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Fishbed vs Falcon: Why the ancient MiG-21's F-16 kill is no fluke

While appreciating the good word done by the IAF, it is important to keep in mind that the MiG-21 is a 65-year-old design and has an unprecedented crash rate that has taken the lives of at least 177 Indian pilots.

Rakesh Krishnan   New Delhi     Last Updated: March 3, 2019  | 12:07 IST
Fishbed vs Falcon: Why the ancient MiG-21's F-16 kill is no fluke
Being the first recorded F-16 (up) kill by MiG 21 (down) in history, you'd think it would send ripples across the world of aviation. But curiously, Western defence experts maintained complete silence.

Just after 10 am on February 27, 2019, the Pakistan Air Force deployed "a large strike package" of modern F-16 Falcons, Chinese made JF-17s and some vintage Mirage-5 attack jets to avenge India's bombing of terror sanctuaries in Balakot, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The PAF's targets were Indian military installations - primarily the brigade headquarters in Bhimber Gali, Jammu, minutes from the Line of Control.

The Indian Air Force scrambled six MiG-21s from its frontline air base in Srinagar to intercept the Pakistani fighters; Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman's fighter was among these six aircraft. The IAF also despatched Sukhoi-30MKIs, Mirage-2000s and MiG-29s from other airbases to provide combat air patrol for the MiG-21 interceptors.

In the ensuing dogfight, the first between India and Pakistan since the 1971 War, Wing Commander Varthaman in his Soviet-era jet managed to acquire a lock on one of the F-16s, shooting it down with a short-range Vympel R-73 air to air missile. Although he couldn't see the outcome of the short 15-minute high-altitude dogfight, Varthaman radioed to base the words "R-73 selected". Seconds later he was himself shot down.

Being the first recorded F-16 kill in history, you'd think it would send ripples across the world of aviation. But curiously, Western defence experts maintained complete silence as the impact of what Varthaman had accomplished took the wind out of the F-16's fanboys.

Coping well at Cope India

Coincidentally, 15 years ago to the date, the MiG-21 (NATO reporting name: Fishbed) had defeated modern American F-series aircraft in a mock combat exercise, sending shock waves through the American defence establishment. In the space of just 13 days, at the Cope India exercise held at the Gwalior air force range from February 15-27, 2004, Indian pilots notched up an astounding 9:1 kill ratio against the all-powerful US Air Force, dealing a massive blow to the myth of invincibility of American air power. What happened at Gwalior will better explain how a six-decade-old jet that has been consigned to the boneyard by the Russians could defeat a modern F-16.

Held from February 15-27, Cope India 2004 highlighted three major issues:

  • The innovativeness of Indian fighter pilots.
  • The impact of Russian jets when flown by a highly trained and motivated crew.
  • The limitations in USAF pilot training.

While the Pentagon brass tried to knock the IAF's achievement, the USAF gave their Indian counterparts their due. Aviation Week & Space Technology's David A. Fulghum quotes Colonel Mike Snodgrass, commander of the USAF's 3rd Wing based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska: "The outcome of the exercise boils down to (the fact that) they ran tactics that were more advanced than we expected...They could come up with a game plan, but if it wasn't working they would call an audible and change (tactics in flight)."

About the different IAF fighters the six F-15Cs from the American pilots encountered, Snodgrass said: "The two most formidable IAF aircraft proved to be the MiG-21 Bison, an upgraded version of the Russian-made baseline MiG-21, and the Su-30MK Flanker, also made in Russia."

About the capabilities of IAF pilots, USAF team leader Colonel Greg Newbech said: "What we've seen in the last two weeks is the IAF can stand toe-to-toe with the best air force in the world. I pity the pilot who has to face the IAF and chances the day to underestimate him; because he won't be going home."

"They made good decisions about when to bring their strikers in. The MiG-21s would be embedded with a (MiG-27) Flogger for integral protection. There was a data link between the Flankers that was used to pass information. They built a very good (radar) picture of what we were doing and were able to make good decisions about when to roll (their aircraft) in and out."

Clearly, it was the IAF's intense training that has given it the edge. A leading Indian newspaper summed up the aerial encounter: "The US Air Force underestimated the Indian Air Force pilots and their numerical skills. They thought these are another set of Iraqi or Iranian pilots."

A different spin in DC

Used to hearing the United States is second only to god, the US leadership nearly burst a collective artery. The USAF detachment had barely packed up its kits at Gwalior when Republican Congressman from California, Duke Cunningham, told a House Appropriations defence subcommittee hearing that USAF F-15Cs had been defeated more than 90 per cent of the time in direct combat exercises against the IAF.

Cunningham's revelation kicked up a huge uproar in Washington. Some Western military observers attempted to debunk the results, claiming the USAF did not bring its true 'go-to-war-gear' to these exercises and that the American pilots fought with several handicaps. What really happened?

Handicapped and totally unprepared

First up, it's true the F-15Cs that participated in Cope India 2004 were not equipped with the latest active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. But then neither were the Indian jets. Secondly, at India's request the USAF agreed to offer combat at 3-to-1 odds, which meant the six American jets were up against 18 IAF aircraft. And finally, the Americans agreed not to simulate their beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles. Doesn't look like a fair fight.

But wait, ask yourself, which air force would spend millions of dollars on a fortnight long exercise that ends in a turkey shoot? Not the IAF, which is a highly professional service. Also, why would the USAF bring all that high-octane military gear all that way just to get a drubbing?

The IAF believes its strength is dogfighting, for which it trains hard as Western air forces. Secondly, the service did not deploy its advanced Su-30 MKI (NATO reporting name: Flanker), only the older Su-30, because the MKI's radar frequencies are classified. There's little advantage in letting your adversary's patron know your combat strategies.

The Indians wanting to even the odds is understandable but the United States accepting these handicaps seems counterintuitive. But in fact the USAF agreed because it was desperate to get a close look at the legendary Flanker.

Why the USAF came up short

The lopsided result can be explained in the difference in combat styles of the two air forces. While the IAF varied aircraft mixes, altitudes and formations, the American pilot seemed stuck in the static Cold War-style of ground-controlled interceptions, which gives little leeway to the individual pilot. Weaknesses in crew performance and limitations in their range of action were evident during the simulated aerial combat.

Also, US fighter pilots train in a closed system where belief in the America military's superiority reigns supreme. The strategy is that overwhelming numbers - recall the 1,000 aircraft raids over defenceless and tiny Iraq - and technological pyrotechnics will allow the US to dominate without sweating it out. With the notable exception of Vietnam, the US has never take on a large or well-trained military - and probably never will - so the strategy has worked for it.

Also, the 1982 wipeout of the Syrian Air Force over the Bekka Valley by the Israeli Air Force in which 82 Syrian MiGs were downed against the loss of perhaps two American-built Israeli jets had reinforced the belief that US jet fighters are invincible. It was Cope India 2004 that showed the quality of the men in uniform matters more than the jets they fly.

Also read: Abhinandan returns home: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman meets Wing Commander in hospital

Cope India 2005: Repeat performance

Because of the storm kicked up by Cope India 2004 -which threatened the growing Indo-US partnership - the following year the IAF and USAF opted for exercises that had mixed teams of Indian and American pilots on both sides. But observers and participants at the exercise said in a surprising number of encounters - particularly between USAF F-16s and Indian Su-30 MKIs - the Indian pilots came out on top.

Cope India 2005 proved the previous year's IAF performance was no fluke. The late air commodore Jasjit Singh, who was the then director of the new Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies, said: "Since the Cold War, there has been the general assumption that India is a third world country with Soviet technology, and wherever Soviet-supported equipment went, it didn't perform well. That myth has been blown away by the results."

Air power dynamics

For the Americans, Cope India was a wakeup call as it had grossly underestimated an old Cold Warrior. While it expected the Mirage-2000s and Sukhoi to be potent adversaries, the MiG-21 Bison came as a nasty surprise to the USAF. The positive attributes of the MiG-21 such as low radar visibility, instantaneous turn rate and "jackrabbit acceleration" were critical factors that gave it an edge.

Plus, its new of helmet mounted sight and high-off-boresight R-73 air-to-air missiles turned the MiG-21 into a "Great Equaliser" in the WVR (within visual range) combat scenario. (The Vympel's ability to rapidly scan a wider angle of the sky in front of it gave Varthaman a huge advantage against his F-16 rival.)

This has serious implications for modern aircraft armed with powerful long range capabilities and weapons. At some stage these aircraft will have to come within visual range and that's when pocket rockets like the MiG-21 can be deadly. As Benjamin Lambeth of the Rand Corporation so succinctly put its, "In visual combat everybody dies at the same rate."

Also read: Mirages over Balakot: Why Pakistan cannot defend its airspace

Fly with caution

Varathaman's heroics should not be a thumbs-up for the IAF to keep flying ancient warhorses. A critical factor in the MiG-21's F-16 kill over Jammu & Kashmir was the combat air patrol provided by the Sukhoi Su-30s, MiG-29s and Mirage-2000s. The extremely long range capabilities of the Su-30s and its legendary super-manoeuvrability give it a huge edge in a dogfight that the much smaller F-16 cannot match. The Sukhoi has a loiter and combat persistence ability that has no Western equivalent.

The knowledge that both these air superiority fighters - plus the powerful Mirage-2000s - could enter the dogfight any time and blow them out of the sky was no doubt weighing on the minds of the PAF pilots.

While appreciating the good word done by the IAF, it is important to keep in mind that the MiG-21 is a 65-year-old design and has an unprecedented crash rate that has taken the lives of at least 177 Indian pilots. And let's not forget that Varthaman's MiG-21 was unable to shake off the powerful AMRAAM air-to-air missile fired at it. The MiG-21 belongs in a boneyard, not in Srinagar where by default it becomes India's frontline aircraft - a role it was given when it first entered the IAF fleet in 1964.

(Rakesh Krishnan is a New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst)

Also read: Go for the kill! Best time to dismember a crumbling Pakistan - economically, geographically & militarily

Also read: Mirage-2000 vs F-16 Falcon: Which is a better fighter jet?

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