In a little-known initiative, Israel tested three MiG-29 jets against its own frontline fighters to gain an edge over its adversaries.
n a secretive program in the mid-1990s, Israel briefly got its hands on a small number of Soviet-era MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets, at that time almost certainly the most capable threat aircraft that it was likely to face. While the source of these jets was never officially disclosed, they were put through their paces by the Israeli Air Force, including in dissimilar air combat, and the effort yielded some fascinating insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the MiG-29.
Israel had some significant successes in obtaining previous MiG fighters for study and evaluation. Most of these had arrived in Israel through defections from Arab air forces, or involved aircraft that were captured after having been damaged in battle. In some cases, as with the famous Iraqi Air Force MiG-21 coded ‘007,’ the efforts to acquire the jet were altogether more nefarious.
By the mid-1990s, the air forces of both Iran and Syria — Israel’s two most significant potential foes in the region — had begun to receive MiG-29s. These aircraft represented a significant upgrade over their previous fighter equipment: Cold War-era U.S.-made fighters in the case of Iran — some of which Israel also flew — and earlier-generation MiGs in the case of Syria.
By this stage, the Israeli Air Force had been able to extensively test a MiG-23MLD Flogger-G, flown to the country by a Syrian defector in 1989. While this was the most advanced version of the swing-wing Flogger fighter at this time, and impressed the Israelis in certain regards, the MiG-29 had by now clearly eclipsed it in terms of overall air-to-air combat capabilities and even threatened to challenge its F-15s and F-16s.
According to the official account of the Israeli Air Force, three single-seat MiG-29 Fulcrum-As arrived in Israel around April of 1997, after which “for several weeks, Israeli test pilots learned the plane and its weapon systems inside and out, flew numerous hours, and tested the jet’s abilities when facing Israeli fighter jets.”
The Israeli Air Force account doesn’t reveal which base the Fulcrum trio was brought to, although the Flight Test Center, based at Tel Nof, south of Tel Aviv in central Israel, certainly played a key role. This unit is responsible for trials of new and modified aircraft and weapons testing, proving domestic modifications to aircraft and avionics, as well as evaluating threat assets.
While Israel has never acknowledged the source of the three MiG-29s, there is a weight of evidence to indicate they belonged to the Polish Air Force — at least one source even provides the individual aircraft identity for one of the Polish jets involved. Although their national markings were concealed, the gray-painted areas match the shape and location of the Polish checkerboards, while the color scheme is also identical to that applied on the Polish jets.
The few available photos of the jets clearly show the insignia of No. 253 Squadron of the Israeli Air Force applied to the tailfins, suggesting that pilots from this unit (then flying the F-16A/B) were heavily involved in the evaluation.
Presumably, the Fulcrums were accompanied to Israel by Polish Air Force pilots and maintainers. The Israeli Air Force account suggests that most of the flights were undertaken with non-Israeli pilots at the controls, although “a few” local test pilots also got a chance to fly the jet themselves, each of these recording around 20 flight hours in the MiG.
Before that could happen, however, the Israelis had to become familiarized with the aircraft, using a specially prepared conversion course. According to the Israeli Air Force account, “The language barrier was the main difficulty: the study material was all written in Russian, forcing the Israeli pilots to use a translator, and at times to improvise.”
Among those Israelis that did get a chance to fly the MiG-29 was ‘Lt. Col. M,’ who was the commander of the Flight Test Center at the time. “We are used to testing foreign aircraft, as part of our purchasing procedure, but the MiG-29 was an out-of-the-ordinary kind of test flight”, he recalled. “Not even for a moment did we forget that this aircraft is the most advanced strategic threat that exists at the arena today.”
Even after mastering the theory, there would be some hurdles once up in the air, including the voice-warning system, which provided the pilot with alerts, and which was in the Russian language only. Furthermore, the cockpit instrumentation was all in Cyrillic and calibrated in metric rather than Imperial measurements, leading to temporary English-language placards being added.
“Since we are used to flying unfamiliar aircraft, it wasn’t a great challenge to fly the MiG-29 by ourselves right from the first time,” said Lt. Col. M. “Within minutes sitting in the cockpit, I was comfortable.”
“I wasn’t too excited about the first solo flight on the MiG”, Lt. Col. M reflected. “What was exciting, is the fact that so many people watched that premiere flight. It’s not every day that a MiG takes off the squadron’s runway. Everyone at the base stopped what they were doing to watch that jet fly.”
While the MiGs were in Israel, there were “several” flights each day. Each test flight began was pre-briefed and then thoroughly debriefed, with the particular test points analyzed.
“The debrief is the most serious part [of any mission]”, explained Lt. Gen. G, another of the Israeli pilots who flew the MiG. “This time, they were even more serious. After each flight, which lasted an hour, there was a two-to-three-hours debrief, sometimes even more.”
Most valuable was no doubt the opportunity to fly simulated air-to-air combat between the MiG-29 and frontline Israeli Air Force jets, namely the F-15 and F-16, although some sources indicate that the Fulcrum was also flown against the F-4E.
Against the F-15 and F-16, the Soviet-designed jet was found to be a “serious opponent,” superior in certain scenarios to the Israeli fighters.
“The aircraft is highly maneuverable, and its engines provide a higher thrust-to-weight ratio,” observed Israeli test pilot Maj. N. “Our pilots must be careful with this aircraft in air combat. Flown by a well-trained professional, it is a worthy opponent.”
Specifics of how those dissimilar air combat drills played out have not been revealed, although Lt. Gen. M. noted that the MiG’s advantages were most prominent “in a tight [turning] battle.”
“It’s an advanced aircraft, and in close maneuvering engagements it is absolutely terrific,” Lt. Gen. M. continued. “It makes sharp turns, it’s quick, and to my opinion, as a platform, it does not fall short of our advanced fighter jets.”