‘We saw Phantoms being scrambled from bases in Israel, but especially so from Meliz and their new base in the southern Sinai. They were climbing at maximum speed, but never came even near to the MiG-25s,” Fuad Kamal, EAF Pilot
Throughout the period between August 1970 and spring 1971, the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel (the Rogers peace plan) was largely respected.
During summer 1971 the conflict between Egypt and Israel entered a new phase, known as ‘No Peace, No War’. Despite the ceasefire, the IDF/AF began launching reconnaissance sorties not only around, but also deep inside Egyptian airspace, attempting to track down and map positions of new SAM sites, as well as to monitor the construction of new Egyptian Air Force air bases.
As explained by Tom Cooper and David Nicolle, with Holger Müller, Lon Nordeen and Martin Smisek in their book Arab MiGs, Volume 5, in a reaction to Israeli provocations, and in great secrecy, the USSR drew aircraft and personnel from the 4th Centre of Combat Employment and Personnel Training of their Ministry of Aviation Industry, from the Scientific Research Institute of their Air Force at Lipetsk, and from the 47th Independent Guards Reconnaissance Aviation Regiment of the VVS, and deployed them to Cairo West air base, in March 1971, where these detachments were reorganised as the 63rd Independent Reconnaissance Aviation Squadron (63rd ORAE), and put under the command of Col Alexander S. Bezhevets. The 63rd ORAE included pilots Nikolay Stogov, Vladimir Uvarov, Nikolay Borshov Yuriy Marchenko, Viktor Gordienko, and Chudin. The aircraft operated by this unit was one of the most advanced in the USSR at that time: the Mach 2,83-capable MiG-25R (construction numbers 0501 and 0504, Bort numbers 40 and 41, respectively), and its variant with bombing capability, the MiG-25RB (construction numbers 0402 and 0601). The secrecy surrounding the 63rd ORAE was so great that the part of Cairo West assigned to it was protected by Soviet soldiers and no admittance was granted to any Egyptians. For the duration of the deployment, the aircraft was code-named `M-500′.
The 63rd ORAE was declared ready for operations about one month later, and its aircraft initially flew above the Nile Delta before turning west to make training runs over the unpopulated area south of the famous World War II battlefield of el-Alamein. All flights were undertaken in total radio silence and by pairs of aircraft, so that if one was lost for any reason, the other could better guide the rescue teams. The MiG-25 and its equipment were still under development at that time. For example, the Soviet technicians required several months of intensive work to fine-tune the engines and make them capable of propelling the aircraft to the maximum speed of Mach 2.83 – and then only for a maximum period of eight minutes. The aircraft required special fuel, designated T-6, which was not available in Egypt, and had to be brought by Soviet tankers to Alexandria.
The Soviets wanted to make their operations as safe as possible. Correspondingly, all four aircraft were equipped with A-72, A-87 and A-10-10 cameras with focal lengths of 150, 650 and 1300rnm, respectively, enabling photographs to be taken from altitudes up to 22,000m (72,172ft), which was above the maximum ceiling that could be reached by Israel’s MIM-23 HAWK SAMs. Furthermore, they carefully coordinated all sorties with the HQ of the 135th Fighter Aviation Regiment (135th IAP) at Bani Suweif, and protected their MiG-25s with flights of Soviet-flown MiG-21s during each take-off and landing.
Once all the officers and engineers involved were satisfied with the function of the aircraft and their systems, permission was granted for operations close to the areas under Israeli control. On Oct. 10, 1971 – by which time they were operating from specially constructed underground hardened aircraft shelters (HASes) – a pair of MiG-25s climbed to an altitude between 23,000 and 24,000m (75,459 and 78,740ft) over the Mediterranean, and then turned east. They approached the coast of northern Israel and then accelerated to Mach 2.5 while turning southwest and flying along almost the entire Israel-Sinai coastline, from Acre to the Suez Canal. Of course, this operation led to alerts on all IDF/AF air bases, but Israel lacked suitable means for the interception of such fast and high-flying aircraft.
Following additional studies of Israeli air defences, the decision was taken to fly the first mission over the Sinai. On Nov. 6, 1971 two MiG-25Rs repeated the exercise from October, but instead of turning in the direction of Israel, they took a southeast course and thundered high over the Sinai, crossing the peninsula from the eastern end of Lake Bardavil to Ras al-Sudr, in the Gulf of Suez, within less than two minutes. From December 1971, two flights over the Sinai were undertaken every month, until the mission on Mar. 10, 1972 – flown with help of giant underfuselage tanks containing 5,300 litres (1,166 Imp gal) of fuel – covered almost the entire length of the Sinai on a north-south axis.
In each of these cases, all Israeli attempts to intercept the two high-flying intruders failed: theoretically, the F-4Es of the IDF/AF could catch a MiG-25R and attempt to shoot it down with their AIM-7E Sparrow missiles. However, such operations required perfect vectoring by the GCI and faultless work by the aircraft’s crew, with the aim of bringing the Phantom into a specific position below and ahead of the MiG-25, and from which it could bring the target to the edge of the Sparrow’s engagement envelope within a very short period of time. Despite numerous scrambles, no IDF/AF crew ever managed to attain such a position – even though there was at least one case when Bezhevets felt forced to accelerate his aircraft up to a speed of Mach 2.83 while passing high above Refidim; this was against instructions since it was likely to cause damage to the engine. Egyptian and Soviet crews of different radar stations monitored failed Israeli interception attempts with great satisfaction, as recalled by EAF Pilot Fuad Kamal:
`We saw Phantoms being scrambled from bases in Israel, but especially so from Meliz [Refidim] and their new base in the southern Sinai [Ophir]. They were climbing at maximum speed, but never came even near. Sometimes they would manage to cross the flight paths of MiG-25s, but in reality were much lower than the MiGs. Israeli HAWK SAMs were equally helpless.’
Throughout all of their overflights, the MiG-25s experienced only two minor technical breakdowns. One of these forced Bezhevets to make an emergency landing at Aswan, in the course of which one main tyre burst while the aircraft was approaching the end of runway. This caused the wing on the same side of the aircraft to touch the ground. However, because the aircraft was already rolling at a very low speed, damage was minimal, and the MiG was flown back to Cairo West after a short repair.
Unable to tackle the threat, the IDF/AF ‘responded in kind’ – by deploying Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical Model 1241 remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs, nowadays colloquially known as ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’, UAVs) over Egypt. The Model 124Is were made in the US and were previously successfully deployed during the Vietnam War, in the period 1967-1971. Delivered to Israel in July 1971, they entered service with the newly established No. 200 Squadron IDF/AF in September of the same year. These subsonic UAVs, equipped with reconnaissance cameras made by the CAI Division of Bourns Inc., were ground-launched from different sites in the Sinai, from where they undertook several high-altitude flights as deep as Cairo in May 1972. After being slowed down by a parachute, the 124Is were usually recovered by mid-air ‘snatch’ from a helicopter. Despite all the possible security precautions, at least two were shot down over Egypt during the first year of their operations.
In comparison, the Soviet MiG-25s remained ‘untouchable’ for the Israelis. On May 16, 1972, the 63rd ORAE launched its most daring mission, sending two M-500s to photograph the entire length of Israeli positions along the eastern side of the Suez Canal and down the coast to Sharm el-Sheikh. The MiGs entered the airspace around 10.30 and Israel scrambled four F-4Es from Refidim and Ophir, but their GCI made an error. The Soviets zoomed high above the first of the Phantoms that approached, without its crew getting a chance to open fire. Around 10.35, another F-4E managed to approach and fire a single AIM-7E, but the missile motor burnt out before reaching its target. Indeed, this Sparrow then failed to detonate when reaching the end of its flight, and finally landed almost intact on the western side of the Canal. It was recovered by Egypt and Sadat decided to give it to the Soviets.
After this failure, the IDF/AF launched a frenzied search for an air-to-air missile that could be launched from the F-4E and shoot down what the Israelis thought was a ‘MiG-23’. Among others, this eventually resulted in the stillborn Project Distant Thunder (or Distant Reach), which saw an attempt to target the MiG-25’s Doppler naviga-tion radar using the AGM-78 Standard anti-radar missile.
In the meantime, the IDF/AF returned to the practice of attempting to drag Egyptian MiG-21s into ambushes, and on Jun. 13, 1972 was successful in doing exactly this. When the ADC scrambled two MiG-21s to intercept a reconnaissance sortie under way over the Nile Delta, the Israelis dragged them in front of two Phantoms and two Mirage IIICJs waiting low over the Mediterranean and shot down both the Egyptian fighters. Finally, Israel may have launched the rumour that it was about to acquire US-made MIM-14 Nike Hercules SAMs, which the Soviets knew were capable of intercepting their MiG-25s. Russian sources differ about the subsequent fate of the 63rd ORAE. According to one version, they subsequently ceased flying over the Sinai and only flew operations along the western side of the Suez Canal. According to the other, the 63rd ORAE closed its shop at Cairo West already in April 1972, after Moscow concluded that the unit had completed all the work there was to do in Egypt. While the crews returned to the USSR, the aircraft were stored inside their underground HASes at Cairo West.