SOURCE: FIRST POST
In the recent past, a lot has been written, spoken and discussed on the dog fight between an American origin F-16 aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and a Soviet origin MiG-21 aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF). Speculations were rife as to how a combat inferior MiG-21 aircraft shot down a combat superior F-16 aircraft in this aerial duel. The social media was also buzzing on the said issue, and humorously, improving the sale quotient of the MiG-21 aircraft, much to the embarrassment it might be causing to the erstwhile General Dynamics, now Lockheed Martin, the company which produces the F-16 aircraft. But the makings of this dog fight go back to 2004.
The IAF had started to mature as a potent combat force much before the year 2004. The induction of Jaguar aircraft, a Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) in 1979, followed by the induction of the Mirage-2000 multi-role aircraft, changed the complexion of the IAF. The MiG-21 aircraft, which had been inducted into the IAF in the early 1960s, was later supplemented by the other MiG series aircraft namely MiG-23 aircraft — both in ground attack (GA) role and in air defence (AD) role — MiG-25 in the strategic reconnaissance role, MiG-27 aircraft in GA role, MiG-29 in the air superiority role, and Sukhoi SU-30 as a multi-role combat aircraft. All these inductions painted the IAF canvas projecting IAF as a world power. To add to the canvas, two major events took place in 2004.
One was Exercise Cope Thunder, an international exercise held in Alaska. It was for the first time ever that the fighter aircraft of the IAF were required to fly across the globe to Alaska to participate in the exercise. The DPSA Jaguar aircraft of the IAF was chosen to take part in the exercise. The author of this article, then in command of a major IAF base in the western sector, was entrusted with the responsibility of operational training of the aircrew who would take part in the exercise, and of ensuring that six Jaguar aircraft were to be prepared for participation in the exercise.
It would be worth mentioning that till then, there were no templates to go by, and needless to say that both the machines and the men operating the machines had to remain in a state of extreme fitness all through the period of the exercise. It was a tall order, and the IAF had given ten months as the preparation period.
Proudly accepting the challenge, preparations began almost immediately. A lot went into ensuring that all six aircraft remained serviceable and operationally airworthy for the ferry to Alaska and back, and for the duration of the exercise. Towards operational training of aircrew, it was ensured that each air warrior was competent in the art of mid-air refuelling, a new discipline which till then only a hand full had been exposed to, and to remain alert in the cockpit for long durations of flight and be able to undertake combat engagements and accurate weapon delivery in all kinds of environmental conditions.
After an extensive and rigorous training lasting all of ten months, the team was ready to project to the world that the IAF had arrived. With a disciplined and professional integration between the fighter aircraft and the mid-air refuelling mother tanker, the proud IAF team reached Alaska in a befitting man-machine combination.
During the exercise, the IAF team gave an excellent account of its professionalism which prompted other participating air forces to acknowledge its contributions to their envy. Laudable statements and accolades continued to pour in making the IAF ever so proud. This led to the start of an era of IAF fighter aircraft flying to various locations in the world to take part in international exercises. In addition, it almost became a habit for the IAF to excel each time, and in the process, winning the respect of all participating air forces every time.
The other event was Exercise Cope India, a bilateral exercise with the US Air Force (USAF) held in India at one of IAF’s military airfields in central India. In this exercise, the IAF employed Jaguar aircraft, Mirage-2000 aircraft, SU-30 aircraft, MiG-27 aircraft, and above all, the MiG-21 Bison aircraft — upgraded with Russian Phezatron radar, Vympel R-73 Close Combat Missiles (CCM), and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Vympel R-77 missiles. The USAF employed F-15 and F-16 aircraft. Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) missions were flown as part of the exercise, first ever in 40 years. During the missions, it was observed that IAF pilots flying the upgraded MiG-21 Bison blew away the F-15 and F-16 aircraft of USAF in one to one as well as in mixed exercises. The USAF acknowledged that the IAF’s MiG-21 Bison and SU-30 aircraft were tough opponents.
During the exercise, IAF reportedly notched up astounding kill ratios against the all-powerful USAF, sending shock waves through the American defence establishment. The adaptive capability of the IAF flying seemingly inferior Russian systems in a superior manner to overcome technological inequalities disproved many American threat assumptions.
While the Pentagon tried to underplay the IAF’s achievements, the USAF gave the IAF its due. The Aviation Week and Space Technology quoted the USAF as saying, “The two most formidable IAF aircraft proved to be the MiG-21 Bison, an upgraded version of the Russian made MiG-21 baseline, and the SU-30, also made in Russia.” About the capabilities of IAF pilots, USAF Team Leader Colonel Greg Newbech said, “What we have seen in the two weeks of the exercise is that the IAF can stand toe-to-toe with the best air forces in the world. I pity the pilot who has to face the IAF because he won’t be going home.” Similar sentiments were sounded in Alaska about the IAF during the Exercise Cope Thunder which took place just a few months after the Exercise Cope India.
On 27 February 2019, the PAF’s F-16 locked horns with IAF’s MiG-21 Bison in a dogfight. The MiG-21 Bison shot down the F-16 using its R-73 CCM. The assumed assessment of the USAF with regard to the MiG-21 Bison wasn’t totally misplaced. With near comparable thrust weight ratios, and good, though inferior avionics, the MiG-21 Bison managed to obtain an edge over an otherwise superior adversary. It is also in order to place on record the superlative operational training of IAF air warriors, a fact which was well observed by the USAF in 2004. It is perhaps the man-machine combination that made the day.
Although the man-machine combination of the IAF air warrior and the MiG-21 Bison made the nation proud, India needs to recognise and accept the fact that the MiG-21 entered IAF service in the early 1960s. This makes the aircraft around six decades old. We all know how technology has advanced in the last six decades, and we cannot keep flogging the old horse. The requirements of a new generation combat aircraft and weapon systems cannot be over-emphasised. We also need to look at our inventory deficiencies in terms of numbers which are at a sad low. It is imperative that the IAF acquires next-generation aircraft in good numbers to offset the deficiencies and for further qualitative improvement. It must also be understood that human integration with new systems is time-consuming. In order to retain the prestigious ranking in the qualitative edge which the IAF enjoys today, it need the right stuff in the right numbers as of yesterday.
The author is a retired fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force with approximately 4,000 flying hours. Presently, he is a distinguished fellow at the Center for Air Power Studies.