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."
The trap at the heart of Operation Rimon 20 was carefully scripted: Four Mirage aircraft were to fly into the Gulf of Suez, supposedly on a routine reconnaissance flight. Should the Soviets take the bait and try to intercept them, then more Israeli fighter jets, either hovering nearby or on the ground at the Refidim Airbase, would scramble to intercept the MiGs.
And so it was: Exactly 11 minutes into the Mirages' flight, five Soviet MiGs -- "all shiny and new, as if they just came off the assembly line," Sella recalled -- scrambled to engage. To their surprise, they were met with a formidable IAF formation.
It was the largest dogfight held on the Egyptian front at the time. Within moments, the late Col. Asher Snir, flying one of the Mirages, shot down a Soviet MiG. The pilot ejected at 30,000 feet, and floated slowly toward the ground, effectively remaining airborne during the entire fight, which prompted the Israeli pilots to use his location as a makeshift coordinate in their radio communications.
"We were saying things like '10 kilometers from the parachute,'" Sella said.
The Soviet pilots, who were significantly less experienced than the Israeli pilots they were fighting, soon became flustered and found themselves at a great disadvantage.
Former IAF Commander Maj. Gen. (ret.) Avihu Ben-Nun, whose jet led the squadron of Phantoms that participated in the fight, recalled that "it was obvious they had little experience. It was a little frustrating, because you're used to knowing what's expected from the enemy when it fights you, and all of a sudden they do something different."
According to Sella, the Soviet pilots "just fired missiles everywhere. You could tell they weren't thinking or trying to target anything."
When the dust settled, five Soviet MiGs had been downed. The credit went to Snir, Sella, Ben-Nun, Avraham Shalmon, and Iftach Spector.
Years later, during the Israel-Egypt peace negotiations in the late 1970s, then-Vice President Hosni Mubarak told then-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman that when Egyptian Air Force officials heard about the dogfight they rejoiced over the Soviets' defeat. The Soviet pilots had apparently been very dismissive of their Egyptian peers, and the Egyptian pilots were happy to witness their downfall.
The Soviets, for their part, dispatched Chief Marshal of Aviation Pavel Kutakhov to Egypt the day after the dogfight. In true Soviet fashion, he warned his pilots that should any of them ever breathe a word of the events to another living soul, they would find themselves in a Siberian gulag.