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Russia’s MiG-15: Did It Truly Change the Game Against the U.S. Air Force?

Image: Creative Commons.

Yes, of course, today, the MiG-15 seems old and completely obsolete when compared to the F-22, F-35, and even Russia‘s latest stealth fighters. Nonetheless, the MiG-15 did make some serious Cold War history, as this expert author explained: As the Korean War began in 1950, the United States used its B-29 Superfortress piston-fired bomber to great effect. A champion of World War II, the craft would run standard strategic bombing runs during the day, knocking out North Korean targets with relative ease.

Then, one day, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 showed up in the skies. With the NATO designation “Fagot,” this single-seat, single-engine jet fighter was the first “all-new” Soviet jet aircraft, meaning the design did not simply tack on a jet engine to an older piston-engine airframe.

MiG-15 Built on German Technology 

Acting on German research captured by both the Americans and the Soviets at the end of World War II, the new MiG employed 35-degree swept-back wings, making it the first fighter to add the technology to its planes. Along with the addition of tail fins and horizontal stabilizers, these new features allowed the craft to handle well as it approached speeds near Mach 1.

Its engine was a revamped Rolls Royce Nene, renamed the Klimov RD-45. When British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, agreed to allow the licensing of the engine in the USSR, the Americans understandably threw a fit. It is reported that even Stalin could not believe the Brits would so easily give up the technology. In exchange for a promise by the Soviets that the technology would be used strictly for non-military purposes it was released. When later raising the issue with the Soviets, the Soviets claimed that the minor tweaks they made to the engine used in the MiG-15 were essentially domestic innovations and thus not subject to the prior agreement.

The introduction of the MiG-15 to the skies over North Korea quickly caused havoc for both the B-29s and the Lockheed F-80s escorting the bombers. Appearing on November 30, the new fleet of MiG-15s attacked an American formation with such speed the planes could not be identified. F-80s tried a half-hearted pursuit, but the MiGs were gone almost as soon as they appeared.

Defensive bomber-interceptors, these planes carried two 23-millimeter guns and one 37-millimeter gun firing exploding shells, adding firepower to speed.

As soon as Korea began flying the MiG-15s, the United States rushed the F-86 Sabre to the theater. This move, alongside additional study of the MiG’s weaknesses, allowed the United State to re-establish air dominance. Nonetheless, following devastating losses in November 1951, the B-29 would continue to bomb only at night when not threatened by MiG interceptors, demonstrating the impact this craft had even after the air dominance was regained.

MiG-15 Weakpoints 

Despite its positive traits, the MiG-15 also had its weaknesses. For example, it was discovered the plane had a strong tendency to spin out of control while flying at certain speeds. There were also reports that the fighter was not stable as a gun platform.

Many of these issues were addressed in the MiG-17, the follow-on to the MiG-15. Though that plane was never used in Korea, it was later deployed to some effect in the Vietnam War.

In all, including licensed production, roughly 15,000 MiG-15s were produced, with the craft flying in the air forces of 35 countries.

And although the kill-ratio between the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre in Korea is still disputed, what is certain is that the release of the MiG-15 ushered in a period of renewed urgency in the global competition between jet fighter aircraft.

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review

Written By

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.