid-1965 and early 1973 (and depending on the source - here USAF), between 36 to 68 MiG-21s were destroyed. As both sides of any conflict tended to overstate their claims, it becomes hard to judge who, in fact, maintained the advantage. The Soviets naturally claimed an overwhelming edge to their MiG-21 over the F-4.
1966 = 6 MiG-21 losses to 18 US warplanes
1967 = 21 MiG-21 losses to 36 US warplanes
1968 = 9 MiG-21 losses to 17 US warplanes
1969 = 3 MiG-21 losses to 1 US Firebee UAV
1970 = 2 MiG-21 losses to 2 US warplanes (including a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter)
1972 = 51 MiG-21 loss to 53 US warplanes (including the aforementioned B-52
The Egypt took to the skies in their MiG-21s against Libya in which both sides claimed an equal success leading to inconclusive results. Despite their fielding in Afghanistan by the Soviets, the MiG-21 was out of its league in operating against a Guerilla foe there. Iraqi MiG-21s found trouble against Iranian-piloted F-4 Phantom IIs and Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighters. Ethiopia held bragging rights in her air war against Somalia.
While the MiG-29 Fulcrum appeared in the 1980's to replace the MiG-21 Fishbed in the Soviet inventory, China and India maintain a healthy fleet of MiG-21s and related developments. Indian MiGs were updated to keep them flying (amazingly) up to 2025. Should this happen, it would make the MiG-21 one of the true success stories of the Cold War and military aviation in general. Considering she was brought online in 1959, 2025 would mean 66 years of operation service - and amazing feat considering the origins. At any regard, the MiG-21 has amassed a respectable combat record and has proven a steady and cost-effective performer - a complete market success for the MiG firm whose beginnings saw her produce only marginally-effective fighter product in the World War 2.