The military aircraft can have a short lifespan. During the World War I, the planes that were state-of-the-art became obsolete shortly after and the similar things happened in the World War II. And with the enhancement of the technology, the fleets of aircraft became passé as well. Also, the fighters that were a top threat in the skies over Korea became poor a few years later. You get the point.
There is the other scenario as well. Some designs managed to stay with us and one of these is the B-52 Stratofortress which took its first flight in 1952, and it is still in service today. The C-130s became operational in 1954, and it is still actively produced in 2018. We have to bear in mind that these are bomber and transport aircraft and it is slightly different when it comes to the fighters. They have the longevity problem, that is obvious, but one plane which is an exception is the MiG-21 Fishbed.
The studies for this aircraft started in 1953. Prior to this model, there were MiG-15 and MiG-17 which proved to be very successful, and they showed that combating the Western powers in the sky is possible. The MiG-19 was the first supersonic fighter created by the Soviet Union. At that point, technology advanced quickly, and those fighters which were involved in the Korean War were obsolete by 1955, one of them being MiG-15, capable of some things, but helpless in some other situations. The Russians hoped to improve their fleet with the MiG-21.
The MiG-21 had an internal cannon, and it was able to carry between two and six missiles. It earned the nickname Fishbed by NATO and just like the most fighters, this one would serve for ground attacks since it is able to carry a limited number of bombs and rockets. Instead of equipping this plane with a complex radar, the Soviets controlled it from the ground.
Between 1959 and 1985, the Soviet Union assembled 10,645 Fishbeds. They were followed by China with 2,400 Fishbeds produced between 1966 and 2013, India, with 657 planes constructed under a licensing and technology transfer agreement with Moscow and former Czechoslovakia with 194 units built.
Even though MiG-21 came out in the late 1950s, the engineers managed to tackle the problems that could not be cured with time. Thus, the modern jets cannot fly faster or maneuver better than the MiG-21. Sure the modern fighters have the equipment which is much more sophisticated, but they can be perceived as a luxury and they do not make the plane better in the true sense of the word. The Fishbed is a cheap and easy-to-maintain plane that can do it all.
Had Fishbed been produced in the United States, it wouldn’t have been useful. The aircraft has short legs, and it cannot carry a lot of ordnance, but it also lacks the space to accommodate the sophisticated items we have mentioned previously. However, it served its purpose on the Soviet side, and it was a capable ground control intercept fighter. The MiG-21 could fly and fight over battlefields and act as an interceptor, and it did all those things. Even the American pilots praised this plane during the Cold War.
The MiG-21 was never used on the Central Front in a NATO-Warsaw Pact war, but this doesn’t mean that it was just sitting in the backyard. In Vietnam, they took advantage of the United States by cutting through bomber packages before the US fighters could visualize them and attack. They were quite maneuverable, and they could evade the air-to-air missiles, which were not quite developed at the time.
However, on January 2, 1967, a group of F-4 Phantom IIs commanded by pilot Robin Olds tricked the North Vietnamese and shot down several Fishbeds. After the Vietnamese War, the Fishbed was used across the Middle East. The Israeli Defense Force sent their fleet against the Egyptian and Syrian Fishbeds, and they managed to destroy them in the opening days of the Six-Day War. In the War of Attrition, the Fishbeds went against the Israelis and once again in the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War as well.
All of this caused people to believe that the MiG-21s were doomed, but the aircraft performed more than adequately in comparable pilot training contexts. The Indian MiG-21s flew in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, the 1971 War, and the Kargil War and proved to be awesome.
As the time passed, the number of MiG-21 decreased, especially as the new models emerged. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it had major consequences on the Russian military strength. Their client states could no longer keep the aircraft in service, and there are still some air forces which use the MiG-21 and the Chinese F/J-7 version of the same aircraft.
You can find the MiG-21 in 18 air forces. Two of those states are NATO members – Croatia and Romania. Just for comparison, the Fishbed served in 40 additional countries at its peak. As for the Chinese J/F-7, it is still active in 13 states, but four retired this one from service. The Fishbeds which are in service today have been updated, but they still resemble the originals. Nowadays, they have different, much better weapons such as the Magic 2, the Phyton III or the R-60 AAM. Their electronics and communication equipment is upgraded as well, and they are much more precise.
Will the Fishbed live on?
China will no longer produce the J-7, which means that the final MiG-21 version has rolled out of the assembly line. In the meantime, Romania and Croatia are going to dispose of their Fishbeds in the upcoming five years, and as for India, the country will retire the MiG-21 planes.
Despite all of this, the Fishbed will keep going on. A lot of the J-7 and F-7 models are predicted to stay in service for a very long time. For example, Bangladesh purchased the last dozen of F-7 models five years ago, and they will not have to be replaced for quite a while. And we also need to take into consideration the fact that a lot of states and their respective militaries do not have the budget to refresh their forces all the time and buy something more sophisticated than the Fishbed. A hundred-year fighter could never exist, but the MiG-21 could easily reach 60 and even 70, without too many issues.
The first one was produced in 1959. It is not that hard to believe that at least one MiG-21 is going to survive to celebrate the 100th birthday. They are still widely used, and with the few more upgrades down the line, the Fishbed could be going strong in years to come.
Whether this airplane survives the upcoming years and the advancements in technology doesn’t matter at this point because one thing is for sure. The Russian MiG-21 has been problematic for the enemies. Even though it is assembled by the enemies of the United States, America needs to admit that it is one of the most iconic airplanes ever created. This model is definitely going down in the books as one of the best fighters.