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MiG-17: Russia Built This Fighter to Take Out U.S. Bombers in a War

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The MiG-17: A Primer on What Facts You Need To Know – The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 (“Fresco”) is a mid-century fighter craft made to intercept straight-and-level fly enemy bombers. Designed to replace the MiG-15 of the Korean War, the MiG-17 is an upgraded version correcting the weaknesses the MiG-15 faced at higher speeds. The plane was well-known across the world, with up thirty countries flying it in their air forces, and up to 11,000 (original and licensed versions) produced.

Despite first flying in 1950 and beginning production in 1951, the MiG-17 did not fly in the Korean War due to insufficient quantities being available. But its first operational action was not far off, both chronologically and geographically, as Chinese communist MiG-17’s squared off with Taiwanese F-86 Sabres over the Taiwan Strait in 1958.

Perhaps for what the MiG-17 is best remembered, however, is its operation by the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War, where the plane served as a defensive interceptor. The VPAF (North Vietnamese Air Force) trained on MiG-17s in nearby China before returning to form the first MiG-17 regiment in February 1964.

Despite the United States Air Force (USAF) flying superior aircraft over North Vietnam, the USAF found that their kill ratio relative to the MiG-17 and MiG-21 to be a paltry 2:1. Indeed, during the conflict, two old, subsonic MiG-17s shot down Mach-2 F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers. Although facing obsolescence, these planes performed well by the top North Vietnamese pilots flying them.

Beyond Vietnam, almost all Warsaw Pact countries operated the MiG-17 by the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. In addition, China (which license-produced it as the Shenyang J-5), Afghanistan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Cuba, Indonesia, and Cambodia all operated the fighter. Even today, the MiG-17 still flies in the air forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Mali, Madagascar, Sudan, Tanzania and North Korea.

Compared to the MiG-15, the MiG-17 has more sharply swept wings, a longer fuselage, afterburners, and better speed and handling characteristics. Its single Klimov VK-1F engine was an upgraded copy of the Rolls Royce Nene, the “F” denoting the addition of simple afterburners and a variable nozzle.

Armaments consisted of one 37-millimeter autocannon and two 23-millimeter autocannons. The craft could also carry up to 1,100 pounds of bombs on two external pylons, but these pylons were often used for additional fuel tanks. Without the additional tanks, the Mig-17’s range was limited to 510 miles. With external tanks equipped, this more than doubled to 1,160 miles. That said, North Vietnamese pilots did at least once equip the MiG-17 with bombs, targeting US Naval assets.

Though not originally equipped with radar, later variants such as the MiG-17P (“Fresco B”) added this feature. Later variants also allowed for arming the plane with four AA-1 “Alkali” radar-guided missiles.

Given that the MiG-17’s primary purpose was to intercept enemy bombers, the USAF’s development of supersonic bombers eventually made the MiG-17 obsolete.

But before that time, the thousands on thousands produced found homes across the world making this one of the mid-20th century’s most iconic 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.


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