Shootout: Who makes better weapons

Russia vs US in military technologies. Rakesh Krishnan Simha explores advantages and shortcomings of American and Russian weapons tested in a number of war conflicts.

The time: 2 pm, December 22, 1971. The place: Jamnagar, a city on the west coast of India. One of the most eagerly awaited dogfights in aviation history is about to take place. The Americans have supplied their ally Pakistan with the most advanced fighter aircraft in their inventory, the F-104 Starfighter, while the Indians have opted for the Russian MiG-21. It will be the first aerial combat between mach 2 (twice thespeed of sound) aircraft.

Two F-104’s of the Pakistan Air Force enter Indian air space for an attack on a forward airbase in the western Indian city of Jamnagar. As the first Pakistani aircraft dives in towards the airfield, a patrolling MiG-21 pilot spots the attacking aircraft and gets after him.

Observing the MiG on his tail, the Pakistani F-104 breaks off the attack, turns and tries to shake off its pursuer. However, the Indian pilot pulls the MiG-21 into a tighter turn well inside the enemy plane and launches an air-to-air missile. It misses.

In the meantime, the pilot of the second Pakistani Starfighter, the wingman, sees another MiG-21 turning towards him. Realising he’s up against a much superior aircraft, he makes his escape.

His captain, however, is not so lucky. He attempts to get away using sheer speed but realises the MiG-21 is equally fast. The chase now takes them over the shark-infested waters of the Arabian Sea. Instead of using his missiles, the Indian pilot takes aim with his cannon and fires a long burst. Wise decision – flashes on the F-104’s metallic surface indicate a direct hit. Seconds later the American-built aircraft spins out of control and crashes into the sea.

The Indians send out rescue boats but the pilot is not found. At that speed when you hit the water’s surface it’s like hitting concrete.

The result of that dogfight led aviation experts to pass the verdict: the best Russian interceptor was better than the best American attack aircraft.

You won’t find mention of such encounters in the Western media for obvious reasons. Fed on a steady diet of Pentagon press releases and sometimes working as embedded reporters in war zones, most Western journalists are not able to make informed judgments. They suffer in another way – you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Employment in corporate America means you can’t afford to write anything that will portray American defence equipment as anything less than exemplary. End result: objectivity is tossed out the window.


Designed to work

Russian weapons are meant to work – they are workhorses. In 1958, before Western corporate interests and journalism became bedfellows, here’s what TIME magazine wrote: “Russian weapons are generally simpler in design and more mobile. For too long the West believed that the Soviets made simple weapons because they were too unsophisticated to make complex ones. Now the West realizes that the simplicity bespeaks a high state of engineering skill.”

A classic case is that of the MiG-25 Foxbat mach 3 interceptor. Designed to combat the American Valkyrie bomber that never materialised, it became a major scare word among NATO pilots throughout the 1970s. The chief reason was the Foxbat could fly faster and climb higher – often to the edge of space – than any Western aircraft. It was a mystery in the West until 1976 when a defector flew a MiG-25 to Japan.

When the US National Air & Space Intelligence Center dismantled the aircraft they found the on-board avionics were based on vacuum-tube technology rather than solid-state electronics. There was derisive laughter in the Pentagon when they came to know the Russians were using outdated technology in their most advanced aircraft.

But the Americans continued to deliberate why the Russians were using vacuum tubes. It took them many years to find out that the person who had designed the Foxbat was as clever as a fox. With the vacuum tubes the MiG-25’s radar had enormous power to burn through – that is, it was invulnerable to – any electronic jamming. And, the Pentagon generals were devastated to know, the vacuum tubes made the aircraft’s systems resistant to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP, about which the Russians knew long before the West did), meaning that in the event of a nuclear war the Foxbat would be the only – yes the only – aircraft flying on the planet.

Today, 45 years after its first flight, the Foxbat remains the world’s fastest fighter – able to outrun every Western fighter that has been in service. Ever.

Patriot: Overhyped and underwhelming

Nobody is arguing that Western weapons platforms are inferior. On the contrary, the legendary U-2 and SR-71 spy planes and the B-52 bomber are a testament to the engineering skills of designers at American defence companies.

But take the Patriot missile that was known as the Scud-buster during the 1991 Gulf War for its ‘record’ against Iraqi Scud missiles. If you watched CNN those days you will recall American reporters, executives at Raytheon which made the Patriot, and US Army generals jumping up and down on TV describing a near 100 percent kill rate. According to them, US and Israeli Patriot batteries were downing the Scuds like boys shooting ducks in a video game.

Here’s what really happened. On April 7, 1992 Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Reuven Pedatzur of Tel Aviv University testified before a US House Committee that according to their independent analysis of video tapes, the Patriot system very likely had a zero success rate. Let’s hear that again: a zero success rate.

Pedatzur is no armchair analyst. He is a retired fighter-pilot of the Israel Air Force, with 22 years flying experience. He quotes none other than Major General Avihu Ben-Nun, the direct commander of the Patriot batteries during the war.

Ben-Nun testifies that on the night of January 25, 1991, seven Iraqi missiles were fired at Israel – six at Tel Aviv and one at Haifa. No fewer than 27 Patriots were launched that night; not a single Iraqi missile was hit. Worse, the Patriots hit the ground and caused collateral damage.

US President George H. Bush, a former CIA spy, speaking to workers at Raytheon’s plant, utilised some of his propaganda skills. He claimed the Patriots had a 97 percent success rate. Ben Nun’s testimony proves Bush was lying. “The reports about the Patriot's success during the war – while the originators of those reports knew them to be incorrect – should be viewed within the realm of psychological warfare,” says Ben Nun.

So much for the Patriot’s prowess!


The perils of pork

The above analysis illustrates a key difference between Western and Russian weapons platforms. Western, in particular American, weapons are treated as corporate crown jewels. Since they bring in profits to the companies, who often have politicians in their pocket, they are too big to fail even if they are ineffectual in war or outdated. This is known as pork.

The ultimate case of pork is the F-16 Falcon fighter-bomber. This 1970s origin aircraft is built from parts manufactured in no less than 46 American states. It is truly the case of a plane that won’t be allowed to die because too many political careers rest on its aging airframe. Earlier this year, the Americans tried to peddle it in New Delhi but mercifully for the Indian Air Force (IAF) it was shot down. Days later, the US ambassador to India resigned, revealing the close nexus between America’s political class and its arms industry.

America’s newest toy is the F-22 Raptor, the ‘fifth generation’ stealth fighter. It was designed during the last years of the Cold War to keep up with advances in Soviet fighter technology, but while the Soviet Union walked into the sunset, the plane was cleared for take-off anyway. Each of these planes costs $361 million and around 700 were planned although production was limited to 185. It is perhaps the only American aircraft in history that the politicians want to be built whereas the generals, normally known to have an insatiable appetite for weapons, have said please no more. It’s easy to see why – the Raptor was developed for the defence of the continental United States, and currently the only country that has bombers that can reach the US is Russia, which is by no yardstick an enemy country. Despite its horrendously expensive price tag, the US Air Force (USAF) doesn’t have the nerve to test the F-22 in combat.

The Israeli-Syrian air war -1983

Much has been written about the Israeli Air Force’s near wipe-out of the Russian-armed Syrian Air Force in the 1983 air battle over Lebanon. What really happened? The most important factor in any war is morale, which springs from training. It is universally known the Israeli Defence Forces are highly motivated because the country’s very survival depends on hanging on in a very dangerous region, surrounded by countries that openly call for its destruction.

In contrast, the Syrian pilots would hardly be called air aces – not by a long shot. During the war, the Israelis used a whole lot of innovative combat strategies; for instance they looped across the Mediterranean Sea and came up from behind the Syrians, thereby surprising their ground radar and pilots. Worse, the poorly trained Syrian pilots panicked as warning beeps went off inside their cockpits, indicating that Israeli fighter aircraft had got a radar lock on them. Many Syrian pilots hastily ejected instead of putting up a fight. Those that held their nerve, performed admirably against huge odds – the Israeli war machine is a behemoth.

Yom Kippur War - 1973

In this bitterly fought Middle East war the most decisive new weapon was the Russian SA-6 surface-to-air missile. The Israelis encountered it on the Sinai front while their US built F-4 Phantom and Skyhawk jets were attempting to knock out the pontoon bridges placed across the Suez Canal by the Egyptians. In the first two days of fighting, 40 Israeli planes were shot down near the canal, most of them by SA-6 batteries. The missile was equally devastating over the Golan Heights, protecting the Syrians and exacting a heavy toll of F-4 Phantom and Skyhawks. The missile batteries were manned by a Russian crew.


Gulf War -1991

Similarly, in the first Gulf War, Iraqi T-72 crews performed pretty dismally. In his book Inside the Great Tanks, military writer Hans Halberstadt quotes Marc Sehring of the Patton Tank Museum, Fort Knox, Kentucky, “If the crews were equally well-trained (and that's really the key ingredient) the T-72 would probably have been the winner.” Remember, the T-72 was developed in the 1970s while its main American rival in the Gulf War, the M1, was a whole new generation ahead of it.

Indians show the world how to fight

In striking contrast, in the hands of a motivated fighting force, Russian weapons do precisely what they are meant to – win wars. In a daring move during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, the Indian Navy’s Russian-built missile boats dodged the American built Pakistani Navy ships and attacked Karachi harbour, setting fire to the tanker farms – the city burned for a week. In the same war, a Russian built Indian destroyer, INS Rajput, depth charged a hunter killer submarine of the Pakistan Navy, the Ghazi, off the eastern Indian port of Visakhapatnam. The American built sub went down with its crew and was later lifted from the sea by the Indian Navy. However, later to avoid embarrassing the Americans, the sub was allowed to sink.

Gwalior air combat

Among the most blogged and debated incidents in military aviation are the Cope India air combat exercises between the IAF and the USAF. 

In Cope India 2004 that took place near the central Indian airbase of Gwalior, US Air Force F-15s were eliminated in multiple exercises against the IAF’s licence-built MiG-21s and MiG-27s. Observe that the Indian MiGs are a generation older than the American ones.

When word of the results reached Washington, it caused considerable uproar – and heartburn. American Congressmen and military observers – who continue to see India through Cold War lenses – quickly attempted to dismiss the results claiming that the USAF did not bring its true ‘go-to-war-gear’ to these exercises.

However, in an interview to Aviation Week, Maj. Mark A. Snowden, the USAF 3rd Wing's chief of air-to-air tactics and a participant in Cope India 2004, said the USAF underestimated the Indians. “The outcome of the exercise boils down to the fact that they ran tactics that were more advanced than we expected,” he said.


When questioned on the capabilities of IAF pilots, Col Greg Newbech, the USAF Team Leader, said: “What we’ve seen in the last two weeks is the IAF can stand toe-to-toe with best air force in the world. I pity the pilot who has to face the IAF and chances the day to underestimate him; because he won’t be going home.”

Those who continued to claim it was a one-off freakshow got a bigger jolt the following year at the Cope India 2005. Held at the Kalaikundi air base in eastern India, this time the Indians finally brought their latest Russian acquisition, the Sukhoi-30 MKIs. To avoid rivalry between the two air forces, this time the exercises had mixed teams of Indian and American pilots. Yet in a large number of encounters, particularly between the American F-16s and the Sukhoi-30 MKIs, the Indian pilots came out winner.

Jasjit Singh of the New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies said in an interview to the Christian Science Monitor: “Since the Cold War, there has been the general assumption that India is a third-world country with Soviet technology, and wherever Soviet-supported equipment went, it didn’t perform well. That myth has been blown by the results.”

Stealth technology

Pentagon generals and Western armchair strategists are known to boast about the range of stealth aircraft in the American armoury, against which the Russians have no match apparently. Well, first off, stealth technology is not an American invention. The entire idea, concept and theory of stealth aircraft was fully developed in Russia years before the Americans came to know about it.

The reason why Moscow did not go ahead with development of a stealth bomber was simply because it wasn’t needed. Russian plans to attack the continental United States involved strategic Tupolev-160 Blackjack bombers coming in over the North Pole and firing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles at American cities from international airspace.

On the other hand, Russia’s cities are deep inside the territory of its vast Eurasian landmass. But more crucially the Soviet Union, which was obsessed with security because of the Nazi invasion, had deployed no less than 30,000 surface-to-air missiles to defend against invading aircraft and cruise missiles. Nothing less than a stealth aircraft could penetrate these defences.

Or could it? During the 78-day NATO bombing of tiny Serbia, the Serbian air defence unit armed with a 1960s vintage Pechora SA-3 surface to air missile shot down a stealth F-117 Nighthawk fighter. Incredibly, as all hell broke loose around them, amidst all the radio chatter, the Serbs were able to pick the pilot who had days earlier bombed a children’s hospital.

Korean War: Chinese experience

Hardly anyone remembers that the Chinese armed with Russian tanks and aircraft soundly thrashed General Douglas MacArthur’s Western forces, resulting in a hasty call for ceasefire by the US. At any rate, without a Chinese push the northern half of Korea would have been in American hands.


Korean War: MiG-15 vs F-86 and B-29

A community of former F-86 pilots and airmen from the Korean War aided by armchair analysts initially claimed a 10-to-1 kill ratio against the MiG-15, a myth that lasted over 30 years. As new data were released, that came down to 7-to-1, and now it’s 2-to-1.

The MiG-15 was a much superior fighter than the F-86 in terms of speed and altitude. The only factor that can explain the ratio is pilot proficiency. Chinese and Korean pilots don’t have a history of dogfight proficiency. But the ratio changed when Russian WWII veterans joined combat. Flying the MiG-15 over Korea, the Russian pilots accounted for a better than 1:1 kill ratio against American WWII veterans flying their F-86 Sabres.

In fact, the MiG-15 relegated the American B-29 Superfortress bomber obsolete. Even when accompanied by F-86 fighter escorts, MiGs inflicted such appalling losses on Superfortress formations that daylight B-29 strategic bombing over Korea had to be halted – the MiG ended American air supremacy.

Blackbird grounding mystery

No comparison of Russian and Western weapons would be complete without looking into the sudden retirement of the stealth SR-71 spy plane. Nicknamed Blackbird for its distinctive black silhouette, it could fly higher and faster than any aircraft in the world. For nearly two decades, it flew unopposed clicking images over Vietnam, Cuba, Libya and any country the US targeted as an enemy before the CIA suddenly retired it.

While no reason was ever put out by the spooks at the agency, defence experts cite the development of the MiG-31 Foxhound as a key factor. When you retire a plane that is able to outrun everything, it perhaps has something to do with the fact that on June 3, 1986 over the Barents Sea six MiG-31s performed a co-ordinated intercept against an SR-71. The aerial pincer simulated an all-angle AAM attack that the Blackbird’s high speed, high altitude and ECM capability could not have defeated. The rattled American pilots took off; the SR-71 was never seen near Russian borders after that incident.


Pentagon propaganda

American attrition – whether of men or machines – in war is almost always accidental. The US wouldn’t deign to admit that a third-world nation is able to take out a US aircraft or tank. Hundreds of American soldiers have perished in Afghanistan and Iraq after the Taliban or resistance fighters downed helicopters but the Pentagon describes virtually every single incident as a crash.

What about that USAF F-15E Strike Eagle that went down in Libya on March 19, 2011? Predictably, the Americans said it was a crash. However, information is filtering out through unofficial sources that it was very likely downed by ground fire from a heavily armed Libyan air defence regiment. Now the Americans say the cause was “lead ingestion”. That surely wins the euphemism of the year award.

Both the Syrians and Iraqis have downed F-15s using Russian aircraft, and many independent military observers, including several American, assert that is true, but the Pentagon continues to deny their No.1 dogfight duke (the F-22 is kept away from combat because of a whole lot of problems) is vulnerable.


Bill Sweetman and Bill Gunston are counted among the world’s leading weapons experts. More than 25 years ago, they demolished the stereotype about Soviet weapons being technologically backward in comparison with Western ones. According to them, while the Soviet civilian economy was a command one producing average quality consumer goods, the military bureaus had to face real competition from each other, leading to cutting edge weapons that were far ahead of anything the West could come up with. Sweetman and Gunston write, “In the entire history of the human race, there has never been a fighting machine as formidable and terrifying as the air and rocket forces of the Soviet Union.”

The bottomline: in a combat situation if the military is well trained and motivated, Russian weapons will most likely carry the day. And you can take that to the bank.

Finally, and this would be amusing if it were not so tragic, the designers of the F-104 Starfighter used a downward-firing ejection seat, presenting a frightening conundrum for pilots in low-altitude escapes. Some 21 fighter pilots failed to escape their stricken aircraft in low-level emergencies because of it.

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