The MiG-21 may be the only aircraft in aviation history to have forced a nation to surrender. The devastating attack on the Governor’s House in Dhaka in East Pakistan by MiG-21s proved to be a turning point in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

India’s blitzkrieg strategy against the Pakistani military had brought the Indian Army to the outskirts of Dhaka within just nine days. Holed up in the huge building, the puppet government of East Pakistan had declared it would not surrender to the Indians.

At 11am on December 14, 1971, a detachment of four MiG-21 FL fighters spotted the Governor’s House. After circling around it once, they went in for their strafing runs, targeting the massive central dome with rockets and bombs. The Governor became so fear stricken that he promptly resigned and took shelter in the UN’s air raid shelter.

It was the MiG-21 – codenamed Fishbed by NATO – that dealt the most severe blows to the Pakistan Air Force. With their air cover blown away, more than 93,000 Pakistan Army troops and 7,000 civilian aides surrendered unconditionally.

Fishbed fury

The Russians had designed the aircraft to be a high-altitude “spot interceptor” but India used it for a multitude of roles. Besides air defence, the MiG-21 was used for high-level ground attack, providing top cover to IAF strike aircraft, luring enemy aircraft away from strategic targets, and combat air patrol.

When the war started on December 3, six squadrons of MiG-21FLs were part of the IAF's order-of battle, participating in operations both in the eastern and western sectors. By the time hostilities ended on December 16, the MiGs had downed four F-104 Starfighters, two F-6s, an F-86 Sabre and a C-130 Hercules of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).

It was in the western theatre that the MiG-21 was employed in its primary task, that of air defence, escort and interception. Deployed at all the major air bases, from Pathankot in the north to Jamnagar in the south western area, the MiG-21FLs mounted hundreds of sorties and were continuously scrambled to intercept hostile intruders.

The MiG-21 finally met its original adversary, the F-104 Starfighter, in air combat during the 1971 War. “In all four recorded cases of classic dogfights, the MiG-21s outclassed and out fought the F-104s,” says the official history of the IAF. “The first aerial victory was on December 12, when MiG-21FLs of No. 47 Squadron shot down a PAF F-104 over the Gulf of Kutch and this was followed by three more victories in quick succession on December 17, when MiG-21FLs of No. 29 Squadron escorting (Indian made) HF-24 Maruts, shot down intercepting F-104s near Uttarlai in the Rajasthan desert in gun-missile encounters, while a third F-104, on an intruding mission, was shot down by another MiG 21FL of No.29 Squadron.”

Versatile aircraft

There is yet another unique role the MiG-21 FL played in 1971. Air Marshal (retd) Subhash Bhojwani, who was a young flying officer during the war, says the IAF used the MiG as a high-altitude relay aircraft.

IAF bombers returning after striking deep in Pakistani territory often found it difficult to land back home because they were either flying under the radar or out of radio range. “So our role as MiG-21 FL was to fly high at an altitude of 9 km and relay the signals to the returning fighter pilots,” says Bhojwani.

“We would use code language and I was a 'sparrow'. The Pakistanis who intercepted our conversation never imagined that it was a MiG-21 FL flying at high altitude and instead thought the Russians secretly gave Indians their AWACS aircraft, the Moss.”

Raid on Badin

Badin was one of the most important IAF targets of the war. Located in southern Sindh, it was home to a powerful signal and radar unit, which provided coverage to PAF air operations in the south-western sector. It was a gift from the Americans for Pakistan joining the Baghdad Pact, and proved to be a huge “pain in the neck” for the IAF. Although it was heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns, the IAF decided to have a crack at it.

On the morning of December 12, two MiG-21s were sent from Jamnagar to obtain photo cover of the radar complex. A few hours later, four MiGs attacked the complex but the bombs didn't land directly on the antennae.

The following day, the IAF threw three four more MiG-21s at Badin. This time the MiGs struck the aerials and the power generating structure of the radar complex. However, one aircraft was lost to ground fire. The operation put out the centre and made life a little easier for Indian pilots.

Fishbed fear

With top cover provided by MiG-21s, IAF Sukhoi-7s and Hunters launched relentless attacks on Pakistan’s forward airbases, forcing the PAF to operate from bases further inland. This curtailed their range and the PAF aircraft were no longer able to attack freely.

From December 8, says the IAF, Western Air Command changed its tactics for counter air and close air support operations. “Deliberate attempts were made to attract the PAF's attention and invite aerial engagement. Strike missions were led by fighters which flew high enough to be seen on Pak radar screens. But the PAF refused to cooperate. Instead there was a marked decline on attacks on Indian troops.”

One of the reasons why the PAF refused to engage in dogfights was the fear of encountering the MiG-21. The Pakistanis were now psyched by the multiplier effect of the MiG-21. The Russian aircraft was – to use an American football term – running interference for IAF bombers and strike aircraft and the PAF could do nothing about it.

Also, because war involves constant attrition, both sides were losing aircraft almost daily, but the PAF was losing planes and pilots at a faster rate. So the PAF decided to opt out of the air war and preserve its remaining aircraft rather than take on the likes of the MiG-21.

“The MiG-21 proved to be a highly effective air defence weapons system,” says the IAF. Grouping the high flying MiGs with low flying Hunters and Sukhois was a brilliant tactic. The air superiority umbrella created by the Fishbed allowed other IAF aircraft to mount their attacks in an environment that favoured them. The MiG-21 was indeed the dogfight duke of the 1971 War.