New Delhi: A fighter jet, which began its life in the Soviet era over six decades ago and was procured by the Indian Air Force (IAF) some 56 years back, has registered its first US-made fourth generation multi-role F-16 kill. And the man behind the machine was IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who shot down the Pakistan Air Force's F-16 in a dogfight over Nowshera above the line of control (LoC).

In what was a highly asymmetric fight with the extremely modern machine that the F-16 is considered to be — especially after it was part of action in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East — the MiG-21 came on top in dogfight, the first between India and Pakistan since the 1971 war. The Pakistani version of F-16 is not the top of the line and latest F-16 Block 70, yet it is a fly-by-wire jet.

Experts, Indian as well as foreign, have hailed the kill, mostly as they consider it to be a feat of the pilot behind the stick, rather than his fighter jet per se. Not just the machine, but the man behind it matters the most, as the saying goes.


Where MiG-21 scored over PAF F-16 

MiG-21 is a second-generation supersonic jet fighter introduced into the Soviet military in 1959. India purchased the jet in 1961; it became operational in the IAF in 1963, and then was manufactured by PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under licence.

The MiG-21 was finally upgraded to the Bison version in 2006. It’s upgrade programme through retrofitting, while the engine and the plane remained the same, had started in the 1990s.

It is the upgrade that made Fishbed, (MiG-21’s NATO name), match the US-made F-16.

The new helmet-mounted sight (it means the pilot does not have to align his plane with the target; instead he can look at the target and fire his missiles at the target) and high-off-boresight Vympel R-73 air-to-air missiles added in the upgrade turned the MiG-21 into a great threat to more modern fighters.

It was also equipped with a new radar, modern indicators on the windshield and multi-functional display screens in the cockpit. The coating reduced radar footprint.

Vympel scans a wider angle of the sky in front of it and thus gave Varthaman an advantage.

Added to the above, its low radar visibility with a delta-wing fuselage, instantaneous turn rate and ‘jackrabbit acceleration’ make it lethal in what is called within visual range (WVR) or dogfight combat scenario. And that is why the F-16 came a cropper when faced with the MiG-21.

Defence website quoted Italian journalist David Cenciotti, of The Aviationist blog. “If confirmed, it’s significant, as it would prove once again that when it deals with aerial engagement, not always does the more modern and capable weapon system (in this case the F-16 Block 52) wins,” he said.

All credit to MiG-21 pilot Abhinandan Varthaman

According to Air Vice Marshal (retired) PK Srivastava, as he said on national broadcaster Rajya Sabha TV, “For decades the IAF pilots have flown the MiG-21 and thus the pilots have developed great skills with it. The asymmetry between the two planes is great and one is impressed by the skills of the pilot.”

He also cited that the MiG-21 suffers from a major lacuna compared to an F-16 — the fly-by-wire mechanism. “The adage is that F-16 flies itself, you don’t fly it because it is a fly-by-wire, profile-managed aircraft, which MiG is not,” he said.

With a much better fly-by-wire set up and armed with a much better weapons package and avionics suite, the F-16 lost not so much to the machine that the MiG-21 is, but to the pilot of the aircraft.

Cenciotti added: “Several factors must be taken into consideration: pilot skills; support from other assets (including fighters and AEW aircraft), ground radars, and so on. Above all, rules of engagement play an essential role: if the RoEs require a positive VID of the opponent, a fighter might be forced to come WVR (within visual range) where a MiG-21 can be particularly threatening. That’s why even a fifth generation aircraft regularly train with legacy adversaries.”

Mikhail Khodarenok, a military expert and retired colonel, who served in Russian missile defence forces, said, “News reports from battle zones often contain inaccuracies or deliberate disinformation, but it doesn’t mean that a MiG-21 couldn’t have hit an F-16, even though the two planes are of completely different generations.”

India’s MiG-21 fighter upgraded by Russia possesses combat capabilities identical to those of the F-16 of the PAF, according to the editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine, Igor Korotchenko.

"The MiG-21, upgraded by Russia, has an onboard 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 said.

Also read: Abhinandan shot down F-16, swallowed documents, raised India slogans before capture: Reports

Not the first time MiG-21 beat US-Made F-series jets

While MiG-21 saw limited action in 1965 war with Pakistan, it bloomed in the 1971 India-Pakistan war for the liberation of Bangladesh when it not just wreaked havoc on the eastern front, it recorded its first kill of the US-made F-104 — the then most advanced fighter aircraft, on December 12.

What made the MiG-21 the centre of a major controversy was in 2004 when at the Cope India joint exercise in Gwalior, it beat way more modern and superior American F-series aircraft in a mock combat exercise, upsetting the US defence establishment.

Held from February 15-27, 2004, the exercise saw Indian pilots defeating their American counterparts by an astounding 9:1 kill ratio.

Colonel Mike Snodgrass lauded the Indian pilots. “The outcome of the exercise boils down to (the fact that) they ran tactics that were more advanced than we expected... They could come up with a game plan, but if it wasn't working they would call an audible and change (tactics in flight).”

Also read: Abhinandan Varthaman to undergo debriefing on return: An explanation of the process

Snodgrass added that the Sukhoi and MiG-21 Bison were the “most formidable IAF aircraft”.

It was concluded that a lot of these aspects had to do with the difference in pilot-training in the two countries. While the American pilots trained in a closed environment, wherein the United States Air Force (USAF) was considered invincible, which was inspired mostly by static Cold War scenarios, the Indian pilots trained in a more dynamic environment, getting ready for, as it were, hand-to-hand combat with adversaries.