Losses and Aviation Safety

Jack in the Box! How an AIM-9 Sidewinder that failed to explode after embedding itself inside a Chinese MiG-17 was reverse-engineered into the Soviet AA-2 Atoll

One of two Sidewinders that failed to bring down its target had actually also scored a hit: however, it failed to detonate after embedding itself inside the fuselage of a PLAF MiG-17F…

In 1949-1950, the Communists won the Chinese Civil War, forcing the Nationalist government and much of its armed forces to withdraw to the island of Formosa (to use the Portuguese name) or Taiwan (its Chinese name). While the Communists proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950, the Nationalists established the Republic of China (ROC): the latter was granted a seat at the United Nations, and was considered the official government of China by the USA and allies.

Of course, the leadership in Beijing was keen to destroy the ‘rebels’ on Taiwan and began planning an invasion of the island shortly after taking over on the mainland. As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Hunt for the U-2, the Korean War postponed the related designs for at least three years, but also bought time for the PRC to establish and build-up a large air force, much of which was combat-tested. Between 1954 and 1957, the Communist armed forces – consisting of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – secured a number of Nationalist-controlled islands along the coast. In turn, and with US support, the ROCAF ran near-constant reconnaissance operations and the infiltration of agents over mainland China – with nearly a dozen such missions shot down in the 1950s. In summer 1958, the PLA set in motion preparations to assault the last two Nationalist-controlled islands off the coast, Matsu and Quemoy. The priority in any such operation was to secure air superiority, which in turn would enable the PLA to isolate the local garrisons, then subject them to intense bombardment, and thus ‘soften’ them prior to an amphibious assault. Correspondingly, the PLAAF deployed over 600 combat aircraft, including its brand-new MiG-17F interceptors, to air bases opposite Taiwan.

The ROCAF responded by using its North American F-86F Sabre interceptors to fly near-constant combat air patrols not only over Matsu and Quemoy, but along the coast of the PRC, and with the vigerous activity of all available reconnaissance aircraft. Moreover, alerted to Beijing’s intentions, Washington reacted by deploying six carrier battle groups of the US Navy into the waters around Taiwan, a squadron each of Lockheed F-104A Starfighter and North American F-100D Super Sabres, plus a full wing of McDonnell F-101C Voodoo interceptors, on the island. Together with a squadron of Douglas F4D-1 Skyray interceptors of the US Marine Corps, these freed the ROCAF’s interceptors for operations over Matsu and Quemoy.

The resulting Third Taiwan Strait Crisis culminated in a series of at least 13 massive air combats fought over the Straits of Taiwan between late July and late September 1958. According to official releases from both sides, the ROCAF claimed to have shot down 31 or 32 aircraft wearing the Red Stars while losing three of their own; in turn, the PLAAF claimed to have shot down 14 Taiwanese jets while losing five of their own. Whatever the outcome of the air combats was, one fact was sure: the PLAAF failed to secure aerial superiority over the islands, and the PLA was forced to abandon its plan to invade them.

Ironically, the Taiwan Strait Crisis had far-reaching consequences in so far as it helped the Communists – not only in the PRC, but in the USSR, too – to narrow down the constantly growing gap in high technologies. During this affair, Washington ordered a team of two pilots and three engineers of the US Marine Corps, together with a batch of 40 GAR-9 guided air-to-air missiles – re-designated AIM-9B Sidewinder in 1962 – to Taiwan. Working under conditions of utmost secrecy, they installed this brand-new weapon on about a dozen F-86Fs. On Sep. 24, 1958, ROCAF Sabres clashed with PLAAF MiGs again, and claimed nine ‘confirmed’ and two ‘probable’ kills, in exchange for one loss of their own: three or four of the MiGs may have been shot down by the brand-new air-to-air missiles in their first ever operational use. Indeed, the Sidewinder proved major surprise for the Communist pilots because it enabled the Taiwanese Sabres to shoot down MiG-17Fs even when these were underway at their maximum operational altitude, which was abo 5,000ft (1,524m) higher than that of the F-86s.

Overall, pilots of the ROCAF fired six GAR-9s to claim a total of four ‘kills’ during the Crisis. Indeed, one of two Sidewinders that failed to bring down its target had actually also scored a hit: however, it failed to detonate after embedding itself inside the fuselage of a PLAF MiG-17F. The aircraft made a safe landing, the missile was extracted and the Communists promptly rushed it to the USSR, where the weapon was carefully taken apart and then reverse-engineered, bit by bit.

Thus, came into being the R-35 (ASCC/NATO-codename ‘AA-2 Atoll’), the most widely deployed air-to-air missile in Soviet and (mainland) Chinese service of the following decade, and the primary weapon of a new fighter jet that was to emerge in the early 1960s: the MiG-21.  

Hunt for the U-2 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Varga Attila 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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