MiG-21 Upgrade Programmes

The aircraft was upgraded significantly over the decades, with the MiG-21bis being the first major change; this giving the aircraft a true multi-role capability.

Proposals also saw the MiG-21- 93 `Bison’ variant offered with an upgraded avionics package that included Phazotron Kopyo Pulse-Doppler radar, a helmet-mounted target designator and dual-screen Head Up Displays. The MiG-21-97 upgrade package used the superior Klimov RD-33 engine and offered improved performance and air-to-air capabilities.

In Romania the Aerostar company developed the MiG-21 `LanceR’ for air defence work and in Israel the Elbit company created a ground attack version of the LanceR, capable of smart guided munitions. Other overseas manufacturers included HAL in India, Czechoslovakia and China – the latter manufacturing the type under licence as the Chengdu J-7.

By the mid-`90s, IAF (Indian Air Force) had operated a fleet of around 300 MiG-21s, mostly in the MiG-21bis version. Despite its production in India having been completed only in 1987, the MiG-21, which dates back to the `50s, had been unable to stand its ground against up-to-date fighters by the kick-off of the new millennium. At the same time, the MiG-21 fleet could remain in service with IAF for a long time in terms of the airframe service life. In this connection, MiG Corp. in 1993 worked out a MiG-21bis upgrade programme providing for fitting the fighter with the advanced Phazotron-NIIR’s Kopyo slotted array radar, introduction of advanced missiles used by Russian fourth-generation fighters (RVV-AE and R-73E air-to-air missiles, KAB-500Kr smart bombs, etc.) and improved navigation, communication and other equipment. The programme dubbed MiG-21-93 was supported by IAF command, and a contract for the upgrade of 125 IAF MiG-21bis fighters was made on 1 March 1996. By the customer’s request, the upgraded fighter, which was designated MiG-21bis UPG Bison in India, was fitted with a French-made navigation system, Israeli-built electronic warfare kit and several Indian-produced systems in addition to the Russian-manufactured Kopyo radar, missiles and a number of other systems.

The first two IAF’s MiG-21bis fighters were upgraded in Russia by the Sokol aircraft plant in Nizhny Novgorod and delivered in December 2000 following a largescale test programme involving Russian and Indian pilots. The remaining 123 fighters were to be upgraded in India with the use of Russian-supplied knockdown kits. The first Nashik-upgraded MiG-21bis UPG flew on 31 August 2001. The knockdown kits for the MiG-21bis upgrade, including Phazotron-NIIR’s Kopyo radars, had continued until 2008 when the programme was complete. Now, we provide maintenance support for the Bisons and supply spares, since the upgraded MiG-21s are to remain in service with IAF until 2018 at the least due to the indigenous Indian LCA (Tejas) light fighter having slipped behind schedule. despite the MiG-21’s baseline model being on the verge of turning 60 soon, the upgrade enabled the Bison to be virtually on a par with the up-to-date fighters. This has been proven repeatedly by exercises attended by Indian MiG-21bis UPGs and other fighters, including Western ones. The guarantee of the Bison’s success is its top-notch flight performance recognised by pilots a long time ago, coupled with its tactical performance supported by Phazotron-NIIR’s Kopyo radar and advanced Russian made air-launched weapons.

Mention should be made that the MiG-21bis UPG programme laid the solid groundwork of the Russian-Indian cooperation in aircraft upgrade and development. An IAF MiG-29 upgrade programme is under way now, with the deliveries having started recently.

The last Russian-built MiG-21 was assembled in 1985, by which time the Gorkiy plant had produced 5,278 airframes; the Moscow factory had manufactured 3,203 and the Tbilisi facility had delivered 1,660 aircraft. In total, some 10,158 MiG-21s were produced in Russia while overseas licence production boosted the total to 11,496. Although the MiG-21 was phased out of Soviet service in the 1990s, it remains in widespread service with air arms around the world. The Indian Air Force has plans to keep its Fishbeds in service until 2025, by which time the design will be beyond the retirement age of 65! The aircraft is undoubtedly one of the Cold War sales successes and one of the bestselling Russian aircraft of all time.


Russia now offers an upgrade package to bring late-model MiG-21s up to the MiG-21-93 standard. This package provides an upgrade of the avionics suite that includes installation of the Kopyo pulse-doppler radar, smaller version of N010 Zhuk airborne radar used by the MiG-29, which enables the aircraft to fire a greater range of modern weapons such as the beyond-visual-range Vympel R-77 air-to-air missile. The upgraded avionics also enhance the aircraft’s survivability as well as its ability to engage enemy fighters. Other upgrade features include installation of a dual-screen HUD, helmet-mounted target designator and advanced flight control systems.

Specifications (Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21-93)

General characteristics

    Crew: 1

    Length: 14.5 m (47 ft 6.86 in) (with pitot)

    Wingspan: 7.154 m (23 ft 5.66 in)

    Height: 4.125 m (13 ft 6.41 in)

    Wing area: 23.0 m2 (247.3 sq ft)

    Gross weight: 8,825 kg (19,425 lb)

    Powerplant: 1 × Tumanskiy R25-300 , 40.21 kN (9,040 lbf) thrust dry, 69.62 kN (15,650 lbf) with afterburner


    Maximum speed: 2,228 km/h (1,468 mph, 1,276 kn)

    Maximum speed: Mach 2.05

    Range: 1,210 km (751 mi, 653 nmi) (internal fuel)

    Service ceiling: 17,800 m (58,400 ft)

    Rate of climb: 225 m/s (44,280 ft/min)


    1x internal 23 mm GSh-23 cannon, plus

    2x R-27R1 or R-27T or 4x Vympel R-77 or 4x R-60M or R-73E AAM or

    2x 500 kg (1,102 lbs) bombs


Single-seat 21st century version for export buyers. Made by Israel Aerospace Industries. Israel has long been noted for reducing MiG-21s to scrap, so it was a reversal of fortune to find Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) offering the MiG-21 – 2000 upgrade. This proposal was different in that it started with a structural life extension programme, which made a lot of sense, coupled with an optional increase in fuel capacity The radar offered was the Elta EDM 2032 pulse-Doppler multi-mode type, which has been claimed in some quarters to be superior to the APG-73 of the F/A-18C/D Homet, Given the restrictions in antenna diameter imposed by the shock cone, this is difficult to believe. Even with a wrap-around windshield and one-piece canopy the view from the cockpit is not all that good. It is cramped by any standards; the present writer, of average height and build, tried it for size and felt like a cork in a bottle when the canopy was lowered. On the other hand, HOTAS and two MFDs give the appearance of modernity Multi-role is the accent of the MiG-21- 2000; it can carry two EW pods and a reconnaissance pod, or three Griffin LGBs. In the air-to-air role, the standard fit is four Python 3 AAMs.

Romanian Air Force MiG-21 LanceR B

Upgraded version for the Romanian Air Force done by Elbit Systems of Israel and Aerostar SA of Romania, in 1995–2002. The LanceR A version is optimized for ground attack being able to deliver precision guided munitions of eastern and western origin as well as R-60, R-73 and Python III air-to-air missiles. The LanceR B version is the trainer version, and the LanceR C version is the air superiority version featuring 2 LCD MFDs, helmet mounted sight and the Elta EL/M-2032 Air combat radar.

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MiG-21bis-D (D = Dorađen (“Upgraded”))

Upgraded in 2003, by Aerostar SA, for the Croatian Air Force with some elements of the LanceR standard. Modernized for NATO interoperability including a Honeywell ILS (VOR/ILS and DME), a GPS receiver, a new IFF system and communications equipment from Rockwell Collins.

MiG-21UMD (D = Dorađen)

Croatian designation for four MiG-21UM upgraded for NATO interoperability, similarly to the MiG-21bis-D.

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MiG-21 Bison

Upgraded version for export, the Indian Air Force being the first customer. Equipped with the Phazotron Kopyo (Spear) airborne radar, which is capable of simultaneously tracking 8 targets and engaging 2 of them with semi-active radar homing air-to-air missiles, such as the Vympel R-27. The radar also enables the fighter to deploy active radar homing air-to-air missiles such as the Vympel R-77 when an additional channel is incorporated. Russia has claimed that this version is equivalent to the early F-16. The Indian Air Force has since then upgraded its avionics with the addition of a Helmet Mounted Sight, the ability to fire High Off-Boresight missiles like the R-73 (missile) and a Tactical Data Link, improving further its already formidable WVR Combat capability, and has performed very well even against F-15C Eagles in Cope India and Red Flag Exercises.


MiG-21-93 upgrade. MiG-21-93 re-engined with the Klimov RD-33 engine. The Russians have claimed that the evaluation at Ramenskoye Airport had shown that this version has beaten simulated F-16 in a mock dogfight with a score of 4 to 1.


MiG-MAPO followed the MiG-21-93 with the MiG-21-98, aimed at older variants, for which it is to receive a smaller radar to fit in the shock cone. This upgrade will include better avionics than the -93, and a “glass cockpit” based on that of the MiG-29SMT.

In the 21st century, a good many MiG-21s continued to be active worldwide, with the Indian fleet being the most numerous one and maintaining quite a high flight operations tempo, albeit with a poor flight safety record. The list of the other countries maintaining significant Fishbed fleets includes Vietnam and Egypt, while the type continues to serve as a NATO air defence asset with the air arms of Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. From the operational point of view, it is noteworthy that the Soviet Air Force and its Warsaw Pact allies placed great emphasis on utilizing the MiG-21’s speed, especially as a medium-to-high level point-defence interceptor, tightly controlled by GCI, while low-speed manoeuvres were banned in the frontline units. As a consequence, the type’s true manoeuvring capability and dogfighting potential in this corner of the envelope remained completely unknown to the Soviet and Warsaw Pact air arms throughout the entire service career of the Fishbed; but this otherwise little-known strength was, in fact, well-explored by some Arab operators as well as by the Indian Air Force. It is also the case that the low-speed manoeuvrability of the Fishbed in air combat was highly appreciated by US pilots serving with the secretive `Red Eagles’ squadron (officially referred to as the 4477th Test & Evaluation Squadron), which flew ex-Indonesian Air Force MiG-21F-13s in the 1970s and 1980s. The Red Eagles pilots, who had plenty of experience on the type flying as aggressors, free from the stringent operating/handling restrictions imposed on their Soviet counterparts, tended to describe the Fishbed-C’s manoeuvring characteristics and slow-speed handling as both compelling and absolutely out of the ordinary. They claimed that the MiG-21 was forgiving to fly and well capable of performing manoeuvres that contemporary US aircraft could not, at least not without their engines stalling and flaming out.