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The F-4 Phantom vs. the MiG-21

Military History

The F-4 Phantom vs. the MiG-21

Although their attributes were considerably different, the F-4 Phantom and MiG-21 fighters were lethal adversaries in the skies over Vietnam.

Although their attributes were considerably different, the F-4 Phantom and MiG-21 fighters were lethal adversaries in the skies over Vietnam.

by Michael Haskew

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.

Although their attributes were considerably different, the F-4 Phantom and MiG-21 fighters were lethal adversaries in the skies over Vietnam.

The MiG-21 remains an active combat aircraft to this day. Here, an active and equipped Indian MiG-21 sits at an airbase.

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.

The performance of each aircraft demonstrated relative strengths and weaknesses. The agile MiG-21 was deadly in a turn, and its silhouette was difficult to acquire visually at any great distance. The heavy F-4 was known for jet engines that produced a great deal of smoke, adding to the ease of identification at a distance due to its large size. The MiG-21 was generally considered more maneuverable, while the Phantom was well-armed with missiles and more lethal with the addition of the cannon. The MiG-21 was designed as a short-range interceptor, and the Phantom was a long-range aircraft.

Although their attributes were considerably different, the F-4 Phantom and MiG-21 fighters were lethal adversaries in the skies over Vietnam.

This Czechoslovakian MiG-21R prepares for a landing. After the end of the Cold War and the subsequent break-up of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia both received the aging fighters of their communist legacy, retiring them in 2005 and 2003 respectively.

The Phantom Retires, but the MiG Still Soars the Skies

The Phantom was produced in multiple variants and became a primary component of the air superiority, fighter bomber, reconnaissance, and radar jamming air complements of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Developed during the 1950s, it entered service in 1960, and nearly 5,200 were produced during a 30-year run from 1958 to 1981. Its combat service included engagements from the Vietnam era through Operation Desert Storm and beyond. The Phantom has been operated by the air forces of at least a dozen nations, and many remain in service. The U.S. military retired the Phantom from combat use in 1996.

The MiG-21, identified as the Fishbed in NATO nomenclature, was a continuation of the MiG fighter series that originated in the late 1940s. The MiG-21 entered service in 1959, and more than 11,000 in various configurations were completed when production ended in 1985. One of the most widely distributed export fighter aircraft in history, the MiG-21 remains active with many countries.

Although their attributes were considerably different, the F-4 Phantom and MiG-21 fighters were lethal adversaries in the skies over Vietnam.

The F-4 Phantom was America’s iconic dogfighter in the Vietnam War. It was retired from the U.S. Military in 1996.

Originally Published July 20, 2015

Updated February 7, 2017

Add Your Comments


  1. WC McLeod
    Posted August 12, 2015 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    This article needs some editing:

    In paragraph 5 “and radar jamming” should be deleted and replaced with “defense suppression and drone.” I am not aware of any F-4 in any air force that was ever used as a “Jamming Platform.” Two F-4 models (F-4C Wild Weasel and F-4G Wild Weasel) operated as active Defense Suppression aircraft in the USAF. The QF-4 Drone is still operating in the USAF.

    Paragraph 3 should be modified to indicate that while the early F-4 Models did not carry an internal gun they could, and did, carry an external gun pod, and that it was used (at times) in early flights over North Vietnam.

    The comment in paragraph 3 “often at a disadvantage in dog fights” is BS. When fought correctly the F-4 was at least equal to the MIG-21. The only time it was as at disadvantage was when it was loaded with Bombs and flying an Interdiction Mission — which is what most F-4’s did over North Vietnam — and a MIG-21 showed up at 6 O’Clock. The F-4 MIGCAPs and F-4 Weasels certainly did not have any problem with the Migs.

    • ralph fife
      Posted February 1, 2016 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      fighting the F-4 properly meant keeping it at or above 450 as below that it would bleed off too fast even in burner.. Once our guys got up to speed using the F4 to fight in the vertical and keep its energy up yielded good results against the Mig. But the Mig was a pretty little short range day interceptor for sure… I agree with your jamming comment although all A/C over the North had self-protection jamming. At least the strike aircraft did. ALQ stuff for the Navy. Navy equipped about all its strike A/C to carry shrike and some to also carry STD-ARM radar homers. The A6B in particular carried the STD-ARM missile and the AWG-21 weapon system to control it. Air Force went in more for specialist units as the mission required very large bawls and very good stick and WSO skills. take it easy. nice comment.

  2. Posted February 16, 2017 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    In 1972, an F-4 piloted by Maj. Phil Handley shot down a MiG-19 with his plane’s gun?—?the only recorded aerial gun kill performed at supersonic speed.

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