The burst of (planted and motivated) stories by a section of the Western media to negate the shooting of a US-made F-16 Falcon by an IAF pilot flying an “inferior” MiG-21 Bison is neither surprising nor unexpected. It’s but natural; at least to this author. Why? What’s the reason?
Because, the West finds it well nigh impossible for its machine to be downed by a non-Western fighter pilot’s superior performance. One, therefore, has to take into stride the condescending attitude and cacophonic propaganda to underplay, if not undermine, the performance of the Indian Air Force in trying circumstances, taking on the much-hyped “indisputable” technology superiority of the west.
Let us, therefore, try look at the “other side of the hill”. First, a Bison is a four-legged land animal; the Falcon, a two-legged, winged bird of the sky. Today it’s a tale of two aircraft, made in two cities – the MiG-21 Bison of Moscow (and now made in India) and the F-16 Falcon (originally) of General Dynamics of St Louis, Missouri. The two aircraft were conceived, and built, in different era, for different operational roles by different users.
The MiG-21 came in the 1950s. the F-16 in 1970s. The MiG-21, an air superiority fighter, was developed on the basis of experience of “jet-to-jet” combat between a MiG-15 and an American fighter during the Korean war, beginning June 1950.
Soviets needed good transonic and supersonic handling, high rate climb, small size, light weight, and medium powered turbo-jet. Thus was born the first generation MiG-21 – a day fighter with limited range, comparatively light armament and limited avionics and endurance, but high speed (2300 km per hour). Subsequently, however, with improved range, heavier payload and all-weather capability, the fighter, by 1980s, became a widely-used craft, by at least 37 air forces across the globe, and the backbone of first-line units of the Soviet Air Force tactical air power.
An important thing to remember here is that when the (then) Soviet Union was developing the “small infra-red homing air-to-air missile K- 13, generally similar to the US AIM-9B Sidewinder 1A”, there was MiG-21 but no F-16. Nevertheless, by mid 1980s, MiG-21 aircraft had more than 200 export version “FL” of late-model of its MiG-21 PF series being assembled and later built under licence by HAL with the IAF designation Type- 77.
Thus, the MiG-21 established itself in the world market much before the F-16; and almost after two decades of induction thereof into frontline squadron service. US Secretary Defence announced the selection of General Dynamics F-16 on 13 January 1975 and authorised fullscale engineering development after following rigorous “qualitative requirements”, which clearly stipulated an “aircraft with single-engine configuration with weight savings to meet the critical performance categories of high acceleration rates, high rate of climb, and exceptional manoeuvrability”.
Subsequently, by 2016, a total of 4,588 F-16 aircraft were ordered, and were in use with 24 air forces (Asia 11; Europe 08; South America 02; Africa 02 and the USA). F-16 Falcon became the most widely operated Americanmade tactical fighter, to be used by the US Air Force too.
It must nevertheless be noted that aircraft-to-aircraft, the American F-16 did have a clear theoretical edge over the Soviet-origin MiG-21 owing to its being of a later model with advantage of upgraded technology. Thus by the broad parameters which normally are used to assess the quality and performance of a fighter in “combat scenario”, the American Falcon appeared superior to Russian Bison virtually everywhere: wings, fuselage, tail unit, landing gear, power plant, systems, avionics and equipments, armament, dimensions, weights (all up weight, max takeoff weight), performance and payload. However, at Mach (speed of the sound) speed of 2.2 (2300 kilometre per hour), MiG-21 Bison definitely appeared faster than the Mach 2 of F- 16 Falcon.
Overall, therefore, the basics boiled down between the speed of the Russian Bison versus the manoeuvring ability and range of the American Falcon. And what mattered in the sky of J&K on Wednesday, 27 February 2019 was Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman firing R-73 air-toair missile from his high speed, low level Bison chasing a zig-zagging Falcon which simply could not escape the combat radius of its adversary. Thus the “man-behind-the-Bisonmachine” caused the “downfall” of the Fighting Falcon from the sky. Of course, the Bison too went down; but it could not be downed from the sky by the Fighting Falcon but from ground fire.
Here it would be in order to refer to the information provided by the 33 year old Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1985-1986. “The first combat use of the F-16 was by the Israeli Air Force, which used eight aircraft to destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor on June 07, 1981, with a top cover of six F- 15s”.
Earlier, in February 1980, the US Air Force implemented a “Multinational Staged Improvement Programme (MSIP) for the F-16, to assure the aircraft’s capability to accept future systems under development by the Air Force. As a first stage, aircraft delivered since November 1981 have built-in structural wiring provisions and system architecture that expand the single-seat F-16’s multi-role flexibility to perform precision strike, night attack, and beyond-visualrange interception missions. Advanced cockpit displays and controls have been introduced subsequently, and an improved fire control radar enables F-16s to launch AMRAAM (advanced medium range air-to-air missile) at multiple targets in rapid succession”. All this happened in the mid-1980s.
Subsequently, F-16 is reported to have “conquered” wherever it was deployed thereby getting an invisible approval of admirable invincibility; of being the best of the West. Nevertheless, the same (invincible) F-16 could not pass through the rigorous selection test of Indian Air Force as one of the six bidders for India’s MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) as late as the 2010s.
Both Balakot foray by the Indian Air Force and the (retaliatory) attempted counter-air operations of the Pakistani Air Force on the following day, therefore, have definitely put forth the necessity of air power in the front line of terror fighting in the future. It nevertheless once again showed the importance and relevance of the age old saying: “man behind the machine” is more important than only a “superior machine without a competent man” in war. F-16 is superior no doubt. But it was downed by India. Undoubtedly.
Understandably, therefore, failure to make the grade in Indian Air Force in early 2010s, followed by “inferior” MiG-21 Bison Indian pilot’s success in knocking down the American aircraft from the sky in actual low-level air combat severely dented the “invincible” image of Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon. All the more, as suddenly the five-decade-old MiG-21, which was gradually disappearing from the radar of the Indian establishment and impressionable (gullible) pro- West public opinion, appears to have re-emerged as the darling of the Indian sky.
Those castigating MiG-21 and other variants thereof as “flying coffins” have sudden soothing words of praise for both the aircraft and the men flying it.
(The writer, an alumnus of the National Defence College of India is author of China in India. The views are personal )