MiG-21 Fishbed: why the American army feared this Russian fighter
“Fishbed”, the official NATO code name for the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 fighter jet, may not seem terribly intimidating. Indeed, it may sound like a seafood platter – I’m hungry even as I type these words.
However, just like you can’t judge a book by its cover, neither can you judge a warplane by its nickname. And like the American combat airmen who tangled with the MiG-21 in the skies of northern Vietnam can attest to this, the Fishbed was a deadly and predatory flying fish. If anything, it was a piranha.
Funny name, serious plane
As noted by the military aviation expert Stephan Wilkinson“The Soviets hated [the name], just like they hated Fagot, Faithless, Frogfoot and other western names for their fighters. The MiG-21 had no official Russian identifier, but its popular handle was Balalaika, after the triangular folk instrument – an obvious reference to the MiG’s delta wing.
When designing their beloved Balalaika, the Soviets used the same “Keep It Simple, Stupid” mentality that they followed with the production of the ubiquitous AK-47 battle rifle: simple, light, reliable and capable of mass production at relatively low cost. It was the polar opposite of the American approach of trying to create super-fighters in small numbers.
However, simple and cheap does not translate into poor quality. The MiG-21 was Mach-2 capable and had a long production run, from 1959 to 1985. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Fishbed was updated and modified by companies in India, Israel and Romania, and it was copied. by the Chinese. Today, 18 countries still exploit this warbird, including Cuba and North Korea, not to mention NATO allies Croatia and Romania. To quote Wilkinson again, “The Fishbed is the most-produced supersonic fighter of all time, with 11,496 built.”
A long track record
The MiG-21 has seen its fair share of action. It was especially important during the Vietnam War. Although the larger American F-4 Phantom was faster and had a more powerful engine, the Fishbed was nimble and maneuverable enough to take advantage of the extremely restrictive rules of engagement. imposed by LBJ and Robert McNamara. Their size and speed allowed them to cut through bomber packs before American fighters could visually identify and target them. They could escape the first air-to-air missiles and then return home.
North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots ended up shooting down 17 F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers, with no MiG losses for the Thuds. Against the Phantom, the Fishbed didn’t fare so well, finding itself short of the kill rate. Eventually, Phantom pilots love the legendary Colonel Robin Olds gained the upper hand over their communist enemies by learning to “fight vertically”. Rather than engage in close dogfights, the F-4 pilots used their superior acceleration and thrust to climb vertically, then swing over and dive the boogie at full bank angle onto their targets. Nevertheless, at least three Vietnamese Air Force pilots became MiG-21 aces, including Nguyen Van Cocwhich ended the war with nine air-to-air victories.
Meanwhile, during conflicts in the Middle East such as the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Syrian and Egyptian Fishbed pilots were generally slaughtered by their better-trained Israeli opponents, but at least one Syrian pilot achieved ace status. Indian Air Force Fishbed pilots acquitted themselves well Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, as did Iraqi Air Force MiG-21 pilots during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s. However, during Operation Desert Storm, Iraqi Fishbed pilots did not fare as well behaved. They lost four of their own, two each to USAF F-15Cs and USN F/A-18s. They failed to kill any coalition aircraft.
Despite its speed and agility, the MiG-21 remains on the losing side of the overall air-to-air attack tally. Aside from the superior training and technologies of American and Israeli crews and airframes, at least some of this can be attributed to the inherent weakness in the Fishbed’s design. For starters, there was the nearly useless on-board radar, as only a small dish could fit in the nose cone slowing the jet’s airflow. It also had extremely limited fuel capacity, usually only 45 minutes’ worth. To make matters worse, the Fishbed could not be dead-stuck on a landing in the event of fuel starvation near its airbase, as an underpowered approach was required. Early versions of the warbird had a poorly designed fuel system to start which ended up killing many inexperienced pilots.
Despite these flaws and his age, the Balalaika Battlebird continues to blaze through the skies. To conclude by quoting my [1945[1945 coworker Robert Farley“There may never be a century-old fighter (although the B-52 could most likely reach that number before final retirement). The MiG-21 will easily reach its sixties, however, and probably seventies without It remains one of the iconic fighters of the supersonic era.
Wingspan: 23 feet 6 inches
Length: 51 feet 9 inches
Height: 15 feet 9 inches
Lester: 18,080 pounds. max.
Engines: Tumansky R-11F-300 @ 12,675 lbst with afterburner
Crew: A pilot)
Maximum speed: 1,300mph
Cruising speed: 550mph
Interval: 400 km
Service ceiling: 50,000 feet / 14,000 meters
Armament: One NR-30 30mm cannon plus
MIG-21pfs = atoll K-13 AA-2, FAB-500, FAB-250, UV-16-67 rocket modules
MIG-21bis = UV-69 57 rocket pods, AA-8 aphid, FAB-250, FAB-500
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments in Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany and the Pentagon). Chris holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an MA in Intelligence Studies (Terrorism Studies Concentration) from the American Military University (AMU). It was also published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cybersecurity.