Advancements during the Cold War in Soviet long-range patrol and bomber aircraft dictated a requirement for a fleet defense fighter that could engage high-altitude bombers from well beyond visual range. The iconic F-14 Tomcat was Grumman’s answer. Equipped with long range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, F-14s could engage multiple hostiles over 90 miles away. Needing an interceptor’s high speed while carrying this heavy ordnance, Grumman produced the highly effective variable sweep wing of the F-14, enabling it to operate at a wide range of airspeeds.
The F-14 saw its first combat in August 1981, downing two Libyan Su-22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra.
The Tomcat saw considerable duty over the Gulf of Sidra again in the following years.
Following a series of terrorist attacks on US and Israeli citizens and interests in Europe and the Middle East, in 1985, the US launched preparations for a war with Libya. The US in fact claimed that the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was involved in these actions through his support of the alleged perpetrator, Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal. Through January 1986, the US Navy concentrated a large task force in the central Mediterranean within the frame of Operation Attain Document I. Initially having only the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-60) available, the Americans were reluctant to launch an all-out attack: instead, they tested reaction times of the Libyan air defences. Following a break of several weeks, the US Navy returned to the waters off Libya on Feb. 12, 1986, to run Operation Attain Document II. This four-day exercise was to see the American aircraft approaching close to, but not penetrating the Libyan-claimed airspace: US Navy commanders wanted to expose their pilots to ‘genuine’ MiGs, to ‘enemy equipment’ they had been studying for years, and to practice operating against these. Like in 1981, F-14A Tomcats from VF-74 and VF-102 – both embarked on board the USS Saratoga -were usually armed with AIM-7 Sparrows and AIM-9 Sidewinders, in addition to their internal 20mm cannons. They acted as primary interceptors. Furthermore, the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) arrived off Libya carrying four squadrons of brand-new McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornets. These multi-role fighters were armed with AIM-7 Sparrows, AIM-9 Sidewinders, and a 20mm cannon too: while smaller and slower than F-14As, they proved much more manoeuvrable. Both types were always supported by Grumman E-2C Hawkeye: these AEW aircraft excelled at picking-up Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) fighters almost as soon as these became airborne, and providing F-14 and F/A-18A crews with superior situational awareness, as Abdoul Hassan, former MiG-23MF pilot from No. 1060 Squadron (which consisted of pilots trained abroad and were experiencing problems with the MiG-23MF) recalls in Tom Cooper’s book MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East: Mikoyan i Gurevich Mig-23 in Service in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, 1973-2018:
`It was the same as in 1981. We would receive the order to look for one target, flew there – and found nothing. Then two F-14s would appear behind us. Although Soviets told us the MiG-23 could outturn the F-14 at [a] certain speed, this proved impossible. We could not outmanoeuvre them and decided to return to our base …’
Instead No. 1023 Squadron based at Mitiga and equipped with new MiG-23MLs was successful in its encounters with the Americans, as recalled by another former Libyan MiG-23 pilot, Abdelmajid Tayari:
‘During the afternoon of 12 February 1986, three MiG-23MLDs from No. 1023 Squadron had engaged a pair of F/A-18 Hornets over the international waters, north-east Tripoli. They clearly outflew the Americans and ended advantageous position, at their “6 o’clock”. Hornets were forced to disengage and run away. After that we were all excited about our new mounts and looking forward for further engagements.’
Tayari received the opportunity to prove his skills on the following morning — when he exploited new capabilities of his mount to its fullest:
‘On 13 February 1986, I was scrambled as leader of a pair of MiG-23MLDs to intercept a pair of F-14s underway about 170 kilometres [92nm] north-west of Benina. Each of our aircraft was armed with one R-24R, one R-24T, four R-60MKs and a full load of ammunition for 23mm cannon. Prior to take-off, I was briefed to expect four Tomcats: two at medium altitude, clearly visible on our radar, and two at low altitude, invisible to our radars, and waiting to sandwich us. The GCI vectored us to intercept the pair flying at medium altitude, and we approached head-on.
‘My wingman and me were underway at an altitude of 3,000 meters [9,842ft]: Tomcats were slightly higher, at 4,000 metres [13123ft]. I obtained a radar contact from about 45 kilometres range [29nm] and requested a clearance to engage. The GCI took some time to react, but then cleared me when I was having a visual contact — at a range of about 25 kilometres [13.5nm]. At the moment, the bogies stopped closing in: I maintained radar contact with them, and had my R-24R missiles ready to fire, they were almost within the range of my R-24R, but they turned away. Suddenly, the GCI shouted on the radio: “Two bogies at your 6 o’clock!”
‘I turned my head around to check, and surely enough: two F-14s were zooming up, some 1.5-2 kilometres (0.8-1nm) behind us. I ordered my Number 2 into a full afterburner, and broke hard left. My speed was still high as I turned left, nose down, 800-900 km/h [431-495kts], pulling 5-6gs towards the target, intending to force them into failing to track at my 6 o’clock. My reverse maneuver was so hard that my Number 2 overshot, while I reduced the distance between the F-14s behind me to nil. No doubt, the Americans were surprised: they didn’t expect that hard a manoeuvre, and were not ready for my reaction. By the time they woke up, they lost their advantage while my Number 2 turned back and placed himself in an advantageous position behind the Tomcats and me. But, they were highly qualified: they knew what to do.
‘As I continued turning hard towards the two Tomcats, my eyes focused at their rears until I’ve got what I wanted! I noticed the Tomcats shifting outwards, and then I rolled out, pulled my nose hard up, pulling 7gs, with throttle on idle. I executed a high-g barrel roll, during which my speed decreased very fast, down to 350 km/h [189kts]. Then I pushed my throttle to full dry power while my aircraft went through the vertical and pointed at the Tomcats while still inverted. Both Tomcat crews were fantastic: they followed the manoeuvre and we met at the top, within 30 metres (30 yards/98ft) of each other, much too close for comfort!
‘I discontinued the barrel roll and went for scissor manoeuvre (or low speed yo-yo’): I knew I had the advantage because of MiG-23MLD’s better performance in this position. Thus we began the scissor turns towards each other, at very low speed: this was below 300km/h [160kts], still full dry power, maximum angle of attack. The `stick-shaker’ in my stick began to operate, informing me that my aircraft was at the edge of a stall and spin. I was between two F-14s, only two metres lower, almost line abreast. Our position was equal, except that my Number 2 was behind and above all of us, in a good position to hit the Americans if that would be necessary. Only our controller was screaming on the radio, ordering us to disengage and turn back to base. I replied, “not yet… not at this stage!
‘The F-14 pilots were certainly surprised by the low speed handling and high angle of attack of my MiG-23MLD. And, certainly enough, my speed was meanwhile down to 230 km/h [124kts]! Mind, according to the flight manual, the minimal manoeuvring speed for MiG-23MLD with wing position 45 is 450km/h [242kts]!
‘During the second scissor, I noticed that the lead F-14 attempted to engage afterburners. That was a very dangerous undertaking at that speed and attitude: a big white balloon went out of one of his engine nozzles, meaning there was more fuel than air in his combustion chamber. That was a good sign for me: he was facing the risk of an engine surge just to get few extra knots of speed.
‘Now it was the question of one of us forcing the opponent to put his nose down first. At that point in time, I knew the MiG-23MLD had two advantages over the F-14: it is lighter, which means it has less inertia, and its thrust-to-weight ratio is higher. Thus, I continued through the third, and then the fourth scissors. The situation remained very critical: it was really a risky challenge between five men in three aircraft, and until now I have special respect for these F-14-pilots.
‘After the fourth scissor, I got what I want: the Tomcats couldn’t maintain their position anymore and decided to put their noses down. I was as happy as I was never before — but my happiness didn’t last for long. They both made an incredible manoeuvre, which remains in my memory until this very day. Imagine, they put the nose down, right bank with full rudder at very low speed, then turned almost in place, head-on towards me, barely 100 metres [109 yards] away and below my aircraft!
‘I did not take the risk of flying the same manoeuvre, but followed them nevertheless: I pushed my aircraft hard down, picked some speed, then smoothly banked right, and checked my fuel indicator for the first time since start of this engagement. My fuel was down to 1700 litres, which at this distance from Benina was too little. I was in serious trouble now. While still diving, I saw two other F-14s closing at very high speed, coming to support their other pair. They passed about 50 metres below my nose.
‘I called my wingman to rejoin, levelled my aircraft, put the wings into 16 degrees position and turned in direction of my base while maintaining the best cruise speed to extend my range. The Tomcats took the advantage to fly behind me at some distance. Then they turned back before we entered Libyan airspace again. I’ve just had the best dogfight of my life!”
MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East: Mikoyan i Gurevich Mig-23 in Service in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, 1973-2018 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
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