6 Russian MiG-21 Fighters Shot Down In 3 Minutes – How Israel Set ‘Aerial Mousetrap’ To Shock Moscow In 1970

In recent months, the once-stable relationship between Israel and Russia has shown signs of strain, primarily attributed to Russia’s increasingly vocal support for Palestine. 

Under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership over the past two decades, Russia and Israel have managed to navigate a delicate balance in their relations. Despite frequently being on opposing sides in geopolitical matters, Israel has actively pursued cooperation with Russia in Syria. 

Additionally, Israel has exercised caution to avoid antagonizing Moscow, recognizing the latter’s ties to Iran, which stands as Israel’s primary regional adversary. 

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked a turning point. Russia has since sought to bolster its economic and military ties with Iran, exacerbating tensions with Israel.

This deterioration in relations echoes historical patterns. During the Soviet era, hostility towards Israel was prevalent. It was rooted in domestic antisemitism. Also, it was due largely to the Kremlin’s suspicion of the Soviet Jews’ loyalties following Israel’s establishment in 1948.

In 1970, tensions between the two sides escalated to the extent that Israel baited nearly 24 Soviet-flown MiG-21 fighter jets into air combat, ultimately ambushing them and successfully shooting down five aircraft with no Israeli losses. 

The origins of this conflict can be traced back to the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, which left Israeli forces stationed on the east side of the Suez Canal and Egyptian forces on the west side, with no formal peace agreement. There was only an informal ceasefire in place. 

Frustrations boiled over when, on March 8, 1969, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared an end to the ceasefire, sparking what became known as the “War of Attrition.”

In a bid to pressure Israel into concessions or withdrawal, Egyptian artillery initiated a relentless bombardment of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) positions along the eastern bank of the canal. In response, the IDF, outmatched in artillery, launched heavy strikes via the Israeli Air Force (IAF) on Egyptian military installations and artillery positions lining the canal.

Egypt deployed MiG aircraft but they proved ineffective against the well-trained Israeli pilots flying French-made delta-wing Mirage IIIs, nicknamed “Triangles.” 

As tensions escalated, Egypt moved to protect its artillery by positioning SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) near the canal, prompting the IAF to launch targeted attacks on these SAM sites.

F-4E Phantom II Jets Enter The Scene

On September 5, 1969, Israel received its first lot of F-4E Phantom II fighter jets from the United States. These Phantoms introduced a new dynamic to the conflict, primarily taking over the task of attacking the missile sites. 

By late November 1969, the Israeli airstrikes had effectively neutralized the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), prompting a pause in Egyptian attempts to advance more missiles toward the Suez Canal for the next few months.

Despite this development, the Egyptian leadership showed no inclination towards negotiations. In response, Israel escalated its air campaign with Operation Priha (Blossom) in January 1970. 

The Phantoms conducted bombing raids deep into Egyptian territory, targeting strategic locations. Israel’s objective was to pressure President Nasser either to step down or to agree to a ceasefire.

In a bid to bolster Egypt’s air defense capabilities, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for assistance, demanding the provision of a reliable air defense network. 

Unwilling to witness a significant defeat of their key Arab ally, the Soviets responded by dispatching the entire 18th Special Anti-Aircraft Rocket Division to Egypt starting in March 1970. 

This unit was equipped with the latest SA-2 and SA-3 surface-to-air missiles and included three squadrons from the 135th Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, which was armed with MiG-21MF aircraft. 

The presence of approximately 10,000 Soviet advisers in Egypt facilitated the extension of SAM missile sites towards the Suez Canal.

Despite their collaboration, Soviet MiG-21 “Fishbed” units operated independently of the Egyptians, with their bases located south of Cairo and minimal interaction with Egyptian pilots. 

The Soviets, often critical of Egyptian pilots’ skills, did not seek insights into Israeli tactics from their Egyptian counterparts. 

Compounding the problem was the language barrier. A few Soviets spoke Arabic and this led to the deployment of Russian-speaking radar controllers, inadvertently enabling Israeli intelligence to monitor Soviet radio transmissions effectively.

Israel Scaled Back Its Operations 

The presence and active involvement of Russian troops in Egypt’s defense were initially kept secret and denied for a significant period. However, Israeli intelligence swiftly detected their presence shortly after their arrival.

Concerned about the potential repercussions of confronting a superpower, the Israeli government instructed the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to maintain distance from the Soviet forces. 

Consequently, Operation Priha was swiftly scaled back and ultimately terminated as the Soviets began asserting their presence.

By the end of April 1970, Israeli aircraft ceased flying into Egyptian airspace in an attempt to appease the Soviets. Rather than being placated, the Soviets and Egyptians proceeded to advance their combined air defense systems towards the canal zone, posing a threat to Israel’s aerial superiority.

In response, the Israeli Air Force targeted both Egyptian SAM batteries and their supporting infrastructure. By the end of June, two F-4 Phantoms had been downed by SAMs, and in July, two more F-4s were shot down, resulting in the loss of one of the IAF’s distinguished squadron commanders, Shmuel Hetz.

Further, Soviet fighters expanded their operational range, signaling an active pursuit of engagement bolstered by their combat successes.

In the skies over south and west of the Suez City region, Israeli pilots, likened to Wild West gunfighters, engaged in frequent aerial battles against Egyptian MiGs despite the looming threat of surface-to-air missiles. 

The introduction of F-4s armed with long-range radar and guided missiles provided Israel with enhanced air-to-air capabilities, leading to significant losses for the Egyptian air force. 

Employing aggressive tactics codenamed “Rimon,” Israeli pilots strategically intercepted Egyptian aircraft, resulting in the downing of nearly 100 MiGs during the War of Attrition. On the other hand, Israel lost only four Mirages, with two pilots bailing out over Israeli territory. 

Yet, Israeli reluctance to engage Soviet pilots, who began supplementing Egyptian forces, allowed them to move their SAM sites closer to the Suez Canal, posing a growing threat. 

Israeli leadership faced increasing pressure to adopt a more assertive stance, particularly following a Soviet attack that inflicted damage upon an Israeli A-4 Skyhawk aircraft. This event prompted a strategic shift, leading Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to confront the Soviets, altering Israel’s approach to the conflict. 

Operation Rimon 20

In response to perceived Soviet interference, Israel devised a meticulous plan to demonstrate their capabilities and assert dominance in the face of superior weaponry. 

Operation Rimon 20 was conceived as a strategic maneuver, carefully crafted to lure Soviet-flown MiG-21s into a trap. With Russian-speaking Israeli radio operators monitoring Soviet communications, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) had valuable intelligence on the opposing force.

Historian Shlomo Aloni described the operation as an aerial mousetrap. The operational approach bore a striking resemblance to Operation Bolo of the Vietnam War, spearheaded by the renowned US Air Force fighter pilot Colonel Robin Olds. 

Aloni described the straightforward yet effective nature of the plan: Four Mirages were tasked to execute a simulated high-altitude reconnaissance flight over areas frequented by Soviet-operated MiG-21s. 

Each pair of armed Mirages flew close to each other, mimicking the radar signature of unarmed reconnaissance missions. Multiple flights of Phantoms and Mirages lay concealed at low altitudes in the Israeli-held Sinai, beyond the reach of Egyptian radar. These were poised to strike should the Soviets take the bait and pursue the faux reconnaissance Mirages towards Israeli territory. 

Israeli Gun Camera Footage of MiG-21’s. (Image courtesy: History Guild)

Amid intense rivalry among Israelis to take part in the mission, only the finest and most seasoned aircrews were chosen, representing the pinnacle of Israel’s aviation prowess. Despite their eagerness, apprehension loomed among the Israeli Air Force (IAF) crews. 

“We were not afraid, but we did not know what to expect because they still had different and more advanced weapons,” recounted one Israeli pilot. The sentiment prevailed that it was imperative to assert Israeli strength and resilience, epitomized by the determination to show the Russians the extent of Israeli capabilities. 

Then, on July 30, the Soviets fell into the meticulously laid trap. Twenty-four MiG-21s scrambled from various airfields in Egypt to intercept what they believed to be a routine reconnaissance flight. 

Their intended targets turned out to be 16 Phantoms and Mirage III jets, armed and ready for combat. In just three minutes, the Israeli forces managed to down five MiGs: two by the Phantoms, two by the Mirages, and one through a joint effort.

The engagement witnessed remarkable feats of skill and audacity from the Israeli side. One MiG was shot by a Phantom firing a radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missile from an unusually low altitude, a shot deemed extraordinary given the missile’s intended deployment parameters. 

Another MiG, pursued relentlessly by an Israeli crew, met its demise as it descended from 15,000 feet to 2,000 feet, ultimately succumbing to an AIM-9D Sidewinder missile.

File Image: F-4 Phantom Jet

Despite the odds, luck favored the Israelis as well. In a stroke of fortune, a Russian pilot managed to target a Phantom with an Atoll heat-seeking missile, but luck was on the Israeli side as the missile failed to detonate, sparing the targeted aircraft.

There was a sense of balance in the Israeli victory. Rather than reveling in their success, the Israelis chose to initially attribute the downed aircraft to Egyptian forces. It was the Egyptians who felt a sting of satisfaction, having endured the patronizing attitude of their Russian advisers. 

According to one Israeli writer, some Egyptians couldn’t help but laugh at the Russians’ misfortune. As a result, President Nasser issued a direct order prohibiting laughter directed at Russian instructors in the squadrons.

Subsequently, the United States intervened to negotiate a ceasefire, bringing an end to the War of Attrition. However, this ceasefire did not resolve the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Arabs. 

The presence of SAM batteries along the Suez Canal remained a decision that would later haunt Israel. Three years later, the Soviets sought retaliation by supplying SAMs to Egypt and Syria, leading to the downing of numerous Israeli Air Force planes over the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights.

Despite their previous involvement, Soviet pilots and advisers were absent from this retaliation, as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had expelled them in 1972.