The article by the AFP that we put up today is pretty interesting, but not for the defection, for the aircraft that was used and what it signifies. To recap the story: a Syrian pilot, Colonel Hassan Merei al-Hamade, flew a Syrian fighter jet to Jordan to defect and seek asylum (which was granted).
Sure, the politics of it are well and good, it’s atrocious what the oddly mild-looking Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is doing to his own people (he reminds me a little of Mr. Rogers, if Mr. Rogers had been a villainous evil dictator trying to retain control of his ‘Neighborhood‘ through mass puppet executions…and had a mustache).
What’s more interesting here at Flyopia.com is that someone in the world is still using Mig-21’s for purposes other than a museum pieces or target drones. And it’s not just Syria, over 20 other countries use them too! But those in charge of their Mig 21 fleet in these places had better watch out. It seems apparent that the presence of an active Mig-21 fighter wing is an indication of both non-democratic government and an indication that a populist uprising is perhaps inevitable.
Syria Isn’t The Only One
Nearly every country that uses or has used these jets are either in the process of establishing a new ruling class, or have already done so, or they are planning/hoping to remove what they have soon (whether they know it or not…like Cuba).
Here’s a quick list of other countries using Mig-21’s from 2008 (via Wikipedia):
- Bulgaria (photo in flight 2011)
- North Korea
Notice that of this list above, with the exception of a few places like India and Bulgaria, many of the countries using Mig-21’s have been in the news recently due to political instability or transition. Of course Cuba and India are not politically unstable, but I think the writing is on the wall for Cuba, post-Castro(s). And India? They’re India. No problem! (They also has a sweetheart deal to help build it a long time ago, so they don’t count.)
The Mig 21 = …? A Very Brief History
Developed by the Mikoyan company in Soviet Russia in the 1950’s, the Mig-21 took it’s maiden flight in 1955. It went into production in 1959, and was retired (mostly) in 1990. Nicknamed the ‘Fishbed’ (presumably not because it would sleep with the fishes after over water operations), it was the most-produced supersonic fighter jet in history. It’s capable of speeds over Mach 2, and altitudes over 62k feet (19k meters). It has a useful range of 981 miles (1,580 km).
It can carry just over 1k lbs of bombs, a couple of missiles, and has one internal 30-mm cannon.
I would imagine that being the most popular aircraft of it’s type, over time it’s capabilities are (were) probably the worst kept secret of the military aviation. We’re talking current use here… in the 2000’s. I mean even if your country has kept their mouths closed all this time, there is a good chance your enemy has or had their own Mig as well. Although it was a major technological prize at one point early on, it probably isn’t now (we’re also not talking about going up against First World Air Forces either).
Another interesting factoid is the plane is no stranger to defections. Here’s a quick list:
- 3 Yugoslavia/Croatia
- 1 Isreal (Operation ‘Diamond‘)
- Many were purchased by the USA
- 1 Syria (current).
So really the current case was just to make a statement about Syria, and not for the technology transfer. But why would an Air Force still use them when you can obtain almost any information on it you wish? What advantage would could anyone possible have with it?
Why? One Theory.
What is it about this airplane, with its antiquated technology, that
dictators ‘unitary republics’ love so much? It can’t be the price. The defection article quotes a cost of $25M for the jet. (A figure for which I’m shocked… perhaps they mean $1M for the plane, and $24M for maintenance?)
Certainly there are better options out there for old used, fighter jets? I did a quick eBay search and oddly enough I can’t find anything in that range like an old Mirage, or even an F-5, (one of my personal favorites). But Wikipedia does say the F-5 went for $2M each. One presumes it’s cheaper now? If so, that’s a steal!
US export restrictions aside, maybe it’s because the F-5 can’t go as fast that it might be bad for dictators? One performance advantage of the Mig-21 is it’s speed. It can do Mach 2.05 vs. the F-5’s lackluster Mach 1.6. While both numbers exceed the sound barrier, perhaps dictators like the Mig better because a Mach 2 boom is bigger? My theory being that perhaps they use the planes to go into a local town, lightly bomb it, and then do a return flyby, using the shock wave of Mach 2 to finish the job and save on munitions?
How else could it be useful? In today’s world, you’re probably not going to dominate any contested air space with this jet. You’re also not going to have much advantage if you try to invade an equal neighbor (because they probably have a Mig-21 too, and they probably know what yours can do. Really, the Internet knows what it can do as well.)
So perhaps bombing ones own defenseless people and doing a Mach 2 flyby for effect is really the best use of this jet. Perhaps that’s why these countries hang on to it?
The Harbinger of Reform
To the Syrians credit, the defection aircraft it looks great! I don’t think I’ve seen a better looking vintage aircraft except at airshows. I’m sure the Syrian Air Force workers who maintain these classics, do it for the ‘love’ of the machine (and to keep their families from execution). On the other hand, to look at recent history, if you have a current fleet of Mig 21’s, you’re probably not going to be able to use them successfully to defend your empire.
Here’s some recent examples of current users:
- Egypt: Has Mig-21’s, Mubarak was forced out anyway.
- Libya: Has Mig-21’s, Gaddafi overthrown, killed.
- Serbia: Has Mig-21’s, Milošević overthrown.
And here’s former users of the Mig-21:
- Afghanistan: Ruling class overthrown.
- Iraq: Saddam Hussein overthrown.
- Russia: Made them, government toppled.
And I’m sure there are other examples. But for now, here’s a hint to any dictator or similar regime reading this. If you still use a Mig-21 in your primary Air Force, you might start thinking about an upgrade. Might I suggest this wonderful aircraft from the Iraqi Air Force (pictured).