The MiG-21 is one of the world’s most popular fighter jets, with nearly 60 countries across four continents having operated it. It still serves several countries seven decades after it first took to the skies.
In the Southeast Asian region, the MiG-21, also called the ‘Fishbed’ by NATO, proved to be a formidable adversary for the US Air Force (USAF), mainly because of its agility.
The USAF lost a staggering 50 aircraft approx to MiG-21s, although the service also scored 68 kills against MiG-21s in aerial combat. Overall, the record of the North Vietnamese MiG-21s is said to stand at 78 kills and 95 losses in aerial combat during the Vietnam War, according to some estimates.
The Fishbed was also pitted against the legendary B-52 Stratofortress bombers used in the USAF’s strategic bombing campaign, Operation Linebacker II, against North Vietnam, in December 1972.
As EurAsian Times reported earlier, several of the B-52s used in Linebacker II were downed by the Soviet-made S-75 Dvina operated by the North Vietnamese air defense units.
North Vietnam’s missile gunners are said to have downed fifteen B-52s, with six bombers shot down in one night. However, the Vietnamese records have at least one of these B-52s shot down by a North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilot.
North Vietnamese Air Force (NVNAF) MiG-21 pilot Pham Tuan is said to have successfully downed a B-52 bomber on December 27, 1972, the ninth day of the 11-day bombing campaign.
B-52 Vs. MiG-21
Lieutenant General Pham Tuan, while recalling the USAF’s bombing campaign, noted that each B-52 bomber was equipped with dozens of jamming devices and 20mm guns to counter MiG-21s.
Tuan further noted that the USAF had employed around 1,000 tactical aircraft equipped with jamming devices, including the F-111A ground attack aircraft and EB-66, which were used to suppress enemy air defense (SEAD) operations, EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft, and EC-121 AWACS.
According to Tuan, the US military had also jammed the entire operational area, and the USAF prioritized attacks on the airport and deployed fighters to prevent Vietnamese MiG-21s from approaching B-52s.
Tuan belonged to the Regiment 921 of the North Vietnamese air force, which is said to have established a night flight team in 1967 to train and devise ways to shoot down B52 at night.
Also, according to the Vietnamese newspaper VN Express, Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1969, tasked the then Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army, Phung The Tai, with devising a strategy to counter B-52s.
So, overall, it would seem that the North Vietnamese armed forces were focused on the threat posed by USAF’s B-52 bombers.
In 1970, Pham Tuan was transferred from MiG-17 to MiG-21 pilot and offered training to shoot down B-52 at night.
However, Tuan recalls that the Vietnamese air force faced difficulties in approaching the B-52s, mainly because of the jamming by the bombers and the USAF F-4 Phantom, which served as the MiG Combat Air Patrol (MiGCAP) for the bombing campaigns.
These F-4s would also dispense the dense chaff blanket necessary to shield the B-52s from enemy radar.
For example, on December 18, the first night of Operational Linebacker II, Tuan took off in his MiG-21 from Da Phuc Airfield, turned around at a low altitude, headed to Hoa Binh, and went up to an altitude of about four kilometers, where he detected several signal lights of F-4s.
According to Tuan’s claims, he passed the F-4 formation, after which he turned right to the west and approached a B-52 formation. He flew up to six kilometers and, after detecting the lights of the B-52, turned on the booster and switched on the search radar.
At that moment, he was detected and followed by several F-4s, and his radar screen was jammed. Tuan tried to avoid F-4s and was asked to fly back to Da Phuc Airport.
Nevertheless, the Vietnamese Air Force kept trying and approaching B-52 formations to at least disrupt them to create favorable conditions for air defense troops to hit these targets.
MiG-21 Scored A Kill Against The B-52D?
On December 27, Tuan is said to have made history by finally scoring a kill against a B-52. As per his recollections in István Toperczer’s book MiG Aces of the Vietnam War, at 22:20 hours, Tuan was ordered to take off from Yen Bai.
He rose through the low heavy cloud layer at 200-300 meters, where he found F-4s. At the same time, Tuan was getting information that the B-52s were approaching Moc Chau, and the GCI at Son La and Moc Chau were constantly updating him on the distance of the bombers: 60 kilometers, 50 kilometers, and 40 kilometers.
Tuan jettisoned the fuel tank and climbed to 7,000 meters while applying the throttle to increase the speed. He also had to be mindful of the F-4s escorting the bombers.
He then saw a yellow light in front of him, after which he turned left to 40 degrees, increased his speed to 1,200 kilometers per hour, and ascended further up to a 10,000 meters altitude where the B-52s were cruising.
Tuan radioed to the command, “I have the target in sight, tally target, request order for the attack.” The GCI responded: “You have permission to fire twice and escape quickly.”
The Bombers held formation, maintaining roughly two to three kilometers of separation. Tuan made last-minute checks on his missiles, and after reaching the level of the third B-52, he fired two heat-seeking missiles from a distance of two kilometers.
As per Tuan’s claims, B-52 was observed in flames when he had made a sharp turn to the left and descended 2,000 meters before landing at Yen Bai. The rest of the formation of B-52s “immediately dropped their load and returned to base.”
Reports suggest the B-52 Tuan purportedly shot down belonged to Capt. John O. Mize was flying his fourth Linebacker II mission on the night of December 27.
However, according to the USAF, Capt Mize’s B-52D bomber (56-0599) was struck by a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM), and there is not a single loss of B-52 that the service has attributed to MiG-21.