The English Electric Lightning is for many the epitome of all-British fighter design. It was indeed one of the last of it’s kind and only barely survived the now notorious 1956 White Paper that effectively killed off manned fighter development in the UK. On the other side of the Iron Curtain a similar aircraft was taking shape in the form of the equally famous MiG-21F-13. This relatively simple aircraft was rubbished by many Western observers who felt that missile technology would negate the impact of the MiG-21. As history would show over Vietnam however this was a grave underestimate and the USAF and US Navy paid dearly for it.
Although the Lightning and MiG-21 never met in combat it would certainly be an interesting comparison. PLEASE NOTE; for this comparison I am only looking at the Lightning F.6 and MiG-21F-13 “Fishbed-C” versions of these aircraft as these were operational at around the same time in the early 1960s.
Both aircraft had very similar roles in that they were designed as classic Cold War interceptors; i.e their mission was to get off the ground as quickly as possible and intercept an approaching enemy bomber force. In wartime they would use their weapon system and air-to-air missiles to shoot down these bombers before they could have a chance to launch their nuclear weapons.
In the UK and across the Iron Curtain these aircraft would form part of an intricate air defence system for their respective nations that would include surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other aircraft. Neither of these aircraft were intended to be true dogfighters like the fighters of old since there was the belief that missile technology would nullify this aspect of air warfare. The Lightning and the MiG-21 had a secondary light attack role using rockets and unguided bombs and it was in this role that the Lightning saw it’s only actual combat with the Royal Saudi Air Force.
The Lightning F.6 was powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon 301R turbojets each producing 16,000lbs of thrust with full afterburner. With its low weight and aerodynamically efficient design the Lightning was able reach Mach.2 with ease and could achieve an incredible rate of climb – 50,000ft/min. The Lightning F.6 had a service ceiling of some 56,000ft but if enough thrust was achieved in the climb this could be extended higher for brief periods. Rumours persist of Lightnings buzzing U-2 spyplanes at nearly 70,000ft whilst performing these “zoom” climbs. Range was always the Achilles Heel of the Lightning however and without ferry tanks or refuelling had an absolute range of around 900 miles which translates in to a combat radius of just 180 miles from base.
The MiG-21F-13 was powered by a single Tumansky R-11F-300 turbojet engine that developed 12,655lbs of thrust that took the MiG-21F-13 to a speed just in excess of Mach.2. The much lighter MiG-21F-13 had a climb rate in excess of 40,000ft a minute and had a service ceiling of 62,000ft. Like the Lightning the MiG-21F-13 was hardly blessed with long legs and had an absolute range of 1,030 miles while typical combat radius was around the same figure.
The Lightning were equipped with the Ferranti-developed monopulse AI.223 radar located in a conical bullet shaped radome at the centre of the engine intake. Radar information was displayed on an early heads-up display and the radar featured several operational modes which included autonomous search, automatic target tracking, and ranging for all weapons; the pilot attack sight provided gyroscopically-derived lead angle and backup stadiametric ranging for gun firing. The radar and gunsight were collectively designated the AIRPASS: Airborne Interception Radar and Pilot Attack Sight System. The system did have a narrow detection arc however of just 40 degrees.
The MiG-21F-13 was less of a complete weapon system. It was optimized for daylight operations only and in a strict Ground Control Interception (GCI) environment. This reflected the Soviet doctrine of almost total inflexibility toward how their pilots dealt with a threat. The aircraft was fitted with a very primitive and minuscule ranging radar designed to aid with targeting enemy aircraft in the final stages of the interception. Other than that the only other weapon systems were a primitive gunsight and the pilot’s own eyes.
The Lightning F.6 was primarily armed with a pair of Red Top air-to-air missiles. The early Lightnings were armed with Firestreak missiles and these remained nominally in service until the Lightning was withdrawn from use. The Red Top was a rather large infra-red guided missile compared to the US AIM-9B Sidewinder but was arguably more capable having a more advanced seeker head. Unfortunately it suffered from the same problems most infra-red air-to-air missiles suffered from in the 1960s and that was poor reliability in its electronics (for more on Red Top click here). To back these up were two of the proven 30mm ADEN cannons which could also be used for straffing ground targets. In RAF service the full potential of the Lightning’s carrying capability was never reached but for the export market versions were offered with mulitple launch rails and rocket/fuel tank combinations increasing range and weaponry .
Primary armament for the MiG-21F-13 was the K-13 infra red guided air-to-air missile. Known in the West as the AA-2 “Atoll”, if you think this weapon has a striking similarity to the US AIM-9B Sidewinder you would be right. The weapon was a direct copy of the US weapon following the failure of the Soviets to develop an equivalent missile. It was thanks to a Taiwanese F-86 Sabre firing an AIM-9B at a Chinese MiG-17 that the Communists were able to get hold of one. The missile struck the MiG’s wing but failed to detonate and became lodged inside it. The pilot flew back to his base with the missile sticking out and relatively intact. Like Red Top and Firestreak the AA-2 suffered from poor reliability and liked to chase the sun rather than an enemy plane. Most of the kills accredited to the MiG-21F-13 in Vietnam was actually a result of the aircraft’s NR-30 30mm cannon. The aircraft could also carry a variety of unguided bombs and rockets on its three pylons.
The Lightning was an aircraft designed primarily for one role and that was short ranged high speed attacks on incoming bomber formations. The MiG-21F-13 carried out the same role but was a more rounded combat aircraft in that it could more easily adopt other roles. In a dogfight neither of these aircraft had particularly good weapons aside from their guns and while the MiG-21F-13 did have a higher degree of agility the Lightning pilot was afforded a far superior weapon system meaning he could detect the MiG-21F-13 much sooner giving him greater scope with which to attack; he could decide to flee in face of superior numbers or alter his attack approach in order to ambush a MiG-21F-13 whose pilot still largely relied on the old “Mark One Eyeball” sensor. As Manfred “Red Baron Von Richtofen often said; the majority of his victims never saw him coming.