Key point: Even today the debate continues over why Pakistan lost that engagement. Was it due to tactics and numbers more than technology?
In 1971 the first supersonic air combat over the Indian subcontinent was fought. Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-21FLs squared off against Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-104A Starfighters. The MiG-21FL came out squarely on top, downing between three and five F-104As. But was the MiG-21 really a better aircraft? Or was the success due to the better strategy and numerical superiority of the IAF?
This first appeared earlier and is being republished due to reader interest.
The showdown between the two aircraft was long anticipated as the F-104 and MiG-21 in many ways were rival designs. Both are light, supersonic interceptors with a small secondary multirole capability. Both entered service in the late 1950s. The F-104 used straight wings, and the MiG-21 used a delta wing. While the two aircraft were in Vietnam for a short period in the 1960s, they didn’t face each other in combat there.
India first took deliveries of MiG-21s (of the F-13 variant) to augment their aging force of British-built fighters in January 1963. Six planes equipped 28 Squadron “First Supersonics”. Seven pilots from that unit received training in the USSR.
There were some training incidents, resulting in the loss of three MiG-21F-13s. These were replaced by four more MiG-21F-13s and 2 MiG-21PFs in March 1965, bringing the number of MiGs fielded by 28 Squadron up to nine.
The 28 Squadron was up and ready when the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 kicked off and participated in escort and combat air patrol missions. Notably, there was an engagement with R-3S missiles against a force of PAF F-86 Sabre fighters, but the missiles did not connect.
After the loss of two MiG-21s in the ground to an airbase attack, 28 Squadron was withdrawn from the front. Some F-104As also participated in the 1965 war, but the two aircraft did not face each other then.
When the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war kicked off, the IAF was more fully equipped with MiG-21s, this time upgraded to the MiG-21FL variant. Eight full squadrons, including 28 Squadron were equipped with them. Five of these squadrons were pointed west at what is now known as Pakistan. Three were pointed east at what is now Bangladesh.
The three MiG squadrons facing East faced an easy air war. They were backed up with many other units fielding Folland Gnats and Hawker Hunters and the opposition was light, PAF fighter forces in the East were limited to one squadron of nineteen F-86 Sabres, only eight of which were AIM-9B capable.
However, during the air war over Bangladesh, the IAF scored its first victory with MiG-21s. During an air raid against an airfield, a twenty-eight Squadron MiG-21FL shot down a PAF F-86 Sabre with two R-3S air-to-air missiles. The MiGs were also used for strike during the conflict, notably hitting a cabinet meeting held by the East Pakistani government.
Over the west, the MiGs faced stronger opposition. In the west, the PAF fielded Shenyang J-6s (a MiG-19 variant), F-104As, and Mirage IIIEs. The Mirage IIIE was considered to be superior to anything the IAF had, likely due to its superior radar system. Pakistan also fielded various American ground radar stations to vector their fighters in. India had limited numbers of similar systems, but also relied on a network of ground observers with VHF radios.
The first successful engagement of F-104s by MiG-21s occurred on December 12, 1971, when two IAF MiG-21FLs were scrambled to intercept two F-104As who were strafing airbases. The lead PAF fighter’s wingman immediately turned off and broke contact upon seeing the interceptors. The MiG-21s then closed in and fired a R-3S, but flares deployed by the F-104A diverted the missile. The MiG-21 then closed to 300 meters and secured a kill with the MiG’s cannon.
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Two more F-104s were also shot down later that they when they were escorting PAF bombers. Despite the good performance against F-104s, IAF MiGs suffered losses as well. Six MiG-21FLs were lost in combat. One was due to a friendly fire incident by another MiG-21, four were from ground fire, and one was to a PAF F-86F Sabre.
Strategic analyses have discussed possible reasons for the poor performance of the PAF during the conflict. A key radar surveillance station at Sakesar was knocked offline in the initial Indian bombing counterattack on December 4, and destroyed a lot of planes on the ground. However, both engagements in which F-104As were shot down occurred near the southern coast, far from the radar station at Sakesar.
Advantages given to either craft due to the presence of ground stations vectoring the craft in seem unlikely. The initial interception that resulted in a MiG victory took place over Indian territory, but the others took place over Pakistani territory. While ground control and ground assets could have contributed to the first victory, the MiGs in the second victory would have no such assistance. As these were localized small engagements, the numerical superiority of the IAF did not come into play.
Training wise, both the IAF and PAF received the MiG-21 and F-104 within a few years of each other, so pilots from either air force would have been relatively familiar with each type of aircraft they were flying. While the F-104 is faster, the MiG-21 has a better sustained turn rate and was generally considered to have better flight characteristics.
After the 1971 war, the MiG-21 would continue to serve in the IAF, although it did not see much further air combat. In 1999 an IAF MiG-21Bis shot down a Pakistani Navy Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft, creating a minor incident. They also were used for ground support missions against the LTTE on Sri Lanka. MiG-21Bis jets continue to serve in the IAF, although earlier MiGs like those that served in the 1965 and 1971 wars have been retired.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues. This first appeared earlier and is being republished due to reader interest.