The classic MiG 21 is the most extensively exported jet fighter in history. It has fought in several wars and continues in frontline service four decades after its appearance.
The experience of air combat in Korea forced the Mikoyan design bureau to draw up radical plans for a new air-superiority fighter. This machine would have to be lightweight, be relatively simple to build, and possess speed in excess of Mach 2. The prime design prerequisite entailed deletion of all unnecessary equipment not related to performance. No less than 30 test models were built and flown through the mid- to late 1950s before a tailed-delta configuration was settled upon. The first MiG 21s were deployed in 1959 and proved immediately popular with Red Air Force pilots. They were the first Russian aircraft to routinely operate at Mach 2 and were highly maneuverable. Moreover, the delta configuration enabled the craft to remain controllable up to high angles of attack and low air speed. One possible drawback, as with all deltas, was that high turn rates yielded a steep drag rise, so the MiG 21 lost energy and speed while maneuvering. This was considered a fair trade-off in terms of overall excellent performance. More than 11,000 MiG 21s were built in 14 distinct versions that spanned three generations of design. They are the most numerous fighters exported abroad, and no less than 50 air forces employ them worldwide. The NATO code name is FISHBED.
The MiG 21 debuted during the Vietnam War (1964–1974), during which they proved formidable opponents for bigger U.S. fighters like the McDonnell- Douglas F-4 Phantom. Successive modifications have since endowed them with greater range and formidable ground-attack capability, but at the expense of their previously spry performance. Russian production of the MiG 21 has ended, yet China and India build, refurbish, and deploy them in great numbers. These formidable machines will undoubtedly remain in service for many years to come.
North Vietnamese fighters, first MiG-17s and then the faster but almost equally agile MiG-21s, started engaging the Americans almost from the beginning of Rolling Thunder. Thanks to Israel’s Mossad, which had induced an Iraqi pilot to desert, the U.S. Air Force did have an opportunity to take a close look at the latter aircraft; nevertheless, the air force was ill prepared to face the MiG-21s in combat. American fighter pilots at the time were under strict orders to refrain from practicing air-to-air combat against any aircraft different from the ones they themselves were flying; thus, instead of trying to bring down light F- 5s as the closest U.S. equivalent to the MiG 21, F- 4 “fought” F- 4 and F- 111, F- 111. Training exercises, held over Death Valley, California, consisted of two similar aircraft coming at each other from opposite directions like some lance-wielding medieval knights, launching their missiles, and turning away. Probably the intention was to silence critics, such as John Boyd, who were claiming that Soviet fighters were better than American ones. The procedure did little if anything to prepare pilots for the ordeal they were about to face; having reached Vietnam, some were “jumped” by MiGs and shot down before they knew what was happening to them. To make things worse, both MiG-17s and MiG- 21s presented small targets for the American fighters’ radar sets, whereas the MiG-17’s high tail location made it hard for infrared missiles launched from above and behind, the classic positions, to home in on it. During the Rolling Thunder years both sides’ losses in air combat were about equal. But whereas the North Vietnamese regarded that ratio as acceptable, given that it denied their enemies full command of the air, the Americans did not.