Warfare History Network
Whose fighter was better?
Key point: The Vietnam War saw many confrontations between the best of Western and Soviet technology.
During the protracted air war in the skies over Vietnam, two fighter interceptor and air superiority planes emerged as the most prominent aircraft of their type. These were the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom and the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21. When these supersonic fighters met in combat, the skills of the individual pilots and sometimes sheer luck were often the deciding factors, and more than 40 years after the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War debate continues as to the accuracy of kill ratios and claims made by both the sides.
Interestingly, though they were common adversaries, the appearances of the Phantom and the MiG-21 could scarcely have been more different. The big, burly Phantom weighed nearly 19 tons, while the MiG-21 weighed slightly less than 10 tons. The Phantom was 63 feet long with a wingspan of more than 38 feet. The MiG-21 with a much smaller profile and more nimble appearance stretched just under 48 feet in length, and its wingspan was just under 24 feet. Both aircraft were capable of speeds of at least Mach 2.
Relative Strengths & Weaknesses
The MiG-21 was typically armed with air-to-air missiles such as the AA-2 Atoll and a 23mm internal cannon. The Phantom was often armed with the AIM-7 Sparrow or AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Each was capable of carrying a bomb load as well. Early Phantoms deployed to Vietnam were armed only with missiles. Lacking a cannon, these fighters were often at a disadvantage in dogfights with the MiG-21 and other Soviet- and Chinese-manufactured fighter aircraft. Later models were equipped with an internal 20mm M61 Vulcan internal rotary cannon. The Phantom held the edge with multiple missiles, often up to eight, while the MiG-21 carried only two.
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