In 1971, Indian Mig-21’s Beat Some American-Built F-104A Starfighters. Was It a Fluke?
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?
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After the loss of two MiG-21s in the ground to an airbase attack, 28 Squadron was withdrawn from the front.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.
Source:- National Interest