The Mig-21 Fishbed

In Vietnam, the great air rivalry was between the massive F-4 Phantom II and the small MiG-21, which American’s called Fishbed. Both were Mach 2 fighters, although most dogfights were fought at much lower speeds. However, they took very different paths to achieve their high speeds.

The F-4 was designed as an interceptor to shoot down Soviet bombers threatening the fleet. To be effective over very long ranges, and to accommodate advanced radar electronics and a second crew member to run the electronics, the F-4 had to be a huge machine with two powerful engines. As with many U.S. aircraft of that era, it was designed without guns. However, when it was doing counter-air work, it had a heavy arsenal of four radar-guided missiles and four heat-seeking missiles. There was nothing stealthy about the F-4. Its engines smoked like a locomotive, and it was visible from miles away. The Phantom II was a battle axe.

In contrast, the MiG-21 was a rapier. It was a small aircraft—barely larger than the MiG-15s of the Korean War—and it had a single engine. It had short range, and its arsenal consisted of one 30 mm cannon and two Atoll missiles. In Vietnam, the MiG-21 benefitted from an excellent ground control system. Ground controllers would vector MiG-21s behind American fighter bomber formations and then direct the MiGs to kick in afterburners and streak through the formation. Each MiG would select a target, fire Atolls at it, and close in with cannon. The MiGs would then fly away at high speed, before escort fighters could react. If MiGs could make a kill, this would be excellent. However, they were successful if the bombers being escorted dropped their bombs to escape. Although the MiGs made relatively few kills during the war, they were very effective at stopping bombing strikes.

When F-4s and MiG-21s did engage in direct dog fights, they were mismatched. The MiGs were far more nimble and could turn in tight circles. The Phantom IIs had a terrible time against the MiGs early on. Then, U.S. pilots learned to “fight in the vertical.” Instead of engaging in turning fights, the F-4s would use their superior vertical acceleration to fly straight up and turn around in a vertical loop to fly back into the enemy. Most engagements were inconclusive. The success rate when missiles were fired was very low. Yet the Phantom IIs did not receive cannons until late in the war. Near the end of the war, the Navy created the Navy Fighter Weapons School, popularly known as Top Gun, to teach Navy pilots how to fight against dissimilar fighters like the Mig-21s.

  F-4 Phantom II MiG-21 Fishbed MiG-15bis Fagot
Crew 2 1 1
Length (ft) 63 52 ft 34
Wing span (ft) 38 23 ft 33
Empty weight (lbs) 30,300 10,700 7,900
Combat weight (lbs) 41,500   10,900
Maximum gross weight (lbs) 61,800 15,600 13,460
Engine 2x GEJ-79 Tumansky R11F Klimov KV-1
Thrust, dry (lbs.) 11,900 8,400 5,950
Thrust, afterburner (lbs) 17,845 12,600 NA
Cruise speed (mph)     530
Maximum speed (mph) 1,472 1,385 668