The MiG-21 was a radical new design when compared to the previous incarnations in the form of the MiG-15, MiG-17 and MiG-19 – all detailed elsewhere on this site. The MiG-21 did away with the highly identifiable large rudder tail assemblies and featured a more subtle, traditional look, with the elevators mounted on the fuselage itself. Like other designs before it, the MiG-21 was of a mid-monoplane design, but the breakthrough lay in the use of a delta-wing layout as opposed to the previous high-level use of the swept-back wing. Like previous designs, the system was built around the powerplant, forcing air through a front nose-mounted intake, with jettisoned exhaust gases at rear.
The MiG-21 could be fielded as a single-seat or two-seat fighter and fighter-bomber. The delta-wing design increased armament carrying capabilities from earlier models to five hardpoints, including a centerline fuselage area. The tube like airframe was robust, easy to maintain and allowed the MiG-21 Fishbed the capability of maneuverability at any speed. The four remaining hardpoints could be fitted with an array of air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry in the form of missiles, rockets and drop bombs.
With the use of afterburning, the MiG-21 was capable of sustaining Mach 2. The major drawback was in the consumption of fuel, forcing the centerline to almost always have to carry a droptank to keep the range of the Fishbed system respectable. The overall low cost of the system endeared itself to developing nations the world over, as evident by the sheer list of customers that employed – and continue to employ – the Fishbed as a viable frontline fighter.
The United States military came face-to-face with the lethal adversary in the Vietnam War, where MiG-21’s often held their own against F-4 Phantom II’s. Though faster and larger, the F-4 Phantom II’s were not as maneuverable as the Soviet-produced counterpart, which could prove very detrimental in a close-knit dogfight. The absence of internal cannon on American planes was also a detriment.
The MiG-21 not only saw combat action in the Vietnam War but also in the Middle East at the hands of many Soviet-supported allies. The Arab-Israeli war of the 1970’s saw the MiG-21 fielded in good numbers and proved quite the system in capable hands.
Production of the MiG-21 stemmed from the Soviet Union into frontline countries throughout Europe. China also manufactured original and, later, their own versions of the successful system. In the end, this type of global reach would see the MiG-21 Fishbed weapons platform operating in a multitude of variants and undertaking a multitude of roles for over half a century.