How the MiG-21 tilted the 1971 war in India’s favour with its 13/1 success ratio
In the Bangladesh Liberation War against Pakistan, India’s MiG-21s achieved thirteen victories in air combat for just a single loss
John Kelly, the representative of the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees in East Pakistan, got off his jeep outside the Governor’s house in Dacca at 1100 hours on the morning of 14 December 1971. Located in the southern part of the city, the Governor’s House was easily recognisable by the dome on its entrance and arcs within its verandas joining the left and right wings of the building together. The plush and freshly painted white coloured Governor’s House was in stark contrast to the crumbling and bombed out buildings in parts of East Pakistan.
The Governor of East Pakistan, Dr Abdul Motaleb Malik, a former ambassador to Austria, greeted Kelly upon his arrival. As soon as the two began to walk towards Malik’s office, an alarmed Kelly pointed to the sound of jet engines in the sky. Malik dismissed it as civilian airliners travelling to Burma.
When the two entered the Governor’s office, overlooking the serene bird lake within the compound, Kelly expressed concern about Malik’s fate in the hands of the Mukti Bahini. Malik reassured him that the Indian Army was quite far away and that he was safe from harm. At that moment, Kelly struggled to hear what Malik said as jet engines thundered above them. Suddenly the building shook and multiple explosions were heard. Kelly opened the door to discover the main hall on fire. He dashed out of the building and hid beneath his jeep. But Malik had not yet left the building.
The man who had supported the genocide in East Pakistan had crawled under his desk seconds after the explosions. With bombs going all around him the Governor of East Pakistan with quivering hands resigned from his position.
Two days later, the Pakistan Army surrendered.
The pin-point strike using 57mm rockets on the Governor’s mansion had been undertaken by Wing Commander Bhupendra Kumar Bishnoi who led four Indian MiG-21 FLs to the target in Dacca with only tourist maps for navigation.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) had requested the induction of supersonic jet fighters as early as 1962. Many candidates from the American F-104 Starfighter to the English Electric Lightning had been shortlisted by the IAF. Since the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was already operating the F-104A Starfighter and the Americans were keen on hawking the Northrop F-5, the IAF went in for the Russian made Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 [referred to as Fishbed by NATO].
The first variant to enter service was the MiG-21 F-13, which arrived as early as 1963. Tail No. BC816 was the first MiG-21 F-13 produced, but Tail No. BC821 was the first to arrive in India and formed a new squadron, the No. 28 First Supersonics at Chandigarh Air Force Station in Punjab. By September 1965, there were six MiG-21 F-13s and two MiG-21 PFs in service.
Regrettably, three of these aircraft were bombed on the ground at Pathankot by Pakistani F-86 F Sabres in the 1965 conflict. But they in turn shot down a Pakistani C-130 B Hercules and an F-86 F Sabre. When the war ended, the IAF decided to induct a more modern variant of the MiG-21. A deal was signed in 1964 between the Mikoyan-Gurevich corporation in the Soviet Union and Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) in India under which the Indian company began licensed production of the Type 77 MiG-21s. By December 1971, HAL had delivered eighty-one MiG-21 FLs to the IAF and all of them were inducted into service.
The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 Forsazh Lokator [referred to as Fishbed-D by NATO] was a supersonic monster flying faster than twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.25. It was powered by a huge Tumansky R-11 F-300 engine. It had an R1L radar fitted into its nose cone which could locate enemy fighters at a range of 20 km. The MiG-21 FL was armed with two Vympal K-13 (AA-2 Atoll-A) infrared homing air-to-air missiles. Due to its limited range, the MiG had to carry a drop tank under the fuselage which could be traded out for a GSh-23 twin-barreled cannon pod.
By December 1971, the IAF was armed with three MiG-21 squadrons in the east; No.4 Oorials, No.28 First Supersonics and No.30 Charging Rhinos. The western border was guarded by five squadrons: No.1 Tigers, No.8 Eight Pursoots, No.29 Scorpions, No.45 Winged Swords and No. 47 Black Archers. All of them were well equipped to defend the Indian skies.
The MiG-21 first saw action on 4 December 1971 at the beginning of the Bangladesh Liberation War. Flying Officer Jayendra Sukrut Raj of the No. 4 Oorials shot down a Pakistani Canadair F-86E Sabre over Tezgaon in East Pakistan. On 6 December, Wing Commander Bishnoi led a formation of four MiG-21s from the 28th squadron towards Tezgaon, the only operational PAF Airbase in East Pakistan. Each MiG-21 dropped a pair of 500kg iron bombs directly onto the runway and grounded the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Not a single PAF Sabre was able to take off from the cratered runway thereafter and the IAF had established air supremacy over East Pakistan within 48 hours.
In the western theatre of the war, the much-awaited matchup between the Indian MiG-21 FL and the Pakistani Starfighter took place on 12 December when Flight Lieutenant Bharat Bhushan Soni, on a Combat-Air-Patrol (CAP) missions CAP above Jamnagar, shot down a PAF Starfighter with his 23mm cannon after missing a K-13 shot at the bandit over the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile, four MiG-21s had also been modified and inducted into the super-secret TACDE (Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment). Squadron Leader Teshter Jall Master bombed both the Shorkot Road airfield and the Chaklala airbase in West Pakistan at night successfully. He would also go on to bring down an F-86 F Sabre with a K-13 missile on 9 December.
The very first air combat kill of the MiG-21FL on the western front however was a Pakistani Mirage III EP. On 9 December Squadron Leader Sindhaghatta Subbaramu encountered a lone enemy Mirage over Poonch, Kashmir. He launched both his K-13 missiles at the bandit which disappeared from his radar seconds later.
On 13 December, four MiG-21s of the 47th Black Archers successfully knocked out the Pakistani radar station at Badin, Sindh in an exceptionally difficult mission. Unfortunately, Wing Commander Hersern Singh Gill was shot down by Pakistani anti-aircraft fire and killed in action over Badin. The Indian formation was also jumped upon by a Pakistani Starfighter. Nevertheless, Squadron Leader Vinay Kapila intercepted the Starfighter and took it out with a salvo from his Ub-16 rocket pods.
Three days later, Flight Lieutenant Samar Bikram Shah from the 29th Scorpions, flying his MiG-21 defended a formation of Indian HF-24 Maruts from three prowling Pakistani F-6 A (MiG-19) interceptors over Uttarlai Air Force station in Rajasthan. The Maruts were armed with heavy air-to-surface weaponry and an internal rocket pod and were consequently inept at surviving the confrontation by themselves.
In a spate of brilliant action, Shah engaged one of the PAF interceptors in a turn-fight and shot it out of the cloudless skies with his 23mm cannon. Then he chased after the other two and blew one of them apart with a K-13 missile. Shah would go on to become the highest-scoring MiG-21 FL pilot in kills, with three victories to his name by the end of the war (Two F-6 As and a F-104 A Starfighter).
On 17 December, Squadron Leader Iqbal Singh Bindra began the day’s daring events by obliterating a Pakistani Starfighter strafing the airstrip at Uttarlai. Later in the day a formation of four Indian HF-24 Maruts on a close air support mission, was ambushed by two PAF Starfighters. The pair of Pakistani interceptors was engaged by MiG-21s flown by Flight Lieutenant Aruna Kumar Datta and Flight Lieutenant Neeraj Khukreja of the 29th Scorpions.
In the ensuing dogfight over Naya-Chor, Sindh, West Pakistan, both the Starfighters were shattered to pieces with K-13 missiles. By 0800 hours on 17 December India’s MiG-21 had achieved thirteen victories in air combat for just a single loss. These included seven F-104 A Starfighters, two F-86 Sabres, two F-6 As (MiG-19s) a Mirage III EP and a C-130 B Hercules besides destroying strategically important PAF airfields, radar stations, military targets, and the Governor’s House in Dacca.
The legendary aircraft was popularly renamed “Trishul” after the 1971 war.
Since then, seven variants of more than eight hundred MiG-21s, besides trainers, have served in the Indian Air Force. From airfield buster to Falcon slayer, the MiG-21 has played the valiant role of a fighter bomber.
The author is passionate about military affairs and diplomacy and is currently writing a book on the 1971 war to be published in 2022. Views expressed are personal.
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