Vietnam War: MiG-21 Fishbed

MiG-21 Fishbed. US Air Force

MiG-21bis Specifications:


  • Length: 51 ft. 8 in.
  • Wingspan: 23 ft. 5 in.
  • Height: 13 ft. 6 in.
  • Wing Area: 247.5 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 11,800 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 19,200 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Power Plant: 1 × Tumansky R-25-300 afterburning turbojet
  • Range: 720 miles
  • Max. Speed: 1,385 mph
  • Ceiling: 62,300 ft.


  • 1 × twin-barreled GSh-23 23 mm cannon, 200 rounds
  • up to 4,400 lbs. of air-to-air or air-to-ground ordnance on 2-4 underwing hardpoints

    MiG-21 Fishbed Design & Development:

    The continuation of the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau's line of fighters, the MiG-21 was designed to replace the MiG-17 and MiG-19. Seeking to produce a light-weight fighter-interceptor, designers completed the first prototype, dubbed the E-5, in time for display at the 1955 Soviet Aviation Day in Moscow. In an effort to improve speed and performance, the E-5 was drastically altered the following year and reworked to incorporate a delta wing design. Designated the E-4, a new prototype first flew on June 15, 1956, and its performance was admired by the Soviet Air Force.

    Pushing the E-4 design into production, the first aircraft reached Soviet units in early 1959. Powered by a single turbojet, the MiG-21 is easily identified by its nose intake and is capable of supersonic flight. Air to the engine is regulated by a distinctive cone in the intake which shifts position depending upon the aircraft's speed.

    During the MiG-21's production run, over 10,000 aircraft were built making it the most produced supersonic aircraft in history. In addition, the design was licensed to China in 1961. Dubbed the J-7, large numbers were built for domestic use and export.

    Operational History of the MiG-21:

    Dubbed "Fishbed" by NATO, the early variants of the MiG-21 suffered from a variety of teething problems upon entering service.

    Among these were issues with the fighter's gyro gun sight during high-speed maneuvers and the repeated failure of its AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles. While these were resolved, the MiG-21's utility as a fighter suffered from its delta wings which led to dramatic losses of speed in turning battles as well as a defect which shifted the aircraft's center of gravity, making it nearly uncontrollable, after two-thirds of its fuel had been consumed.

    Exported widely, the MiG-21 first saw action with Soviet client states such as North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese pilots regularly flew the aircraft against American opposition. While some preferred the greater maneuverability of the older MiG-17, North Vietnamese pilots learned that the MiG-21 was effective in high-speed, hit-and-run attacks. This approach worked particularly well against American F-105 Thunderchiefs which were tasked with ground support missions. Due to the MiG's success, both the US Air Force and US Navy developed fighter training schools to improve dog-fighting skills.

    Also employed by Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, the MiG-21 was used against Israel during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars (1967 & 1973). During the first conflict and the subsequent skirmishing in the years after, the MiG-21 compared well the Israeli Air Force's Mirage IIICs, though both Egypt and Syria's stocks of the aircraft were badly depleted due to losses on the ground and attrition in the air.

    In the Yom Kippur War, Israel's enemies again deployed the MiG-21 with mixed results. While the Syrian MiGs achieved a 1-to-1 kill ratio, the Egyptian pilots were a poor 1-to-2.

    Flown by Egypt during their brief conflict with Libya in 1977, the MiG-21's star in the Middle East began to fall as Israel took delivery of American F-15s and F-16s in the early 1980s. Despite being eclipsed by newer aircraft, the MiG-21 remained in favor with nations purchasing Eastern Bloc weaponry due to its simple construction and ease of maintenance. The MiG-21 has been used extensively by the Indian Air Force in their conflicts with Pakistan since the early 1970s and played a role in the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s.

    Widely sold to African nations, the MiG-21 saw combat during the Angolan Civil War and, most recently, in the conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea (aerial battles in 1999-2000).

    Since its introduction, the MiG-21 has been produced in four major generations with each containing a myriad of variants and upgrades. The final variant, the MiG-21bis was produced through the 1980s. To keep late-model MiG-21s current in the global environment, Russia has offered numerous upgrade packages and enhancements for the aircraft.

    The MiG-21 is still in use with over twenty countries, with India being one of the largest operators. The Indian Air Force has upgraded the bulk of their fleet with the goal of keeping them in service through 2025.

    Selected Sources