*ACIG Home*ACIG Journal*ACIG Books*ACIG Forum *


ACIG Special Reports
ACIG Database
ACIG Books, Articles & Media
Indian-Subcontinent Database
Indochina Database
Far-East Database
LCIG & NCIG Section

ACIG Database

Gone With the Wind
By Tom Cooper
Nov 20, 2003, 08:06

Email this article
 Printer friendly page

Intelligence gathering is a branch as old as the history of warfare: ever since there are wars there was always somebody interested in learning more about enemy’s intentions, capabilities, and weapons. Yet, more than often, intelligence is based on rumours or so-called „educated“ guesses, many of which are reasons for fierce discussion. Thus, there remains only one way of ascertaining accurate and exact information about the enemy: acquiring original examples of opponent’s technology and documentation. Ever since the WWII several countries became very successful in such operations.

Early Efforts

Since some quite unpleasant experiences caused by surprising attacks or new and previously unknown technology and capabilities earlier during the 20th Century, the importance of gathering intelligence „from the first hand“ became higher than ever before. Not only during the WWII, but especially during the „Cold War“, when closed borders of the countries ruled by Communist regimes behind the "Iron Curtain" made the conventional espionage extremely difficult, the data acquired through conventional HUMINT (Human intelligence) became unreliable and very subjective. Actually, already the first „hot“ conflicts of the Cold War clearly pointed at a problem of West knowing little or nothing about the weapons systems in development and/or use in the USSR, as the lack of accurate intelligence cased again utterly unpleasant surprises.

In fact by the time the USA were already very experienced in acquiring and testing of foreign aircraft and technologies, as already during the World War I, the so-called Foreign Data Section of the later US Air Force was organized. By 1951, this small unit developed into Air Technical Intelligence Center, and was under the command of the USAF. Regardless of considerable amount of work done by ATIC, the Soviets achieved a considerable surprise when their MiG-15s appeared in the skies over Korea, foremost because nobody expected that the USSR would be able to develop aircraft of such advanced capabilities – and in such numbers. The US - or rather so the ATIC - immediately realized the need of acquiring at least one intact example of MiG-15, in order to learn about its strong and weak sides. But, the Soviets were even faster in doing this. They were foremost interested in obtaining western technology which was years - if not even decades - ahead of their own. While operating under very subtle conditions - officially, Soviets were not involved in the fighting in Korea at all - they became obsessed with the idea of seizing one North American F-86 Sabre and even set up a special team that planned to force one of US pilots to land behind North Korean or Chinese lines.

This plan eventually proved to be a failure as no US pilot would come even near an idea of landing his Sabre intact behind enemy lines, regardless how much cornered in an air combat, but Soviets still got their hands on two Sabres – both of which were shot down during different air combats, but crash-landed in a relatively good condition.

On the contrary, the West wanted simply to learn more about capabilities of Soviet aircraft in order to increase its capability of countering them. The first large-scale project, codenamed „Moolah“, was eventually successful, even if not entirely in time to help the US pilots fighting MiGs over Korea. In September 1953, only few months after the cease-fire that saw an end in the fghting between the Chinese, the North Koreans, and the UN-forces, a North Korean pilot delivered his MiG-15 to South Korea, enabling the USAF and the ATIC to inspect and test this aircraft throughoutly. Still, the revelation of the MiG-15 never helped the West to better understand the thinking behind the developement of the technology in the USSR.

Drone Connections

Time and again after the Korean War, stories appeared about modern combat aircraft - or aircraft related equipment - ending in hands of some "enemy". Yet, due to the sensibility of such events, their coverage was not very good, and the lack of exact informations caused some fierce discussions, several of which last until today, foremost because it remains not completely clear how many of which aircraft ended in „wrong“ hands. Nonetheless, it can be taken as granteed, that each wreckage of some Western reconnaissance aircraft shot down over the Soviet Union, or such combat types like F-4 Phantoms, shot down over Vietnam or Middle East – was throughoutly inspected by the Soviets and Chinese, just for example.

True enough, much of the wreckage crashed into the sea, but still, some aircraft ended their last flight on the Soviet-, Chinese-, Vietnamese- or Egyptian-controlled soil. On 2 September 1958, for example, four Soviet MiG-17s downed a C-130A-II of the 7406th CSS USAF, the wreckage of which crashed near Yerewan, today in Armenia. The Soviets not only inspected the wreckage very carefully – but in that case supposedly also some of the crewmembers were captured only to disappear in one of the secret Soviet camps in Siberia. Similar should have happened with a number of US fliers shot down over Korea, in the 1950s, but also elsewhere over the USSR during the 1960s.

Additional interesting pieces of US high-tech were acquired by the Soviets and the Chinese in the period between 1968 and 1970 for example, when the USAF intensively operated BQM-34 reconnaissance drones over Chinese mainland and North Vietnam. Dozens of these were shot down by Chinese and Vietnamese air defences, while others were captured in a relatively lightly damaged condition. Interestingly, the Chinese developed a whole family of UAVs on the basis of the wreckage of US BQM-34s, starting with air launched Chang Hing („Long Rainbow“, initially launched from one Tu-4 bomber - another „Gone with the Wind“ aircraft, which is outside the envelope of this article), developed by the Beijing Technical Institute and carried by specially equipped Y-8E transports. Even the newest Chinese Chong Hong UAV, the model of which was recently shown on the Air Show in Zhuhai, is clearly showing the resemblance to the AQM-34N. Nonetheless, at that time, neither Soviets, nor Chinese or any other communist regime managed to secure even one completely intact western-built combat aircraft.

A Chinese Tu-4 bomber, used as a carrier during the testing of the Chang Hing reconnaissance drones (one of which can be seen underneath the port wing) - based on US AQM-34 drones, dozens of which were shot down over China in the late 1960s. (via Arthur Hubers)

How to Get a MiG

Meanwhile, the USA and the NATO had their problems in acquiring communist technology. Between 1945 and 1950 a series of defections hit the Yugoslav Air Force, but most of these brought no interesting pieces of the hardware – mainly because the Yugoslavs were still using obsolete aircraft delivered to them by Soviets and the UK during the WWII. Nevertheless, the defectors helped in making the picture of political intentions and the situation in their country more clearer.

On the contrary, the following years were pretty bad for the West in technical sense. In autumn 1958 a series of air combats developed between the Taiwanese and Chinese fighters, in which the then brand-new AIM-9B IR-homing missiles were used for the first time by ROCAF's F-86s. During the fierce fighting, something around 20 Sidewinders were fired, at least a dozen of which scored some hits. However, one of the missiles failed to detonate upon hitting one Chinese MiG-17. Thus, the lucky Chinese pilot was able to bring it back to his base almost intact.

That AIM-9B was of immense importance for the Soviets, which were completely taken by surprise with Sidewinder's simplicity and functionality, and brought the decision to copy it and produce own versions, designated R-3/R-13 (coded AA-2 Atoll by the ASCC). Another intact Sidewinder arrived to Soviet Union in 1967, after one of the missiles was stolen from an ammunition depot in Western Germany and sent to Moscow - per surface mail, and there are also reports about a third example being stolen from a South Korean air base!

While West was thus suffering one mismatch after the other, the Communists continuously suffered defection of their pilots. In one of the least well known similar incidents, in 1963, a disappointed Soviet pilot flew his Su-9 interceptor to Abadan, in Iran. Only very scetchy details about this incident are known even today, but the plane and the pilot were picked up by officers of the – meanwhile – Foreign Technology Division (FTD), as the ATIC - now under US Air Force Systems Command, but directly controlled by Pentagon - was renamed in 1961. After being disassembled within 24 hours the Su-9 was transported to the USA, while the pilot followed shortly after. Almost certainly this was one of main factors which lead to a relatively early retirement of the Su-9 interceptor from active service.

Meanwhile, the Middle East became the place where next important „acquisitions“ of Soviet-built equipment followed: during the Suez Crisis, in 1956, Israelis captured one of Egyptian MiG-15s, which - after being slightly damaged during a short clash with Israeli Mystére IVAs - made a wheels-up landing in shallow waters of the lake al-Bardawil. It is known, that the Israelis salvaged that aircraft, but it remains unclear if it was used for any kind of flying testing. In 1962, Soviets started deliveries of large numbers of their most modern light interceptor - MiG-21F-13 - to several Arab air forces. Like in many similar cases at the time, almost nothing was known about the type in the West, and the Israelis were now confronted with a potential danger they could not accurately evaluate. Innovative as ever, they "simply" decided to get one of the new MiGs and the main Israeli secret service, Mossad, has got the task of finding and recruiting an Arab pilot that could bring his mount - intact - to Israel. This operation was one of most successful of this type ever undertaken.

On 19 January 1964, Egyptian pilot Mahmud Abbas Hilmi defected from el-Arish AB to Hatzor, in Israel, in his Yak-11 trainer. That Yak was not the most modern aircraft by any means, thus, the whole affair ended without too much publicity. However, some times later, Israelis established contacts to different Syrian and Iraqi pilots. Already in 1965 a disaffected Syrian pilot flew his MiG-17F to Israel, followed by no less but six other MiG-17s - which made a navigational mistake and landed in Hatzor as well. All pilots were later returned to Syria, together with only three out of six MiGs. Another year later, Mossad hit hard, bringing Iraqi Capt. Monir Rdfa to fly his MiG-21F-13 to Israel. This defection was so excellently prepared, that Rdfa also took the technical manual with him!

The acquizition of a fully intact and operational MiG-21 was a major breakthrough, because the Chel Ha'Avir was now finally able to study its most dangerous opponent, which in turn enabled it to train the pilots of its less sophisticated fighters – such like Dassault Ouragan, Mystére IVA, and Super Mystére B.2 – to counter the threat, in turn increasing their effectiveness when this was most needed, during the Six Day War, in 1967. The ex-Iraqi MiG-21F-13 was flown through its full envelope, tested and then engaged in mock combats against all types in Israeli service. The Israelis learned so much about the type that during the Six-Day War their Ouragan and Mystére pilots had little problems of fighting air combats against it. In fact the situation remained very much the same during the lat 1960s and early 1970s, unless the Soviets started delivered more advanced versions of the MiG-21 to different Arab air forces.

Have Donut

Interestingly, following Rdfa’s defection, at least two other Iraqi pilots flew their MiG-21s to Jordan. Jordanians, however, granted asylum to pilots, but returned all aircraft back to Iraq. Nevertheless, the Israelis were to get at least three additional MiG-21F13s (and even more MiG-17s), when a group of Algerian pilots landed by mistake on the el-Arish air base after this was captured by the Israelis. While most of the aircraft and their pilots were returned, at least one Algerian MiG-21F-13-pilot decided to request political asylum in the West.

Much less known is also the fact that the Israelis captured a large amount of R-3 (AA-2 Atoll) air-to-air missiles on Egyptian airfields in Sinai, occupied during the war n 1967. The IDF/AF was in a bad need of air-to-air missiles at the time, as the Israeli Shafrir Mk.1 was a disappointment and Israel was not yet to get large numbers of modern aircraft and weapons from the USA. Consequently, the captured R-3s were put to test and several fired from Mirage IIICJ fighters. Concluding that the weapon was functioning better than originally expected – and even better than the Shafrir Mk.1 – the Israelis finally decided to take it into service, and several were fired in combats against Egyptian MiGs, starting with 15 July 1967, when one even scored a kill..

Even before the Israelis managed to properly evaluate their shining new MiG-21, several western countries expressed interest in the acquisition of the plane. But, due to - then - still very good relations between Israel and the Soviet Union, Israelis were reluctant to deliver the plane. Only the war in 1967, and subsequent massive deliveries of US aircraft to Israel changed the situation completely. The USA - now engaged into a fierce air war against North Vietnam, which was also using MiG-21, were more than interested to get their hands on the type and very soon, the MiG ended in the USA, together with at two MiG-17Fs captured by Israelis during the Six-Day war. Both planes were subsequently put through their paces in projects named "Have Donut" (MiG-21) and "Have Drill" (MiG-17), thus now even US pilots got precise ideas of what they were up against in the air over North Vietnam. According to these experiences, they devised a set of accurate tactics and advises for their colleagues which flew less-maneuverable fighters; due to different factors, however, this knowledge was seldom brought to bear during the war in South-East Asia.

In 1968 the Israelis supplied the MiG-21F-13 - flown to Israel from Iraq, by a defecting pilot, in 1966 - to the USA. The USAF evaluated the Soviet fighter to extension, but it seems that the USAF never put this experience to use during the Vietnam War. (US DoD, via Tom Cooper)

Others that came into posession of similar informations knew no restrictions when it come to use them: during the 1970s several Iranian pilots were permitted to fly captured Arab MiGs in Israel and the USA, and test them extensivelly. The Iranians were to use their expriences to full advantage during the war with Iraq, in the 1980s.

This photograph, taken from long range at the "Area 51" in the 1980s, is clearly showing a MiG-21 in front of the left of the two hangars in the centre of the photograph. (Tom Cooper collection)

The Exchange in Indochina

Israelis were not only capable to acquire Soviet-built aircraft and weapons with the help of their secret services or during wars with different Arab states due to their own efforts, but also seem to have had some good luck. Particularly forgotten today is the reported episode in which one of brand-new Egyptian Su-20s – or at least a Su-7BMK - fell into Israeli hands, in 1970. As it seems, this happened after a short air combat over the Suez, during which an Egyptian pilot ejected from his slightly damaged Sukhoi. The plane - well known for its stability in flight - slowly lost the height and finally - after all the fuel was spent - landed "softly" on a sand dune in the Sinai Desert. Israelis found and salvaged it but it remains unknown what happened with that aircraft subsequently.

Interestingly, in September 1970 Soviets initiated an operation with the task of hijacking one of Lebanese Air Force Mirage IIIELs. The Soviets contacted Lt. Mahmoud Mattar of the Lebanese Air Force, offering him $2 million for simulating an engine problem during a training flight, and then flying his aircraft at a very low level over Syria and Iraq to Baku. Lt. Mattar made the Soviets to believe that he accepted the offer, but revealed the affair to the Lebanese secret service, and within the following 15 days a trap was set up for the two Soviet officials, Vladimir Vassiliev (an engineer at the commercial mission of the Soviet embassy in Beirut), and Alexander Komiakov (first secretary at the same embassy and a Colonel of the GRU). In order to get some proof for his revelation, Lt. Mattar asked to get $200.000 in advance, paid by cheque (which is very unusual in such cases), three days in advance from the planned flight.

On 30 September 1969 Mattar and the two Russians met at Mattar's home in order to negotiate the last details, but then the agents of the Lebanese secret service intervenned. In the ensuing gun-fight the two Russians were both wounded. The subsequent investigation revealed that the Soviets intended to evaluate the Mirage in simulated air combats as their forces were at the time engaging the type flown by the Israelis during the War of Attrition.

At almost the same time, in December 1970, the Americans were able to get some first-hand informations about MiG-17s from Cambodia, where a US-military advisor delegation - actually a team from NAIC, dispatched from Wright Patterson - inspected MiGs of the Cambodian AF. One of the MiGs was even flown out to Phu Cat, in Vietnam, to be test-flown against US F-4Ds. The plane was subsequently sent back to Cambodia, only to be destroyed by Vietcong sappers while on the flight line at the Pochentong Air Base, in January 1971.

Cambodian MiG-17 equipped for carriage of US-supplied Mk.82 bombs, seen with a technician of the FTD. (Tom Cooper collection)

Several years later, in April and May 1975 North Vietnamese invaded South Vietnam and overwhelmed the regime in Saigon, which could not count on US-support like in the times before. This lead to a next heavy blow to Americans, as the communists captured a large number of intact US-built aircraft of the South Vietnamese Air Force (rated „fourth largest on the World while boasting over 1.000 aircraft). Indeed, even if a large number of SVAF aircraft and helicopters was flown out to Philippines or Thailand, or to US carriers off the Vietnamese coast, reportedly no less but 60 intact and more than 20 non-serviceable F-5A/B/Es, fell into communist hands. While these planes - just like many other A-37s, A-1s, C-130s, C-119s, UH-1Ds or CH-47s - presented a low-key of US technology, the USSR was fast to ensure delivery of some of the aircraft for testing purposes. Soviets already got several wrecks of over 400 F-4s lost over Vietnam between 1967 and 1972, and - supposedly - the Sapheer-23 radar of MiG-23M was developed from AWG-10 radar, used by Phantoms. Nonetheless, the acquisition of intact F-5s and A-37s was surely very important for Communists, as this kind of technology was very close to their needs: simple and robust. Exactly how many US-built aircraft or helicopters were tested by Soviets or their allies in Eastern Europe remains unknown. Known is, that F-5A/B/Es, A-37Bs, C-130s, C-119Ks, C-47s, UH-1s and CH-47s captured in Vietnam equipped the whole 372nd Air Division of the Vietnamese Air Force, which saw some extensive service during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, in 1979, and remained in service as late as mid-80's. At least one of Vietnamese F-5E (73-0852) ended in Poland (and can now be seen at the Krakwo Museum), together with possible second example of the same type, and an A-37 (68-7916). Finally, one F-5E (73-0878) can now be found in Prague Kbely Museum.

The Story about "Donald"

The next case in which the West could get its hands to some modern Soviet aircraft was of higher importance. In September 1976, namely, Soviet Lt. Viktor Belenko defected flew his MiG-25P to Hakodate, in Japan, and - although hastily flown-in US technicians had hardly enough time to inspect the plane - almost all the secrets of the Foxbat were revealed to the West. Before Belenko’s MiG was returned - in pieces - to the Soviet Union, the Americans managed to test the radar and also the engines. Because of this, and extensive debriefing of the Soviet pilot, the West got a particularly clear picture about the type and the situation in the Soviet air force. (In turn, at an earlier date the MiG-25s provided the Soviets with very valuable intelligence about some US-systems; for example, on 16 May 1972 the Egyptians captured an almost intact AIM-7 Sparrow missile, fired at a Soviet MiG-25R by Israeli F-4Es over the Suez Canal: the missile malfunctioned and then glided to a "safe" distance west of the Canal, and fell intact to the Earth; the Egyptian President Sadat personally ordered for it to be turned over to the Soviets as a "gift"!).

Belenko's MiG-25P seen shortly after arrival in Japan. (Tom Cooper collection)

Belenko's MiG-25P seen while under investigation by technicians of the FTD. (Tom Cooper collection)

The coup Belenko delivered was something Soviets never quite recovered from, even if all MiG-25Ps were subsequently significantly modified and – the very expensive - MiG-31 developed. In fact, exactly the decision to modify the MiG-25s and then develop the MiG-31, but also to develop several other new aircraft and weapons systems resulted in a much heavier blow. Namely, between the late 1970s and 1985 nobody less but the chief of the Phazotron Design Buerau was supplying all the possible informations about such projects R-23, R-24, R-33, R-27, and R-60, S-300, as well as about fighter-interceptor aircraft like MiG-29, MiG-31, and Su-27 and their radars directly to the CIA.

The damage accumulated through these events was immense and the Soviet fighter- and missile-design never trully recovered. Theoretically, only a delivery of an F-14 or F-15 could equalize the situation to some extent, but something similar never happened, despite pretty wild rumors being going around about one Iranian pilot flying his F-14A - together with operational AIM-54 missiles - to USSR, thus compromising sensitive US-high technology. According to similar reports, the Soviet long-range R-33/AA-9 missiles - main weapons of MiG-31 - were developed directly from Phoenix. Engineers of the Vympel institute - producer of the R-33 – flatly denied this and there is actually not the slightest evidence for the R-33 being based on the AIM-54: in fact, if any Iranian Phoenix missile was delivered to the Soviets in the 1980s it would came too late, then the R-33 was developed already in the 1970s. Besides, the R-33 is a semi-active radar-homing missile, while the AIM-54 has active-radar homing guidance in the terminal phase of the flight.

Cockpit of Belenko's MiG-25P: while the secrets of the "Foxbat" were revealed at this instance, during the 1980s the USA were supplied with even more formations from Adolf Tolkachev, at the time head of Phazotron, and responsible for such projects like MiG-29, MiG-31, Su-27, R-23, R-24, R-27, S-300 and others....

Eventually, the Soviets got their hands on some of the US-technology supplied to Iran by the USA during the 1970s, but this happened solely due to their cooperation with Iraq than to any direct Iranian involvement. In December 1982 an F-5E of the Iranian Air Force (IRIAF), flown by Capt. N. Dehkharghani, was damaged by Iraqi air defences while on a mission over northern Iraq. The pilot tried hard to save his plane, but was finally forced to make a belly landing in a field near Kirkuk and the aircraft was captured by Iraqis. This F-5E (73-0976/3-7056) was inspected by Soviets before being put to a permanent display at the military museum in Zawra Park, in Baghdad. Only several months later, in spring 1983, Iraqis found a wreckage of an Iranian F-4E shot down by SAMs north of Basrah. With the wreck, an intact ALQ-87 ECM jamming pod was found, and Iraqis were more than pleased to bring it to Soviets, in exchange for additional aircraft - of course. Supposedly, the Soviets used that pod as basis for developement of some of their ECM devices, however nothing more about this interesting - and certainly “sensitive“ - topic is known. On the other side, the Iranians were successful in capturing some of the Soviet equipment and weapons supplied to Iraq, including an intact Mi-25, a Su-22M-3K, and even an unexploded and almost undamaged Kh-25MP – at the time a weapon completely unknown in the West. As it seems, the Iranians then shared their knowledge about these systems also with the Israelis...

Night Harvest

Much more successfull in their cooperation with Iraq, however, seem to have been the Americans! Since the Islamic revolution in Iran, in February 1979, the USA lost the control over a vast amount of their high-tech equipment sold to the country in the 1970s. Rumours went around that CIA-agents - operating as contract personnel for Iranian Air Force - have managed to sabotage “all” Iranian Tomcats during the chaos of the revolutionary days, making them unable to deploy AIM-54 missiles in combat. These rumours were based on at least three genuine attempts by US personnel to sabotage different pieces of high-tech supplied to Iran, including AIM-54s and C-130 Hercules transports, all of which failed, however. There were even reports about 48 Israeli pilots flying 48 „intact“ Iranian Tomcats out to a „secret air base“ in Negev.... Whatever happened in 1979, by Septemer 1980 the Iranians used their Tomcats and Phoenix missiles extensively and successfully in the war with Iraq, scoring many air combat victories.

Solid reports that would confirm this remained scarce: on the contrary, while the air war was very vivid the public media was full of reports about a "surprisingly low-intensity" air battles. Consequently, for the observers in the West, the condition of the Iranian Air Force and its Tomcat-fleet remained unclear. The confusion only increased since several Iranian defectors - two of which flew their Phantoms to Turkey and Saudi Arabia in 1983 and 1984, respectively - reported about a very bad shape of the remaining aircraft and the whole service, while the intelligence sources in situ were reporting a completely different picture. In fact, by early 1986 - while clandestinely supplying Iran with weapons in exchange for US-hostages taken by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon and money needed for financing Nicaraguan contras – the White House became increasingly worried about the vitality of the IRIAF: regardless of the fact that the IRIAF was compelled to use its high-tech US-supplied aircraft without any help from the US, and regardless the fact that only scarce clandestine shipments of spare parts arrived in Iran, Iranians repeatedly showed that their air force was still active and very effective, that they could not only maintain complex US-built aircraft but also repair combat-damaged examples and return them to service.

Indeed, early in the year 1986 the Iranian offensives - effectively supported by the IRIAF - brought Iraqi military almost on the verge of collapse. This was not in the interest of the US, but interesting for the military. Consequently the CIA and FTD initiated an operation that became known under the code-name “Night Harvest”, the main task of which was to acquire several Iranian fighter aircraft built in the USA and find out what were the Iranians doing in order to maintain their F-4s, F-5s, and F-14s. For the Americans it proved no special problem to contact a number of Iranian Air Force pilots: most of these were US-trained, most opposed the regime in Tehran, and many still had contacts of one sort or the other into the USA. In late August 1986 at least three Iranians defected to Iraq flying F-4E Phantoms; the greatest prize followed days later, on 2 September, when an F-14A - equipped with at least one AIM-54A - followed. Upon landing, the plane was surrounded by up to 20 US technicians, which took care about the aircraft and the pilot, while the RIO - who opposed the defection - became Iraqi POW.

The “captured” Tomcat and two of the Phantoms were then flown to Saudi Arabia (but only after their “new” US pilots refused to fly them before they were inspected and repaired by US technicians), and then throughoutly inspected, before being destroyed and burried in the Saudi desert. Finally, on 7 December 1986, the Pentagon’s Joint Intelligence Group, along with the CIA, a group of Grumman’s top engineers, and a rather large group of USN engineers and technicians, started a two week long meeting with officers of the FTD. At the meeting, a list of 132 F-14-parts was presented, along with nine cases containing numerous parts for Tomcats. The goal of the meeting was to determine if Iran was capable of manufacturing these particular F-14 parts; or determine if Iran was paying someone to manufacture these parts; or if someone other than Iran was producing these parts; and if yes - who? The results of the meeting were unanimous, with the general conclusion that Iran was manufacturing replacement parts for its F-14A-fleet. That was a strange case when the USA spied a country armed with US-supplied technology.

Sad remnants of the sole surviving "witness" of the US operation "Night Harvest": an Iranian F-4E found at the Iraqi Tallil AB, in southern Iraq, early in 2003. This Phantom was left back by the US team in September 1986, after the US pilots refused to fly it out to Saudi Arabia, due to the poor condition of the aircraft. Due to the Operation "Night Harvest" remaining unknown in the public some exceptionaly wild rumours about the background of this Phantom being found in Iraq surfaced in the meantime. (US DoD, via Tom Cooper)

The neverending Story

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, several important shifts in alliances occurred in Africa, most of them making some kind of US or Soviet technology available to opponent. After a coup in 1974, and during the Ogaden War with Somalia, Ethiopians became a very good friends to Soviets and Cubans. Thus, their F-5Es could also be inspected by Soviets. Somalis meanwhile turned to Chinese and the West for help, offering their bases and MiG-21s in exchange.

It is widely understood that technology once sold to some country is becoming a property of that country, and that in most cases upon delivery the selling party cannot influence any more what will happen with supplied equipment. The best example for this thesis is Egypt. During early 1974, the EAF was the second air force - after Syrian - to acquire MiG-23s. A total of eight MiG-23MS interceptors, eight MiG-23BN fighters and four MiG-23U trainers were delivered to a regiment based at Mersa Matruh AB. Shortly after these planes arrived in Egypt, however, the friendship between Cairo and Moscow collapsed, ending all spare-parts and technical support for Soviet-supplied equipment in Egypt. Brand new Egyptian MiG-23s were thus withdrawn from active duty after only one year of service with the EAF. Very soon, both the USA and China became interested in Egypt’s MiG-23s, the USA for intelligence, and Chinese for technical purposes. After some negotiations Egyptians agreed to deliver ten MiG-21MFs, two MiG-23MFs, two MiG-23BNs, two MiG-23Us and ten AS-5 Kelt ASMs to China in exchange for spare parts and technical support for its large fleet of Soviet supplied MiG-17s and MiG-21s. The USA purchased even more aircraft, as no less but 16 MiG-21MF, two Su-20, two MiG-21Us, six MiG-23MS, six MiG-23BN, two Mi-8 and ten AS-5 ASMs were purchased for FTD, in exchange for US-made weapons and spares support for Egypt’s newly acquired F-4Es. Interestingly, as early as 1979, US Sidewinders, mated to Egyptian MiG-21s, scored a kill against a Libyan MiG-23MS, during a short clash over the Libyan-Egyptian border.

Needless to say: both China and the USA flew and tested former Egyptian MiGs extensively, learning all there was to learn. Meanwhile, MiG-21MFs delivered to China became the pattern aircraft for the J-7III fighter, and probably for the newly revealed J-7D version.

One of former Egyptian MiG-23BNs, sold to China in 1978, can today be seen aboard the carrier "Minsk", which is now functioning as a fun park in China. (via Tom Cooper)

By acquiring such a number of Soviet-built aircraft, however, the USAF was even able to organize the 4477th „Red Hats“ Test and Evaluation Squadron. At least one additional Egyptian Su-20 and one MiG-23BN were delivered to West Germany by Egypt, in 1986, while several others supposedly followed as sources for spares (the surviving Su-20 is now preserved at Leeuwarden AB). Again, both aircraft were inspected and tested by Luftwaffe’s test-unit in Manching. Hardly one year later, Chadian forces captured several Libyan Mi-24s and Mi-25s during fighting in Chad and Libya, at least two of which found their way to the USA (together with several intact SAM systems) after being put to test in France (at Istres), and in the UK. During same operations, Chadian forces captured also several Libyan L-39ZOs, all of which were subsequently handed over to the Egyptian Air Force! Meanwhile, a number of Afghan pilots defected to Pakistan, delivering a total of three Mi-25s and several Mi-8s: except one Mi-25 that was delivered to the USA all the others were taken up by the Pakistani Air Force, which is known to still have at least one Mi-25 in service. In 1989 an Angolan pilot defected with his MiG-21MF to Namibia, where the plane was captured by South African forces (and is now displayed at SAAF Museum, in Waterkloof). Newest examples of foreign aircraft ending in hands of their opponents are at least as controversial as older ones.

1988 and 1989 was an especially successfull year for western intelligence services when it came to purchase examples of Soviet technology. In July 1988 two Syrian pilots defected with their MiG-29s to Turkey. Already in April 1989 another disaffected Syrian pilot flew his MiG-23ML to Turkey as well; only a month later A. Zuyev, a Soviet MiG-29-pilot, defected with his plane - after an exchange of gunfire with a sentry at his base - to Turkey, and in October, the Syrian defector Abdel Bassem landed his MiG-23ML in Israel, again revealing most secrets about the main Soviet-delivered fighter-type of Arab air forces. Meanwhile, the USA were able to acquire a number of MiG-15 and J-5s (Chinese copy of MiG-17) from China, and then also purchased a number of additional examples from Poland. Also, in 1995, Israelis loaned two MiG-29s from the Polish AF for test and evaluation, while during the early and mid-1990s a number of Western pilots has got an opportunity to fly MiG-29s and Su-27s in Hungary and the Ukraine, respectively.

In the late 1980s the Combat Core Certification Professionals Company acquired a number of MiG-15s and MiG-17s from China and Poland. The aircraft were employed in a "mobile threat test" at Kritland AFB. At the time the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation intended to acquire enough equipment to simulate two Soviet air defense regiments!

Photographed in some hanger at Kubinka AB, in Russia? No! This is one of several ex-Polish AF MiG-21s as seen during the testing and evalutaion by the FDT, in the USAF. (US DoD, via Tom Cooper)

During the Operation „Desert Storm“, in March 1991, the US forces captured at least two Iraqi Mi-25s (one of which can now be seen at Aggressors Threat Museum at Nellis AFB), three Mi-8s and some other helicopters, as well as a complete MiG-29 and the cockpit section of another. The history about these two Iraqi MiG-29s is definitely interesting: the US reconnaissance apparently detected three MiG-29s left abandoned at Tallil AB, in southern Iraq, and a FTD-Team was swiftly dispatched aboard a CH-47 helicopter. Out of three MiG-29s, one was in a relatively good shape, but surrounded by mines, and two were severely damaged. The FTD-Team thus decided, to first cut the cockpit section of one of the damaged examples, and load it aboard the CH-47: needless to say, despite a considerable damage, the USA have captured an intact N-019 radar. Besides, several days later another team arrived to pick up a complete MiG-29...

Iraqi Army Air Corps Mi-25 captured by US troops in 1991. (US DoD, via Tom Cooper)

Polish AF MiG-29 during a flight-test in Israel, in the mid-1990s. (Source unknown, via Tom Cooper)

That was, by far, however, not the last time that the USA managed to gather specimen of foreign technology. One of two J-22 Oraos of the Bosnian-Serb Air Force which crashed near Bihac in 1994 was subsequently inspected by UNPROFOR-soldiers of Canadian contingent, but it remains unknown what happened with it afterward. Both wrecks of Yugoslav MiG-29Bs shot down on 26 March 1999 over Bosnia were also thrughoutly inspected by US technicians, even if one of the MiGs fell into a minefield. Most probably nothing special happened with them, as the Americans already sampled considerable intelligence not only from Germans (who have flown MiG-29s between 1989 and 2003), but also from 14 MiG-29Cs and seven MiG-29B/UBs purchased from Moldavia, in October 1997 and delivered directly to the National Air Intelligence Center (NAIC), as the former FDT, stationed at Wright Patterson AFB and now under a direct control of the Air Intelligence Agency, is now named. Contrary to what was broadly reported, namely, and even if at least six of these are now displayed at different places in the USA, the main purpose of that purchase was again to test and study the type, instead of preventing Iran to get additional MiG-29s.

© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org

Top of Page

Latest ACIG Database
Striking Flankers, Part 2
Striking Flankers, Part 1
Exotic Fulcrums
French ECM-pods
Lockheed F-94 Starfire
The Soviet Navy ‘Forger’: Yak-36M, Yak-38, Yak-38U and Yak-38M
Mil-Helicopters in World-Wide Service, Part 3
Mil-Helicopters in World-Wide Service, Part 2
Mil-Helicopters in World-Wide Service, Part 1
Falcon and Genie: Two Little-Known US Air-to-Air Missiles
Bear Hunters, Part 5: ASW Style
F-14 Tomcat with USN, Part 4
F-14 Tomcat with USN, Part 3
F-14 Tomcat with USN, Part 2
F-14 Tomcat with USN, Part 1
Sukhoi Su-30 MKI
Portfolio: RQ-1 Predators in USAF service
Potfolio: SAM-sites through History, Part 2
Portfolio: SAM-sites through History, Part 1
Mirage F.1s in Combat
New F-16s
Gone With the Wind
Portfolio: USN "Aggressors"
Phantoms Phorever, Part 9: UK
Phantoms Phorever, Part 8: Spain & Turkey
Phantoms Phorever, Part 7: South Korea
Phantoms Phorever, Part 6: Iran
Phantoms Phorever, Part 5: Greece
Phantoms Phorever, Part 4: Japan
Phantoms Phorever, Part 3: Israel
Phantoms Phorever, Part 2: Germany
Phantoms Phorever, Part 1: Australia & Egypt
Dassault Rafale
MiG-21, Part 2
MiG-21, Part 1
Su-27: Russia's Top Fighter of the Cold War?
Bear Hunters, Part 4
Bear Hunters, Part 3: Collision with Flanker
Bear Hunters, Part 2: Korean Style
Bear-Hunters, Part 1
The Big "MiG"-Question
Kfir C.10
MiG-29 Fulcrum