Soviet MiG-21 jet fighter approaches its twilight years
BRUSSELS - During the Cold War, the MiG-21 came to symbolize the military might of the Soviet Union as it squared off against the West in conflicts from Vietnam to Africa and the Middle East.
Now, exactly 50 years after it entered service, the jet fighter is approaching the twilight of its career in frontline service - with NATO, the former Soviet Union's main rival.
The rugged and agile jet earned a reputation as a versatile and effective short-range interceptor with low operating costs and excellent performance. Just like the Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle - another weapon that epitomized Soviet power - the MiG-21 holds a unique place in military history.
"It was one of the best fighters ever, very reliable, and a real challenge to all pilots who fought against it," said David Ivry, a former chief of the Israeli Air Force who battled MiG-21s as a squadron leader in the 1967 Six-Day War and as a commander in the 1973 and 1982 wars.
The MiG name was derived from the initials of its designers, Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich. Codenamed Fishbed by NATO, the MiG-21 gained fame during the Vietnam War, where it was used by the North Vietnamese Air Force to intercept American bombers.
Although heavily outnumbered, the small Fishbeds could evade radar and ambush US formations with hit-and-run attacks in which many US jets, including top-of-the line F-4 Phantoms, were downed or forced to abort their missions.
"The MiG-21 was lighter and more agile than the Phantom, which gave it a better chance to survive in a dogfight," wrote Russian aviation historian Vladimir Babich, who analyzed the MiG's performance in Vietnam.
The US Air Force first gained vital insight into the MiG-21s capabilities after a defecting Iraqi pilot brought one to Israel in 1966. The Israelis also exploited their findings during the 1967 Six-Day war, when their surprise air strikes destroyed the Arab air forces on the ground.
Although the plane's performance was enhanced over the years, designers never succeeded in overcoming the limited fuel capacity, stemming from the design's small size. Another weakness was thick windshield framing that reduced the pilot's forward visibility, a problem during aerial combat.
Still, more than 10,000 MiG-21s were built, making it the most widely produced jet fighter ever built.
The delta-winged Mach 2 interceptor was widely exported and became the backbone of about 50 air forces in Europe, Africa, and Asia.