When the Israeli Air Force showed the Soviet Union who the TOP GUN was

In July 1970, Soviet pilots embedded with the Egyptian Air Force tried to shoot down an Israeli fighter jet • The Israel Air Force retaliated with Operation Rimon 20, downing five MiGs and dealing the Soviets a humiliating blow.

The first, and so far last, dogfight between Israeli and Russian air forces took place 45 years ago, on July 30, 1970, as the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization was winding down.

The aerial battle took place southwest of the Suez Canal, over an area the Israeli Air Force had dubbed “Texas” as it was a local “Wild West,” a lawless area where the quicker the gunslinger, the bigger the reward.

The Israeli force comprised four Phantom and 12 Mirage fighter jets, flown by pilots who together were credited with shooting down 59 enemy aircraft. The Soviet force included 24 MiG-21 jets, at the time the most advanced of their kind.

The airborne battle was meticulously planned. A trap was set and the Soviets flew right into it, to humiliating results: Five Soviet jets were shot down, and although one Israeli Mirage sustained some damage, all Israeli jets landed safely back in their home base. Operation Rimon 20, as it would later be known, became one of the most successful operations in IAF history.

The operation was prompted by the growing Soviet involvement in Egypt, following then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s demand that Moscow supply him with advanced missiles and fighter jets, so to counter the IAF’s Phantoms and Skyhawks, which consistently targeted Egyptian forces along the Suez Canal, dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on them and on targets deeper inside Egypt, seemingly undisturbed.

At the time, Israeli jets were also in the habit of flying over Cairo simply to make its skies crack with the sound of sonic booms, as if to show Nasser who was really in charge.

In two tense meetings in Moscow, the first in the fall of 1969 and the second in January 1970, the Egyptian president threatened that unless his Soviet ally gave him what he needed, he would turn to its nemesis, the United States.

The Soviets complied and Nasser’s military received SA-3 surface-to-air missiles, which were far more effective than the SA-2 missiles the Egyptian army had at the time, and three MiG-21MF squadrons, complete with munitions, auxiliary equipment, and ground and air crews. Overall, about 100 Soviet pilots were stationed in Egypt.

The presence of Russian pilots among the ranks of the Egyptian Air Force was a closely guarded secret, discovered by the IDF’s newly minted Russian-language wiretap and surveillance unit, which worked closely with Unit 515, its Arabic-language counterpart. The unit picked up a conversation in Russian between two allegedly Egyptian MiG pilots on a routine patrol flight, and the secret was out.

From a tactical standpoint, there was tacit consent between Israel and Egypt that the IAF does not breach Egyptian airspace beyond 30 kilometers (18 miles) over the Suez Canal, an area considered the Soviets’ “grazing land.” However, the Soviets soon began trying to down Israeli fighter jets.

The proverbial last straw took place on July 25, 1970, when two Soviet pilots attempted to down an IAF Skyhawk and hit its tail. Israel decided to retaliate, despite the risk entailed in poking the Russian bear.

“The decision to take on the Russians was made by the government,” Col. (ret.) Aviem Sella, who flew one of the Phantom jets that participated in the operation, recalled. “The order was unequivocal: Don’t just strive to engage the Russians — take them down. I think it was one of the only times the government made a conscious decision to fight a global power.” (ISRAEL HAYOM)