Of course the MiG-21 was the most important Cold War aircraft, here’s why

A Mach 2 ‘Flying Kalashnikov‘, the MiG-21 was the most widespread jet fighter ever made. Fast, agile and simple it foreshadowed the F-16 and, 66 years after its first flight remains an active geriatric brawler. Author Alexander Mladenov argues the case for it being the most important Cold War aircraft.

The MiG-21 (NATO reporting name: Fishbed) occupies a prominent position in the Soviet Union’s aviation history, as its most popular and successful jet fighter. The type also firmly holds the title of the most widely used and widely operated post-war jet, serving no fewer than 50 air arms worldwide. It is still in service in more than a dozen of countries, flying combat missions in some of these while the Fishbeds operated by the air arms of Croatia and Romania are even still held on quick reaction alert within NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence System.

Originally designed simply as a faster and lighter successor of the twin-engine/swept-wing MiG-19 ‘Farmer’, the single-engine MiG-21 pioneered Mikoyan’s concept of an affordable single-engine fast lightweight tactical jet. It was given the bare minimum armament and designed to intercept subsonic and supersonic high-altitude bombers, fighter-bombers and cruise missiles. It was initially limited to operations in clear-weather conditions only.

The chief reason for the MiG-21’s big success and its emergence as the most important Cold War combat jet was the basic design’s efficient performance, combined with exceptional simplicity, good reliability and great affordability, enabling it to be built in large numbers. MiG-21’s attributes, mass production and proliferation eventually established the rapidly-progressing Moscow-based combat aircraft experimental design bureau, founded by Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich, as the most important fighter design house in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and it had this prestigious status until the early 1990s.

The MiG-21’s low-drag fuselage design, conceived already at the time in 1954, was suitably combined with a lightweight and powerful enough afterburning turbojet engine, much better-performing and more reliable than the two jet engines powering its predecessor MiG-19. The slick fuselage with a small cross-section came coupled with an all-new tailed delta-wing layout with a relatively high wing loading. The successful design, featuring low structure weight and low wave drag, offered levels of performance that were very impressive for the second half of the 1950s.  

MiG-21’s high flight performance – in terms of maximum level speed, transonic/supersonic acceleration, rate of climb and service ceiling – was deemed essential for the new-style restricted-manoeuvrability air combats when pitted against NATO high-speed fighters and bombers, expected to be the prime targets in the coming decades. In overall, the all-new air combat concept adopted in the Soviet Union in the 1950s called for fighter aircraft to follow an optimum intercept flight path and mount a single fast attack pass to unleash a pair of guided missiles in salvo or fire the guns (often provided with a limited number of rounds), followed by immediate breakaway. This way the Korean War-style high-G turning dogfight between subsonic jet fighters was considered to have been consigned to the history books. Operating in such a manner, the new-generation high-performance tactical fighter, optimised for the point defence role with endurance of little over 30 minutes, was expected to be employed en masse and made capable of rapid take-off for joining the battle or intercepting nuclear-armed bombers and fighter-bombers . In fact, the MiG-21 saw the vast majority of its air combats well outside the Cold War environment, pitted against Mirages in the Middle East and F-4 Phantoms over Vietnam. 

As a small and affordable Mach 2/point-defence interceptor, the MiG-21F-13/PF/PFM had no direct analogues in the Western world in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to the Soviet Union and its allies, the affordable type proliferated in a good many non-aligned nations. Its subsequent tactical fighter derivatives, built in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, in an effort to alleviate the flaws of the baseline design, were considered better suited for low-altitude operations, such as those in the Middle East, than earlier versions, but sported inferior manoeuvrability due to the sharply increased weight and drag.

The latest MiG-21 versions introduced better armament and boasted expanded air combat and ground attack capabilities, while still retaining the key advantages of simplicity and affordability. Both the MiG-21MF and MiG-21bis were built and exported in huge numbers in the 1970s and the early 1980s, despite the availability of more modern Soviet fighters cleared for export, such as the MiG-23MS/MF/ML. As a consequence, the omnipresent Fishbed continued to be one of the principal fighters in the world in the 1980s, preserving this renowned status all the way until the early/mid-1990s.

The MiG-21 was the most important Cold War aircraft because it was fielded in service in huge number with both the Soviet Air Force in the 1960s and 1970s, to dominate in the skies of Europe, where a World War Three would have likely happened. The type was also in widespread service with all the allied nations, members of the Warsaw Pact Treaty Organisation, who had to support the Soviet Air Force in its offensive and defensive operations on the European war theatre. As a result, thousands of MiG-21s and their aircrews were kept in a high state of operational readiness in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War year, ready to fight the Western world, not only in the air superiority and air defence battles, but also in the ground attack role, including the delivery of atomic bombs in a massed manner.       

The MiG-21 stayed in series production in the Soviet Union for 28 years, considerably longer than both its predecessor MiG-19, and successor, the MiG-23, with no fewer than 11,000 examples rolled out at three plants in the Soviet Union and three more plants situated abroad – in Czechoslovakia, India and China. Furthermore, the MiG-21’s latest Chinese copies, sporting significant airframe and equipment improvements, continued in production for export to Third World states until mid-2013.

  •  Alexander Mladenov is the author of several Osprey books on Soviet military aircraft available here
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  1. FErnando Rolandelli

    “The chief reason for the MiG-21’s big success…” was the willingness of the Soviet regime to distribute it lavishly among client states at zero cost (btw, that might have been the reason behind its supposedly low cost… how can you determine the cost of something in a full communist economy?). Its efficiency reduced to giving an impression of air power to dictators who could not mantain an air force unless constantly supported by the Soviets. Its performance was best shown in air shows. Every time it was pitted against anything that could fly and shoot it came out second, even at the much vaunted Viet Nam war, where any US fighter able to shoot to a flying object enjoyed a better kill ratio, even the A-4! (true, both the F102 and F-104, both unlikely tactical aircraft, were the exceptions at just 0-1!) Go sovietizing somewhere else, m8y (firmly tongue in cheek). Regards

    • FErnando Rolandelli

      “Cheap”, you cannot say… perhaps “cheaply distributed to client states by the Soviets” is more accurate.

    • Rando

      I feel like the most direct analogues to the MiG-21 are the F-104, the Lightning you mentioned, Mirage III, and the Draken. All designed around the same period for quick interception missions. Considering export success, the F-104 probably comes the closest, having been sold to many western customers. Or if we’re broadening our definition to 2-seat fighters, maybe the Phantom.

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