IAF MiG-21 fighters: Faithfully deterring Pakistan since 1965

MiG-21 Bison An Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison | Wikimedia Commons

When the government announced on Wednesday that an Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison had shot down a Pakistani fighter, the news highlighted the role the Soviet-designed fighter plays in defending India. India's first MiG-21 arrived from the Soviet Union in 1963 and the Indian Air Force has operated a total of 874 of the lightweight, single-seat fighters over the years.

Indian Air Force MiG-21s had their first taste of combat during the 1965 war with Pakistan over, ironically, Kashmir when they had a brief encounter with Pakistan Air Force F-104 Starfighters, supplied by the US. However, the MiG-21, which was still in the process of induction into Indian Air Force service, played only a marginal role in the 1965 war and largely sat out the war.

The MiG-21 saw its finest hour in the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh. The aircraft was India's most advanced fighter, shooting down at least nine Pakistan Air Force jets. Most of the 'kills' were American-built F-104 Starfighters.

The Indian Air Force acquired several MiG-21 variants over the decades, offering different radar and missile capabilities. HAL also manufactured MiG-21 variants from 1966 for about 20 years.

The MiG-21 'Bison' upgrade was launched in the 1990s to modernise the MiG-21 with a new radar and electronic countermeasures, including the capability to fire medium-range air-to-air missiles.

The MiG-21's rugged design and ease of maintenance has ensured it maintained a positive reputation, despite suffering nearly 500 accidents over the decades, resulting in the deaths of nearly 200 pilots. Its small size and manoeuvrability have also compensated for its lack of range and weapons carriage capabilities. The MiG-21's last air-to-air kill in Indian service before Wednesday was also against Pakistan, when an IAF jet shot down a Pakistan Navy maritime patrol aircraft off Gujarat in August 1999.

The Indian Air Force currently operates around 120 MiG-21 Bisons and the type is only expected to be fully retired by the early part of the next decade as the Tejas enters full service. Interestingly, Pakistan also operates about 100 J-7 fighters, which are Chinese variants of the Soviet MiG-21.