The Cold War in some areas of the world has now and then grown into real armed conflicts. Throughout the 20th century, the Middle East was an infamous prize in this, when several very bloody wars took place on this territory, especially since the establishment of the state of Israel. Between the two largest, the six-day in 1967 and Yom Kippur in 1973, a large air battle took place over the Sinai Peninsula, about which not much is known to this day, but which at the same time influenced the entire Cold War.
An Israeli F-4 shoots down a MiG-21
| Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Mark Beerdom, Public domain
In June 1967 within six days he reached Israel overwhelming victory over Egypt, Syria and Jordan and greatly increased the territory under his control. This extension included Gaza strip and the Sinai Peninsula acquired from Egypt, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Despite Israel’s quick victory, the defeated Arab countries refused to accept the new status quo, so the so-called war of attrition, a series of skirmishes along the Suez Canal, began almost immediately after the cessation of hostilities. The Egyptians, supported by their Arab allies and the Soviet Union, sought to wear down Israel’s military and morale with constant small-scale attacks, and Israel responded in kind.
Through the eyes of Jiří VojáčekSource: DiaryThe Soviet Union was the main supporter of the Arab states in the fight against Israel, providing them with weapons, military advisers and diplomatic support. In contrast, after the end of the alliance with France in 1967 they were Israel’s main ally United States of America. However, the role of the Soviets was not limited to that of a distant patron. As the war for survival continued, they began to play a more prominent role. By 1970, they deployed in Egypt advanced anti-aircraft missile systems and even their own fighters with Soviet pilots to counter the dominance of the Israeli Air Force (IAF).
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In the years following the Six Day War, the IAF established itself as a formidable force that consistently outclassed its opponents in aerial combat. The superior training, tactics and equipment of the Israeli pilots made them a dominant force in the skies above Middle East. This dominance was a thorn in the side of Egypt and other Arab states trying to regain the territory they lost during the Six Day War.
Shooting down of an Israeli Mirage III by an Egyptian MiG-21 during the Yom Kippur War.Source: Wikimedia Commons, Egyptian Air Force, Public domain
When the Soviet Union saw that its Arab allies were fighting, it decided to intervene directly in the conflict. The Soviets’ aim was to challenge the IAF’s supremacy in the skies and help their Arab allies regain their footing. For the first time in the conflict, the Israelis found themselves face to face with a great power, not just their Arab neighbors. The conflicts began on June 6, 1970, when the first Israeli F-4 Phantom II was shot down. More shootings followed, both by air and by air defense units. Their victims were Mirage III, F-4 and especially A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers.
Faced with an emancipating adversary, Israel’s military leadership realized it needed to reassert its air superiority. At the same time, however, it knew that a direct and extensive confrontation would by the Soviet Union, whose presence in the region was well known to Israeli politicians thanks to the work of the intelligence services, could lead to a significant escalation. Therefore, they decided to carry out an operation that would send a clear signal to the Soviets without provoking a full-scale war.
Operation Rimon 20
The operation was carefully planned. A group of F-4 Phantom II fighters were to act as a decoy, flying a pattern that suggested a routine attack on Egyptian air defenses. MiGs with Soviet pilots were expected to attack these phantoms, after which the IAF’s main force of high-flying Mirage III fighters would spring a trap and swoop down on the unsuspecting Soviets from above.
On July 30, 1970, everything was launched. Indeed, the operation was launched by a group of IAF F-4 Phantom II fighters flying at relatively low altitude towards Egyptian air defenses in a pattern that suggested a routine strike mission. These phantoms were bait in a trap. Their task was to lure the Soviet blinks to fight and lure them away from their ground defenses with anti-aircraft systems. Meanwhile, waiting high above were the Mirage III fighters, the main fighter jets of the IAF, which were hidden from radar because they were flying at a higher altitude than their effective range. Piloted by some of the IAF’s most experienced airmen, these aircraft were a trap ready to pounce as soon as the MiGs took the bait.
Shooting down of an Egyptian MiG-21 by an Israeli aircraft in October 1973Source: Wikimedia Commons, Israeli Air Force, Public domain
Predictably, the Soviet planes took the bait. Anticipating a routine encounter, they set out to capture Phantom IIs. However, the situation quickly turned in favor of the Israelis. When the migas hit the phantoms, the Mirage III fighters swooped down and caught the Soviet pilots by surprise. They now found themselves in a pincer, the Phantoms were in front of them engaging in dogfights and the Mirage IIIs were bearing down on them from above and behind. This advantageous position allowed Israeli pilots to launch missiles with a high probability of success.
The fight was fast and intense. The Israelis had the upper hand due to the element of surprise, better position and probably better aircraft. Despite the advanced design of the MiGs and the experience of the Soviet pilots, they found themselves in a disadvantageous position and were unable to respond effectively to the ambush. Israeli Mirages with a delta wing design excelled in high-speed, high-altitude engagements. They were able to maintain control and maneuverability, allowing them to outmaneuver MiGs in close range combat. The superior tactics and coordination of their pilots, along with the advantages afforded them by strategic planning, resulted in the IAF shooting down five Soviet aircraft in quick succession.
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After an intense fight, the Israeli fighters quickly moved away and returned to the base. The operation achieved its objective: to demonstrate the air superiority of the IAF and send a clear signal to the Soviet Union and its Arab allies. Notably, the IAF did not suffer a single casualty during the operation. This flawless execution further underscored the effectiveness of their strategic planning and the skill of their pilots.
Aerial battle as part of Operation Rimon 20, it was a masterclass in strategic planning and tactical execution. The ability of the IAF to lure Soviet fighters into an ambush, effectively engage them and win the ensuing engagement, all without any casualties, is a testament to their operational prowess. This operation demonstrated the effectiveness of superior tactics and coordination in air combat and left a lasting mark on the history of air combat.
Consequences of the battle
Operation Rimon 20, which took place on July 30, 1970, was one of the defining moments war between Israel and Egypt. A well-executed action by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) resulted in the downing of five Soviet MiG-21 fighters without a single loss, confirming its air superiority. However, the impact of Operation Rimon 20 went far beyond the immediate military victory and affected regional dynamics as well as global geopolitics. Indeed, the battle was a significant setback for the Soviet Union, which actively intervened in the conflict to support its Arab allies and balance Israel’s dominance in the skies. The loss of five Soviet-piloted aircraft without a single Israeli shot down was a blow to Soviet prestige and a clear demonstration of the IAF’s capabilities.
The operation also revealed the limitations of the Soviet Union’s military technology. Although the MiG-21 was one of the most advanced fighter aircraft of its time, the Israeli Mirage and Phantom aircraft surpassed it. The effectiveness of Soviet anti-aircraft systems, which were deployed to protect the airspace of Arab states, was also questioned.
At the regional level, Operation Rimon 20 emphasized military Israel’s prowess and determination to maintain air superiority, a key element of its national defense strategy. The action had a demoralizing effect on Israel’s adversaries who saw the IAF take on a superpower and win. For Israel, this operation meant a boost in self-confidence and belief in the tactical superiority and effectiveness of its pilots and aircraft. The IAF’s ability to plan and execute such a complex operation also underscored its operational flexibility and strategic acumen.
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Faced with an unexpected defeat, the Soviets began to reassess their involvement in the conflict. The risk of further losses and the possibility of escalation into a wider conflict with Israel, and thus with its ally, the United States of America, prompted the Soviet Union to take a more cautious approach. This change played a key role in the conclusion of an armistice in August 1970, which effectively ended the latent war of attrition, only to be replaced three years later by the dynamic and bloody Yom Kippur War, after which the two greatest regional adversaries, Israel and Egypt, finally joined hands.
Operation Rimon 20 is still studied today in military academies around the world as an example of successful strategic planning and execution. Testifies to the importance of air superiority in modern war and about how significant an impact well-planned military operations can have on the course of history.