Israeli Mirage IIIs and Israeli F-4 Phantom IIs Vs Soviet MiG-21s: the day Israeli fighters ambushed Soviet Fishbeds over the Suez Canal

Israeli Mirage IIIs and Israeli F-4 Phantom IIs Vs Soviet MiG-21s: the day Israeli fighters ambushed Soviet Fishbeds over the Suez Canal

By Tom Cooper
Aug 2 2021
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With everything in place, the front 4 Mirages turned around and thus the 12 Israelis sandwiched the 4 Soviet MiG-21s…

What happened over north-western Egypt on Jul. 30, 1970?

Backgrounds

In 1968, US President Johnson granted permission for deliveries of F-4E Phantom IIs to Israel. He did so against better advice of the Pentagon (US generals were still reasonable people, back then): multiple US generals stressed that Israel is well-protected, the delivery of Phantoms unnecessary and likely to provoke an escalation in the Middle East that would be against US interests. Indeed: although Johnson demanded Israel to express its support for the US engagement in Vietnam and to sign the NPT – but Israel refused to do so.

In 1969, first Phantoms were delivered to Israel. Only weeks later, the Israelis launched a series of air strikes against the Cairo area. Phantoms were faster than any MiG-21s available to the Egyptians. By flying very low, below the ‘radar horizon’ of Soviet-made radars, they were also detected only about 2 minutes before reaching their targets. This left the Egyptians with no means to defend themselves.

Cairo thus requested help from Moscow. The idea was that Soviets would deploy their air defences thus bolstering Egyptian and buying time for the Egyptians to train their troops on advanced SA-3 SAMs and new MiGs. Moscow replied positively, launching the Operation Kavkaz.

Soviet troops deployed in Egypt in February and March 1970. They included 18th Special Purpose Air Defence Missile Division (3 brigades of SA-3s), 130th Fighter Aviation Regiment (IAP) with 40 MiG-21SM or MiG-21Ms, and 35th Independent Reconnaissance Aviation Squadron with MiG-21Rs. As predicted by the Pentagon, the delivery of Phantoms provoked an escalation and a Soviet deployment in Egypt that was against US interests….

Initial Action: Electronic Summer

In May 1970, after receiving new equipment and training enough crews, the Egyptians decided to move their SAM-sites from Cairo in eastern direction, towards the Suez Canal. To make it clear: Israel controlled not only most of the Sinai at the time, but the IDF/AF was de-facto in control of the airspace 100km WEST of the Suez Canal too. This meant that the Egyptians couldn’t even protect their troops deployed along the strategically important waterway.

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The SAMs first appeared in form of a ‘box‘, about 50km east of Cairo. This box included 12 Egyptian SA-2 SAM-sites, and 3 Soviet SA-3 SAM-sites, protected by numerous SA-7-teams and brand-new ZSU-23-3 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. The Israelis ‘only‘ flew reconnaissance in reaction.

By late June, the SAM-box reached a position 30km west of the Suez Canal. That’s when the Israelis counterattacked. In a week-long air-to-ground battle (known in Egypt as ‘The Week of Phantom Losses‘), the Egyptians claimed 10 F-4s as shot down, in exchange for 2 SAM-sites destroyed and 3 badly damaged (one of the latter was Soviet). The Israelis admitted the loss of 5 F-4s (and promptly demanded these to be replaced by the USA at no cost), and several damaged.

By Jul. 15, the SAM-box was reinforced to 18 Egyptian SA-2 and 3 SA-2 SAM-sites, re-deployed to about 20km west of the Canal. The Israelis – also reinforced (by US-made ECM-pods) – counterattacked but lost 2 F-4Es in exchange for one Egyptian and one Soviet SAM-site temporarily out of action.

Israeli Idea

Israeli losses and inability to destroy the SAM-box encouraged the Soviets into engaging the Phantoms and/or Skyhawks with their MiG-21s. On Jul. 18, 10 MiG-21s were scrambled to intercept a formation of A-4s: one of them took the Israelis by surprise when it pursued the Skyhawks to the east of the Suez Canal (Soviets were strictly prohibited from flying there) and damaged it by one R-3S missile.

The Soviets then suggested the Egyptians to send their MiG-17Fs into an attack on Israeli positions on the Sinai, provoke Israeli Mirages into an intercept attempt and drag them in front of their MiG-21s. This operation was launched on Jul. 25: the Egyptians operated as planned, but the Soviets were late. Moreover, their ground controllers then refused to order MiG-21-pilots to engage. The Egyptians lost two MiG-17s – and were quite furious about the high-nosed Soviets.

Ambush for the Soviets

That was the situation the Israelis then exploited to set up their own ambush – set up also because of the approaching, US-mediated cease-fire: the IDF/AF knew it was defeated by the SAMs, and couldn’t continue exercising control of the Egyptian skies west of the Suez, and thus intended to show it was still superior in air combat.

Mirage 5

On Jul. 30, 2 F-4Es bombed an Egyptian radar station near Sohana (Gulf of Suez), while 4 Mirages crossed the Suez Canal and made a demonstrative flight west of Ismailia. The Egyptians didn’t react: they knew it was an ambush. The Soviets hesitated, but then scrambled 4 MiG-21s led by Captain Kamenev from Kom Awshim AB.

As Kamenev‘s formation approached, the Mirages dragged them in direction of Cairo, right in front of another flight of 4 Mirages and one of 4 F-4E Phantom IIs, all of which approached at low altitude without being detected by the Soviets. With everything in place, the front 4 Mirages turned around and thus the 12 Israelis sandwiched the 4 Soviet MiG-21s. Only at that moment, as it realized what was going on, did the Soviet ground control order the scramble of another 4 MiG-21s led by Captain Yurchenkov from Beni Suweif AB. Another flight of 4 MiG-21s led by Captain Saranin was ordered to prepare for takeoff.

Meanwhile, the battle was joined with Yurchenkov’s flight attempting to intercept the Phantoms as these were climbing to attack Kamenev’s flight. In turn, Yurchenkov’s formation was caught by the second Mirage flight: Yurchenkov was first to get shot down, followed by Captain Yakovlev. Both were hit by the then brand-new AIM-9D Sidewinders (something like ‘AIM-9Ls of 1981-1982‘ or ‘R-73 of the 1990s‘). Yakovlev’s parachute opened too early, causing the pilot to suffocate at 9,000m/29,528ft: his slowly drifting parachute was then used as an orientation marking by all the other pilots.

Two remaining Soviets then attempted to hit back upon the Mirages, and Captain Ivlev damaged one with an R-3S missile (the Mirage made a safe emergency landing at Meliz/Refidim AB).

However, the Phantoms meanwhile turned around and returned into the battle. One of them shot down the MiG-21 flown by Captain Syrkin with two AIM-9Ds.

Disengagement

The surviving Soviets then attempted to disengage. The Israelis were as keen to do so, because several of their Mirages were shot on fuel, and other damaged and already out of battle. As usual for MiG-21s, all were already short on fuel, too. While trying to reach Helwan the MiG-21 flown by Captain Zhuravlev was then hit by another missile and then by cannon fire. Unknown to the Israelis, Zhuravlev was forced to eject at critically low altitude – and killed.

Also unknown to the Israelis was that during this phase of that battle they damaged another – sixth – Soviet MiG-21. This managed a safe emergency landing, though. In similar fashion, the Soviets didn’t know that they have not only damaged one Mirage, but also at least two others: their nifty R-3S missiles and poor ammo of their 23mm cannons failed to bring down any of their opponents. That was the price of the Soviets refusing to listen to Egyptian complaints and advices.

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Thus, the Israelis originally credited their pilots with 4 kills for no loss. Of course, the Egyptians denied any kind of losses. The true identity of downed pilots was revealed by the Israelis to the specialised US press, few days later, and confirmed by Egypt only in 1972.

Number of Aircraft Involved

No idea who came to claim the involvement of ‘a full Soviet squadron‘, but that’s hogwash. The Soviets eventually did scramble Captain Saranin’s flight, but this arrived only once the air battle was over and saw not a single Israeli. The point is: The Soviets couldn’t keep all of their 40 MiG-21s on alert all the time. Thus they kept 4 each at Beni Suweif and Kom Awshim on QRA, and 4 each on ‘alert plus 15’ (minutes). This means they couldn’t bring more than 8 aircraft into this battle.

All aircraft that took part in this clash were:

  • 8 MiG-21SM/M
  • 8 Mirage IIICJ
  • 4 F-4E

Note for the end: all MiG-21s flown during this engagement were MiG-21SM/Ms. All were painted in beige (BS381C/388) and olive green on top surfaces and sides, and light admiralty grey on undersurfaces. As far as is known, all were armed with 4x R-3S, internal GSh-23 cannon and carried a single 400-litre-drop tank under the centreline. Their serials were in range 8200-8499, and they wore Egyptian insignia – as shown on this old artwork of mine.

Check out Helion & Company website for books featuring interesting stories written by The Aviation Geek Club contributor Tom Cooper.

Photo credit: Tom Cooper and Israeli Air Force

Israeli Mirage IIIs and Israeli F-4 Phantom IIs Vs Soviet MiG-21s: the day Israeli fighters ambushed Soviet Fishbeds over the Suez Canal

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Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper

Tom Cooper, from Austria, is a military-aviation journalist and historian. Following a career in a worldwide transportation business — in which, during his extensive travels in Europe and the Middle East, he established excellent contacts — he moved into writing. An earlier fascination with post-Second World War military aviation has narrowed to focus on smaller air forces and conflicts, about which he has collected extensive archives of material. Concentrating primarily on air warfare that has previously received scant attention, he specializes in investigative research on little-known African and Arab air forces, as well as the Iranian Air Force. Cooper has published 21 books — including the unique Arab MiGs' series, which examines the deployment and service history of major Arab air forces in conflicts with Israel — as well as over 200 articles on related topics, providing a window into a number of previously unexamined yet fascinating conflicts and relevant developments.

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