The time: 2 pm, December 12, 1971, India-Pakistan War.
The place: A forward airbase in Jamnagar, Gujarat.
One of the most eagerly awaited dogfights in aviation history is about to take place. The Americans have supplied their ally Pakistan with the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, the most advanced jet in their inventory, while the Indians have opted for the Russian MiG-21. It will be the first aerial combat between Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) aircraft.
Two F-104s of the Pakistan Air Force enter Indian air space for an attack on the airbase. As the first Pakistani aircraft dives in towards the airfield, a patrolling MiG-21 pilot spots the attacking aircraft and gets after him.
Observing the MiG on his tail, the Pakistani F-104 breaks off the attack, turns and tries to shake off its pursuer. However, the Indian pilot pulls the MiG-21 into a tighter turn well inside the enemy plane and launches an air-to-air missile. It misses.
In the meantime, the pilot of the second Pakistani Starfighter, the wingman, sees a second MiG-21 turning towards him. Realising he’s up against a much superior aircraft, he makes his escape.
His captain, however, is not so lucky. He attempts to get away using sheer speed but realises the MiG-21 is equally fast. The desperate chase now takes them over the shark-infested waters of the Arabian Sea. This time, instead of using missiles, the Indian pilot takes aim with his cannon and fires a long burst. Wise decision – flashes on the F-104’s metallic surface indicate a direct hit. Seconds later the American-built aircraft spins out of control and crashes into the sea.
The Indian Navy sends out rescue boats but the Pakistani pilot is not found. At that speed when you hit the water’s surface it’s like hitting concrete.
During the war the MiG-21s were pivotal in giving the IAF air superiority, which played a huge part in India’s victory. Military analyst Edward Coggins writes in ‘Wings That Stay On: The Role of Fighter Aircraft in War’ that by the time the hostilities came to an end, the IAF MiG-21s had claimed four Pakistani F-104s, two F6, one F-86 Sabre and one Lockheed C-130 Hercules. The Russian fighter had clearly won the much anticipated air combat between the MiG-21 and the F-104, he writes.
With top cover provided by the MiGs, the IAF’s Sukhoi-7s and Hunters launched relentless attacks on Pakistan’s forward airbases, forcing the PAF to operate from bases further inland. This curtailed their range and the PAF aircraft were no longer able to attack freely.
According to the IAF’s official history of the 1971 War, from December 8 Western Air Command changed its tactics for counter air and close air support operations. “Deliberate attempts were made to attract the PAF’s attention and invite aerial engagement. Strike missions were led by fighters which flew high enough to be seen on Pak radar screens. But the PAF refused to cooperate. Instead there was a marked decline on attacks on Indian troops.”
The main reason why the PAF refused to engage in dogfights was the fear of encountering the MiG-21. The Pakistanis were now psyched by the multiplier effect of the MiG-21. The Russian aircraft was – to use an American football term – running interference for IAF bombers and strike aircraft and the PAF could do nothing about it.
“The MiG-21 proved to be a highly effective air defence weapons system,” says the IAF. Grouping the high flying MiGs with low flying Hunters and Sukhois was a brilliant tactic. The air superiority umbrella created by the MiG allowed other IAF aircraft to mount their attacks in an environment that favoured them.
That’s not where the story ends. Tom Cooper writes in ‘Arab MiG-19 and MiG-21 Units in Combat’: “Because of the formidable performance of the MiG-21s several nations, including Iraq, approached India for MiG-21 pilot training. By the early 1970s, more than 120 Iraqi pilots were being trained by the Indian Air Force.”
60 years of combat
The MiG-21 made its first public appearance during the Aviation Day display at Moscow’s Tushino Airport in June 1956. It has the distinction of holding a number of aviation records, including the most produced jet aircraft in aviation history, the most produced combat aircraft since WWII, and the longest production run of a combat aircraft. Over 11,000 MiG-21 aircraft, derivatives and copies have been built and have served with 50 air forces.
When the aircraft came on the export market in the 1960s, it had one major problem – low endurance. It was said about the MiG-21 that it was an in a fuel crisis even as it took off. A Romanian Air Force pilot told Aviation Week: “We don’t have the endurance of the western fighters…. Our missions are 30-45 minutes, so we need to fly twice to achieve the same number of hours.”
But the aircraft was just what most countries were looking for – cheap to buy and easy to service. Because of its low cost and ease of maintenance, even by poor countries, it came to be known as the “people’s fighter”.
Even as the age of stealth aircraft dawns, 18 countries continue to operate this plucky Russian fighter. Namibia became the most recent country to induct the interceptor in its air force when it acquired two MiG-21s in March 2005, proving that age is no handicap for a good plane.
No fighter can survive this long and in so many air forces if it is not combat worthy. In comparison, the MiG-21’s Cold War rivals – the F-104, the French Mirage III and British Lightning – are now seen only in museums or airplane boneyards.
How India got the People’s Fighter
The MiG-21 wasn’t the IAF’s first choice; it was the Lockheed F-104. The US had provided Pakistan the F-104 jet, but in order not to upset Islamabad it denied India the same aircraft. Satu Limaye writes in ‘US-India Relations’ that “the US refused to sell India any weaponry, offensive or otherwise, that was not directly applicable to mountain warfare”. This led India to suspect the US was trying to nudge its defence capabilities in the direction of a particular American strategic objective (the containment of China) while at the same time protecting Pakistani sensitivities.
After being spurned by the western powers, India turned to Russia. Moscow, which was looking for a major buyer, offered India full transfer of technology and rights for local assembly.
In 1964 – two years after the PAF got the F-104 – the MiG-21 became the first supersonic fighter jet to enter service with the IAF. The Russians supplied the entire production facility – the engine plant was established in Koraput and the fuselage in Kanpur. By the 1971 war, India had acquired seven MiG squadrons comprising around 100 aircraft.
Crash rate: MiG-21 vs rivals
Of the 793 MiG-21s inducted into IAF since 1963, well over 350 have been lost in accidents, killing 170 pilots. However, labelling it a “flying coffin” is wrong. Former Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis has said the higher number of crashes (not to be confused with the crash rate) is because the “MiG-21s are most in numbers and in use operationally”.
In fact, the Russian jet has a much better record than its chief western rivals. Between 1960 and 1987, the German air force flew nearly a thousand F-104s and lost 292. In a similar time frame, the Canadian air force lost over 100 of their 200 Starfighters. Britain’s Royal Air Force pilots, having considerable World War II experience, didn’t fare any better, crashing over a hundred of their 300 Lightnings over a period of 25 years.
In a report prepared for the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, C.J. Knapp and R. Johnson revealed that during a 19-year period from 1975-93 there were 190 Class A – or major – mishaps involving 204 F-16s and 217 aircrew.
As we have seen, 18 nations – including NATO members Romania and Croatia – continue to stick with the MiG-21. MiGs are not tumbling out of the air in Croatia, Algeria or Romania. China has cloned and flies over 700 of these fighters and has supplied 150 to Pakistan. None of these air forces has a training standard similar to the IAF’s. This involves intense peacetime training, which means potentially more accidents. Former air force chief N.A.K. Browne has gone on record that he would rather lose pilots during training than during war.
Flying into the sunset?
Bowing to pressure from Parliament after the trial by media, the IAF announced in 2013 that it would retire its entire MiG-21 fleet by 2017 with the Indian-built Tejas. But with the light combat aircraft not exactly experiencing beginner’s luck, about 250 MiG-21s remain in service. Some of them will undoubtedly be flying when the aircraft’s 70th anniversary comes around.