BRUSSELS, Belgium - An icon of the Cold War, the MiG-21 came to symbolize the military might of the Soviet Union as it squared off against the West in conflicts from Vietnam to Africa and the Middle East.
Now, exactly 50 years after it entered service, the jet fighter is approaching the twilight of its career in frontline service - with NATO, the former Soviet Union's main rival.The rugged and agile jet earned a reputation as a versatile and effective short-range interceptor with low operating costs and excellent performance. Just like the Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle - another robust and reliable weapon that epitomized Soviet power - the MiG-21 holds a unique place in military history.
"It was one of the best fighters ever, very reliable, and a real challenge to all pilots who fought against it," said David Ivry, a former chief of the Israeli Air Force who battled MiG-21s as a squadron leader in the 1967 Six-Day War and as a commander in the 1973 and 1982 wars.
MiGs derived their name from the initials of their designers, Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich. Codenamed Fishbed by NATO, the MiG-21 gained fame during the Vietnam War, where it was used by the North Vietnamese air force to intercept American bombers.
Although heavily outnumbered, the small Fishbeds could evade radar and ambush U.S. formations with hit-and-run attacks in which many U.S. jets, including top-of-the line F-4 Phantoms, were downed or forced to abort their missions.
"The MiG-21 was lighter and more agile than the Phantom, which gave it a better chance to survive in a dogfight," wrote Russian aviation historian Vladimir Babich, who analyzed the MiG's performance in Vietnam.
The U.S. Air Force first gained vital insight into the Mig-21s capabilities after a defecting Iraqi pilot brought one to Israel in 1966. The Israelis also exploited their findings during the 1967 Six-Day war, when their surprise air strikes destroyed the Arab air forces on the ground.
Although the plane's performance was enhanced over the years, designers never succeeded in overcoming the limited fuel capacity, stemming from the design's small size. Another weakness was thick windshield framing that reduced the pilot's forward visibility, a serious problem during aerial combat.
Still, more than 10,000 MiG-21s were built, making it the most widely produced jet fighter ever built.
The delta-winged Mach 2 interceptor - Mach 2 is double the speed of sound - was widely exported and became the backbone of about 50 air forces in Europe, Africa and Asia. It was used in a dozen armed conflicts in the past 30 years, more than any other fighter in history.
In the 1970s, the U.S. introduced two jets which outperformed the MiG-21 - the new F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons. The Soviets countered with MiG-29s and Sukhoi-27s. By the 1980s the aging Fishbeds were relegated to second-line duties, like reconnaissance.
Russia has long since retired the MiG-21, but it remains operational with numerous air forces around the world.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the USSR's former East European allies joined NATO, bringing more than 200 of their aging MiG-21s into the Western alliance.
Most have since been replaced, but the old warhorse soldiers on in NATO members Romania and Bulgaria, and in Croatia, scheduled to join the alliance in 2009. All three plan to retire the Fishbed over the next three or four years.
Alen Warnes, editor of Air Forces Monthly, a specialized British publication, noted that the MiG-21 is the last fighter from the 1950s to remain operational and that no other fighter has achieved such longevity.
"No aircraft has influenced military aviation in post-World War II Europe more than the MiG-21," Warnes said.(By Slobodan Lekic, The Associated Press)
Type: multi-role fighter
Max Speed: 1,203kt / 1,385mph
Max Range: 1,160km / 721miles
span 7.15m / 23ft 5.5in length 15.76m / 51ft 8.5in height 4.10 m / 13 ft 5.4in
empty 5,200kg / 11,464lb max. take-off 22,925lb / 10,400kg
one 7500-kg (16,535-lb) afterburning thrust Tumanskii R-25 turbojet
one 23-mm GSh-23 two-barrel cannon with 200 rounds, plus four underwing pylons suitable for AA-2 'Atoll' orAA-8 'Aphid' AAMs, UV-16-57 rocket launchers, 500- or 250-kg (1,102- or 551-lb) bombs, S-24 240-mm(9.45-in) air-to-surface rockets, or drop tanks
Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Congo, Republic of the, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, India, Laos, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mongolia, Nigeria, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Sudan, Syria, Uganda, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia
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