Key Point: Old, but clearly a killer.
Military aircraft can have notoriously short lifespans, especially during periods of technological ferment. The most elite aircraft of World War I could become obsolete in a matter of months. Things weren’t much different in World War II. And at the dawn of the jet age, entire fleets of aircraft became passé as technologies matured. The advanced fighters that fought in the skies over Korea became junk just a few years later.
But a few designs stand the test of the time. The B-52 Stratofortress first flew in 1952, yet remains in service today. New C-130s continue to roll off the production line, based on a design that became operational in 1954.
But those are bombers and transport aircraft; they don’t fight one another. Fighters face a special problem of longevity, because they must compete directly with newer models. Thus, very few fighters have had long lifespans, either in production or in service.
The MiG-21 “Fishbed” is an exception.
Initial suitability studies for the MiG-21 began in 1953. The success of the MiG-15 and MiG-17 suggested that Soviet aerospace engineers could compete with their Western counterparts, and with the MiG-19 the Soviets had their first supersonic fighter. However, technology changed so quickly in the first two decades of jet flight that the fighters that had dominated the Korean War were effectively obsolete by the mid-1950s. MiG-15s could cut apart a formation of B-29s, but couldn’t even catch modern American bombers. The Soviets intended the MiG-21 to change that, while also providing an effective air superiority option.
The MiG-21 (eventually dubbed “Fishbed” by NATO) would exceed Mach 2.0, with an internal cannon and the capacity to carry between two and six missiles (the Fishbed actually preceded the missiles into service). Like most fighters the MiG-21 would eventually serve in a ground attack role, in which it can carry a limited number of bombs and rockets. As with many of their fighters, the Soviets preferred to operate the MiG-21 from ground control, eliminating the need for bulky, sophisticated radar equipment.