Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Questions still remain over whether India shot down a Pakistani jet, but the planes on both sides perform quite differently. Can an old MiG-21 aircraft destroy a more modern F-16? Yes, in fact an Indian pilot flying a version of the MiG-21 called Bison allegedly shot down a Pakistani F-16 using a Russian R-73 Vympel air to air missile, known as a high off bore-sight air-to-air weapon.
For the record, Pakistan continues to deny one of its F-16s was shot down. But denials notwithstanding, the evidence seems increasingly compelling against Pakistan’s denial.
The R-73, a short-range missile, can be controlled by a helmet-mounted sight, allowing the pilot to look to his right or left and launch a missile that will turn in the direction the pilot’s head is pointing. Later Russian aircraft including the MiG-29 had a helmet-mounted site (HMS) called the Shchel-3UM.
This system was integrated into India’s MiG-21 Bison’s by Russian industry starting in 2006. In fact, the Indian MiG 21s received a number of upgrades – new cockpit displays and electronics, improved engines and even a coating on the aircraft to reduce radar signature.
The upgraded Bison model is much more capable than its older antecedent, the classic MiG-21, which entered service as far back as 1964. It is even better than the last of the MiGs produced by Russia, the “bis” model – bis means major improvement. But even far older MiG models were effective under certain conditions.
Fighter pilot ‘aces’
For example, a number of fighter pilot “aces” from then North Vietnam shot down American front line aircraft during the Vietnam War, including some F-104 Starfighters and the advanced third-plus generation F-4 Phantom. The Phantom, especially, was a big, powerful twin-engined aircraft that could carry a large bombing load. In US service it was also nuclear capable.
A total of 37 Phantoms – F-4B, F-4C, F-4D, F-4E and F-4J – were knocked out by Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots, mainly using Russian-supplied AA-2 Atoll missiles, a copy of the old US Sidewinder Aim-9B which the Russians got from China in 1958, or by using their 23 mm canons (Gryazev-Shipunov Gsh-23L) mounted internally in the MiG.
India first purchased MiGs from the USSR starting in 1962. In 1967, India’s Hindustan Aeronautics started building licensed copies producing three different main models – MiG-21FL, MiG-21M and Mig-21 bis – manufacturing a total of 657 aircraft. Of these, 255 produced last were the “bis” model and of those, 110 were upgraded to the Bison level starting in 2006.
These were the ones that were called up in Jammu and Kashmirwhen Pakistan attacked military targets there. According to reports by well-regarded defense experts in India – Air Vice Marshal PK Srivastava, retired; defense expert, Ajay Banerjee, Defense Correspondent, The Tribune; Maj Gen Ravi Arora, retired, Chief Editor, Indian Military Review – one of the F-16s was destroyed, but India claims it only lost one aircraft, while others have claimed it lost both MiG-21s.
One Indian pilot ejected from his MiG and parachuted into Pakistani-controlled territory where he was captured and subsequently returned to India in a peace gesture. That released pilot was wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Reportedly after landing he was pursued by angry locals, fired into the air, jumped into a pool of water and ate sensitive documents before being taken by the locals and roughly handled. He is now an Indian national hero.
Pakistan has roughly 45 F-16s, of which most are A and B models – the B model is a two-seater for training. Turkey has upgraded 41 of Pakistan’s F-16 planes to roughly the Block 50 level – more modern cockpit and electronics and upgraded radar. It may be that the B models, which are for training, were not upgraded.
From India’s point of view, the MiG-21 Bison and Pakistan’s F-16’s, included the upgraded planes, are “roughly equivalent,” although the F-16 is more maneuverable and has longer combat range than the short-legged MiGs. There is one notable difference: while the Indian MiGs can carry both the short-range R-73 and the longer range R-77, the F-16 can carry the AIM-9, all updated versions, and the AMRAAM AIM-120.
The AMRAAM has a range of 30 to 40 nautical miles (55 to 75 km) and Pakistan fired at least one AMRAAM, crashed sections of which were found on Indian territory.
However, specialists think the R-77 longer-range Russian missile is not particularly effective and Russia has so far made only one upgrade. While the R-77 is shown to be in India’s inventory, it apparently was not used in the latest encounter.
Some news reports confirm that the F-16 shot down was a B Model, a two-seater, as two parachutes were observed after the plane was hit. The pilot and co-pilot bailed out over Pakistani territory, the reports said. The B-model, like the A, is the least capable and least modernized of the Pakistani F-16 fleet. Both the upgraded MiGs and the F-16s have Pulse Doppler radars of presumed equivalent capability and later models of the Pakistani F-16 support AMRAAM.
But there are also some radical differences. Flying a MiG-21 is hard work and takes intense pilot concentration as the flight controls are all mechanical and connected by steel cables. The F-16 is much more modern, even the early versions, and flight stability is computer controlled and the flight control surfaces – flaps, ailerons, stabilizer – are connected electronically that activate servo-mechanisms, not by mechanical linkages.
In the trade this is called “Fly by Wire,” but the wire is electrical. Together with its powerful engine, these features make the F-16 far more capable than the older MiG-21s.
While it seems the case that the Indian pilot was able to kill an older model F-16, does this mean that the MiG-21 in upgraded form is obsolete when challenged by a late-third or fourth generation aircraft?
US pilots flying F-15C models lost out to Indian MiGs in competitions, which led many to wonder about the performance of the American aircraft. While the first flight exercises gave the Indian side major advantages in numbers of aircraft and permitted flight envelope for the first challenge – only close in “dog” fighting – a later exercise still showed that Indian-piloted MiG 21s were more effective than expected by the American side.
The final assessment, shared by the Indian experts and some of the American pilots in their review, is that Indian pilots have developed excellent tactics and are able to coordinate fighter operations electronically between aircraft, a feature that today is being exploited by the F-35 with its splendid radar and specialized flight computers and ability to interconnect with other aircraft automatically.
So in a sense, India has combined the old and the new and prefaced the F-35. The MiG-21 still has uses, at least for another five years, before the MiGs will wear out or simply be outclassed by the “enemy.”
Despite the Indian fighter aircraft’s partial success at the Line of Control, India has to get busy acquiring new generation aircraft, since India needs enough modern aircraft to deal both with Pakistan and, potentially, China. Tactics alone won’t suffice. At the end of the day, the remaining MiGs will be put up on pedestals at the entrances of Indian air bases.