Cold War Era

Ambush! How IAF F-4s and Mirage IIIs acting as Reconnaissance Aircraft Lured into Combat Egyptian MiGs

With a mixed formation of F-4s leading and Mirage IIIs trailing, the two-seat fighter bombers, with their powerful radar system and two-man crew, acted as the Mirage III pilots’ eyes.

F-4s and Mirage IIIs Vs MiG-21s.

The American-manufactured F-4 Phantom II was used by the Israelis in air-to-ground missions, as an attack aircraft and in air-to-air missions as a fighter.

The arrival of the F-4 allowed the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to introduce innovative new mixed formation tactics which fully exploited Kurnass (Sledgehammer, as the Phantom II was known to the IAF) and Mirage III capabilities in ‘planned’ air combats. Israeli air combat superiority resulted in the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) avoiding engagements with IAF fighters during the undeclared War of Attrition, except on favorable terms. These included intercepting inferior IAF attack aircraft or bombers deep inside Egypt, or engaging Israeli aircraft far from home and low on fuel.

To draw Egyptian fighter pilots into combat, the Israelis had to prepare special ambushes. This in turn meant evolving levels of complexity and ingenuity to maintain deception in the face of Egyptian counter tactics. As explained by Shlomo Aloni in his book Israeli F-4 Phantom II Aces, with a mixed formation of F-4s leading and Mirage IIIs trailing, the two-seat fighter bombers, with their powerful radar system and two-man crew, acted as the Mirage III pilots’ eyes, but only after visual contact was made.

At noon on Jul. 30, 1970 four IAF four-ship fighter formations ambushed Soviet MiG-21s operating over Egypt. The bait was provided by four Mirage IIIs imitating the flight profile of a high-altitude reconnaissance mission. Two four-ship combat air patrols lurking at low altitude below the coverage of Egyptian radar represented the main force to spring the trap, while a fourth formation of four was on immediate readiness at Refidim air base in Sinai. Each formation of proven MiG killers came from a different squadron, for this was no ordinary mission. The objective was to shoot down as many MiGs as possible, which is why only the best pilots were selected to participate in what was considered a team effort. Indeed, many of the pilots flying as wingmen were leaders in the own units, as well as being MiG killers.

The contribution of the IAF F-4E Kurnass force to this effort was a No 69 Sqn four-ship formation led by unit CO, Avihu Ben-Nun, and his navigator Shaul Levi. On his wing flew Aviem Sella and navigator Reuven Reshef. Both pilots were already MiG killers, although their navigators were not. Ben-Nun had been credited with two victories flying a Mirage III while Sella had claimed the second Kurnass kill on Feb. 8, 1970. Now they were flying as one of the mission’s two main CAPs.

The ruse worked well. Expecting to engage two unarmed reconnaissance Mirage IIIs flying straight and level at high altitude, the Soviet MiG-21 pilots actually met four fully armed delta fighters. The hunters became the hunted, and soon the first MiG-21 went down. Its pilot ejected, and instead of free-falling from high altitude and then opening his parachute, the Russian’s canopy unfurled just seconds after he had left his fighter. Descending slowly earthwards as the engagement was played out around him, the MiG-21 pilot acted as a ‘beacon’ for the Israelis. Whenever a pilot had to indicate his position during the combat, he would report, ‘five miles south of the parachutist’.

It is generally accepted that four four-ship Soviet MiG-21 formations were scrambled to engage the Israeli ‘reconnaissance’ mission, and that they approached the air combat sector after the remaining main force CAPs were vectored to engage. One of the MirageIIIs suffered a technical malfunction and had to abort the mission, the leader escorting him to Refidim, from where the readiness pilots were scrambled as a substitute.

In the ensuing air combat Ben-Nun and Sella each shot down a MiG-21, the former, in Kurnass 105, chasing a MiG-21 which was flying west towards the Nile Valley at low altitude. First they launched an AIM-9 Sidewinder, which failed to even slow the MiG down despite exploding near to the target. Levi then achieved a radar lock on the MiG and Ben-Nun launched an AIM-7 Sparrow, which shot the jet down. The pilot did not eject. When Ben-Nun and Sella regrouped, Sella noticed the two missing AAMs and asked Ben-Nun which missile type he had used to down the MiG-21. At that time the Sella’s family pet was a dog was called ‘Sparrow’, so Ben-Nun replied, ‘With your dog’!

Israeli F-4 Phantom II Aces is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Israeli Air Force and brewbooks from near Seattle, USA via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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