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

The recent air skirmishes between India and Pakistan looks to rekindle the memory of the Cold War rivalry between the US and erstwhile Soviet Union/Russia.

Days after India's MiG-21 clashes with Pakistan's US-made F-16, editor-in-chief of National Defence magazine Igor Korotchenko said the MiG-21 fighter jets upgraded by Russia have the combat capabilities identical to those of F-16, Russia's TASS news agency reported.

While Pakistan shot down a MiG-21 and captured its pilot only to be set free later, a MiG-21 downed an F-16 though Pakistan did not confirm the news so far.

"The MiG-21, upgraded by Russia has an on-board radar and a wider range of guided air-to-air missiles. By its combat capabilities and flight parameters it is an equal of the F-16 version at the disposal of Pakistan's Air Force," Korotchenko was quoted as saying.

"India's MiG-21-93 fighters, eventually named MiG-21UGP Bison, were upgraded to be equipped with a new radar, wider range of weapons, modern indicators on the windshield, helmet-mounted sights and multi-functional display screens in the cockpit. The coating reduces radar visibility. The plane's life cycle and endurance have been prolonged," the TASS report added.

MiG-21 "Bison"

Early MiG-21s were 2nd generation fighter and latter production variants were of 3rd generation standards while F-16s were made as 4th gen fighters. One can assume that IAF MiG-21s - the bison variants( formerly UPG) will also be inferior . In reality IAF Mig 21 are the most advanced MiG-21s, the bison variant is heavily modified and it is a 4th generation fighter comparable to Block 52 of F 16 writes San Jeeth and aerospace enthusiast.

MiG-21 Bison’s avionics are superior to earlier MiG variants especially the radar is capable of multi mode operation and capable of tracking up to 10 targets simultaneously while engaging 2, unlike inferior RP 22 radar of earlier MiGs which were poor in every sphere. The F 16 block 52 uses APG 68 radar whose range and detection capabilities outclass Koypo25 radars in Bisons. The APG 68 ‘s range is around 200 km while the Bison’s radar has a range of only 70 km. Which means F 16 is capable of detecting and tracking Bisons before even Bisons could detect them. F 16s will be able to engage the Bisons even before Bisons could see them. This is when there is no presence of a friendly AWACS, in case of an AWACS MiG-21s R-77 missiles offer a slight higher range of 110 km against 105 km for AIM-120C currently in service with PAF. F-16 can also carry double the number of missiles than the Bisons (F-16 has 9 hard points while MiG-21 Bisons have 4).Clearly here F 16 have the advantages in target tracking and engagement.

F-16 Block 52

While in dog fight, F-16s higher thrust to weight ratio and better turn rate again favours F-16, they also have higher calibre guns. MiG-21 Bisons have the helmet mounted targeting sights. Which is of great advantage. F-16’s EW suite is clearly better than that of Bisons, San Jeeth goes on to add.

Its clear that F-16 has many advantages than the MiG-21 Bisons, but that is not enough to completely decide that F-16 Block 52s are superior to MiG-21 Bisons. The differences are such that the pilot skill can very well affect the outcome as it was in the case of Wing Commander.

So in a dogfight it is in hands of a pilot who has higher skills or better training. Something similar to F-86 Sabre vs Gnats in 1970s may take place except that these Gnats are as capable as Sabres. The above comparison is actually an underestimate of MiG-21 Bisons’ capabilities. The outcome rests in the hands of pilot. If not the winner is hard. These both are comparable fighters. Not to forget its widely acknowledged that IAF has most advanced dog fighting tactics which are in many aspects superior to the USAF as some kill parameters prove how the Sukhois & the MiGs foxed the US fighter in the Cope India and Red Flag military air exercises.


Coincidentally, 15 years ago, the MiG-21 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 innovation 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.

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 front-line aircraft - a role it was given when it first entered the IAF fleet in 1964 writes Rakesh Krishnan in BusinessToday.

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