The Buzz

Russia's Best Fighter Jet Ever: The MiG-21?

The MiG-21 saw extensive service in wars across the Middle East. The fighter-bombers of the Israeli Defense Force devastated Egyptian and Syrian Fishbeds in the opening strikes of the Six-Day War. Fishbeds fought Israeli fighters in the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War, generally suffering badly at the hands of outstanding Israeli pilots. In one case, Israeli fighters ambushed and destroyed several MiG-21s flown by Soviet pilots.

The success of Western aircraft against the Fishbed in the Middle East, as well as in Angola, caused many to conclude that Soviet fighters were outclassed by their Western counterparts. However, pilot training issue make comparison difficult. The MiG-21 performed more than adequately in comparable pilot training contexts. For example, Indian MiG-21s flew in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, and achieved kills in the 1971 War and the Kargil War. Fishbeds also acquitted themselves well in air combat in the Iran-Iraq War.


The number of operational MiG-21s began declining in the late 1980s and 1990s, as more modern models replaced them in front-line service, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the dramatic reduction of Russian strength. Soviet client states felt the pinch as well, and could no longer keep their aircraft in service. However, numerous air forces continue to use the MiG-21 and its Chinese variants.

The MiG-21 currently serves in eighteen air forces worldwide, including two members of NATO (Romania and Croatia). Fishbeds flew in about forty other air forces (counting is difficult because sometimes countries ceased to exist before the MiGs that served them) since 1960. The J/F-7 serves another thirteen countries, and has been retired by four. China, Russia, and Ukraine still carry out maintenance and update work on existing aircraft. The advent of 3D printing may make it even easier for current operators to keep their Fishbeds in service, as they can produce spares and upgrades in country.

Few of the Fishbeds in service today bear much resemblance to the fighter that rolled off the line in 1959. They carry different, far more sophisticated weapons, including the R-60 AAM, the Magic 2 and the Python III. This makes them far more lethal than their older cousins. Moreover, upgrades to their electronics have improved their radar and communications equipment, and have made possible the delivery of precision-guided munitions.

Will the MiG-21 (Or a Variant) Remain in Service in 2059?: 

China has ended production on the J-7, meaning that we have seen the last MiG-21 variant roll the assembly line. Croatia and Romania will dispose of their Fishbeds in the next five years. After a spate of accidents, India is finally retiring its MiG-21s (assuming it can ever actually acquire or produce a replacement). Chinese J-7s have been relegated to local defense and training duties.

This hardly means the end of the Fishbed, however. Many of the J-7 and F-7 models remain of fairly recent vintage, and can stay in service for quite some time. Bangladesh acquired the last dozen F-7s in 2013, and won’t need a replacement anytime soon. And plenty of air forces simply have no requirement for anything much more sophisticated or expensive than a Fishbed. There may never be a hundred-year fighter (although the B-52 may quite possibly reach that number before final retirement). The MiG-21 will easily reach sixty, however, and probably seventy without breaking a sweat. It remains one of the iconic fighters of the supersonic age.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and MoneyInformation Dissemination and the Diplomat.

This first appeared in May 2016 and is being reposted due to reader interest. 

Image: Creative Commons.