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Supersonic Air Combat: How IAF’s Most-Criticized MiG-21 Shot Down The American F-16 In The Clash

Story Highlights
  • It was a duel between the two superpowers – the Soviet and American supersonic fighters – far away in South Asia, during the height of the Cold War. 
  • The IAF had more MiG-21s than in the 1965 war when the Indo-Pakistani conflict broke out in 1971, this time modified to the MiG-21FL variant.

In 1971, the first supersonic air combat had place over the Indian subcontinent. The Indian Air Force (IAF) fought Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-104A Starfighters, and the former rocketed India to victory by downing three to four Starfighters over what is now Bangladesh.

It was a duel between the two superpowers – the Soviet and American supersonic fighters – far away in South Asia, during the height of the Cold War. The conflict between the two aircraft had been anticipated for a long time, as the F-104 and MiG-21 are supersonic interceptors with limited secondary multirole capability that entered service in the late 1950s.

As early as 1962, the Indian Air Force (IAF) expressed interest in acquiring supersonic jet aircraft. Among the aircraft on the IAF’s shortlist were the F-104 Starfighter and the English Electric Lightning. The F-104A Starfighter, on the other hand, was already in service with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) as a result of Islamabad’s SEATO and CENTO pacts with the US.

The failure of India’s military against China in the 1962 war necessitated a more agile and combat-ready force. Because its rival force was already flying the F-104A Starfighter, the IAF decided to go with the Russian-made Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 [named Fishbed by NATO].

To augment its ageing army of British-built fighters, India received the first cargo of MiG-21s (of the F-13 type) in January 1963.  Six planes were assigned to the 28 Squadron “First Supersonics.” In the Soviet Union, seven pilots from that squadron received training.

Three MiG-21F-13 fighter jets were lost as a result of a series of training disasters. In March 1965, four further MiG-21F-13s and two MiG-21PFs were delivered, bringing the total number of MiGs operated by 28 Squadron to nine.

The 28 Squadron was ready to go when the Indo-Pakistani War broke out in 1965, and it participated in escort and combat air patrol operations. However, when two planes were lost during an airbase raid, it was removed from the front lines. During the 1965 war, some F-104As also engaged, but the two planes were not in direct combat at the time.

The MiGs were victorious.

The IAF had more MiG-21s than in the 1965 war when the Indo-Pakistani conflict broke out in 1971, this time modified to the MiG-21FL variant.

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 Forsazh Lokator was a supersonic fighter that flew faster than twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.25. It was propelled by a large Tumansky R-11 F-300 engine. It had an R1L radar in its nose cone that could detect enemy fighters from a distance of 20 kilometres.

The MiG-21 FL was equipped with two Vympel K-13 (AA-2 Atoll-A) infrared homing missiles. Due to its restricted range, it had to carry a drop tank beneath the fuselage, which could be swapped out for a GSh-23 twin-barreled gun pod.

During the air battle over Bangladesh, the IAF scored its first victory using MiG-21s. During an airstrike on an airport, a MiG-21FL of the 28th Squadron shot down a PAF F-86 Sabre with two R-3S air-to-air missiles.

The MiGs were also used to assault targets throughout the fight, including a cabinet meeting convened by the East Pakistani administration.

In the west, the MiGs faced more resistance. In the west, the PAF used Shenyang J-6s (a MiG-19 variant), F-104As, and Mirage IIIEs. The Mirage IIIE was regarded to be superior to whatever the IAF had due to its superior radar system.

Pakistan also deployed a number of American ground radar devices to aid in the targeting of their fighters.

By December 1971, the IAF had three MiG-21 squadrons in the east: the No. 4 Oorials, the No. 28 First Supersonics, and the No. 30 Charging Rhinos. The No. 1 Tigers, No. 8 Eight Pursoots, No. 29 Scorpions, No. 45 Winged Swords, and No. 47 Black Archers patrolled the western border. They were all well-equipped to defend India’s skies.

Two IAF MiG-21FLs were dispatched on December 12, 1971, to intercept two F-104As strafing airbases, marking the first successful engagement of F-104s with MiG-21s. When the wingman of the lead PAF jet saw the interceptors, he quickly twisted away and broke contact.

After that, the MiG-21s moved in and launched an R-3S, but the missile was deflected by flares fired by the F-104A. The MiG-21 then approached 300 metres and fired its weapon, killing the target.

Two more F-104s were shot down later in the day while escorting PAF bombers. Despite their outstanding performance against F-104s, IAF MiGs suffered losses. Six MiG-21FLs were lost in combat. Friendly fire from another MiG-21 caused one, ground fire caused four, and a PAF F-86F Sabre caused one.

Both the IAF and the PAF got the MiG-21 and F-104 within a few years of each other, therefore pilots from both air forces would have been familiar with their respective aircraft. The MiG-21 had a faster sustained turn rate and was regarded to have greater flight qualities than the F-104.

The MiG-21 remained in service with the IAF after the combat ended in 1971, albeit it did not see much action in the air. In 1999, an IAF MiG-21B shot down a Pakistani Navy anti-submarine warfare plane, sparking a minor crisis. They were also sent to Sri Lanka to help ground operations against the LTTE.

The MiGs were instrumental in turning the war in India’s favour and bringing it to a decisive conclusion. The Pakistani military surrendered and Bangladesh was formed as a result of its remarkable performance and the strong morale of the Indian Air Forces.

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