There have been countless discussions over which is the better fighter jet— the U.S.-made Northrop F-5E Tiger II or the Soviet MiG-21 Fishbed.
That can be a hard argument to settle. The Iran-Iraq war was probably a draw for the two types.
More than 15,000 of these two cheap, lightweight, simple-to-maintain and -operate fighters were produced and, over the time, they’ve served in more than 60 different air forces — some of which operated both of them.
The usual story is that they never met in combat and thus the ultimate question about their mutual superiority remains unanswered. But actually, they did clash — and not only once.
Their first air battles — fought in the course of the long-forgotten conflict over the Horn of Africa in summer 1977 — ended with a rather one-sided victory for F-5Es of the Ethiopian Air Force. These shot down nine MiG-21s — not to mention two MiG-17s — of the Somali Air Force while suffering zero losses in air combat.
Slightly more than three years later, the two types clashed again in the course of the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq had opportunistically exploited internal chaos resulting from the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978 and ’79. The Revolution toppled the U.S.-allied Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and installed a regime that nearly disbanded the Iranian military.
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The former Imperial Iranian Air Force became the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, or IRIAF. The air arm lost nearly two-thirds of its officers and other ranks to arrests, executions or forced early retirements. By the time Iraq invaded Iran on Sept. 22, 1980, the IRIAF was a shadow of its former self.
Nevertheless, the IRIAF still had five squadrons equipped with around 115 F-5E/Fs, and one squadron flying reconnaissance-optimized RF-5As. Some 40 additional Tiger IIs were in storage. Their primary air-to-air weapon was the AIM-9J variant of the U.S.-made Sidewinder missile, and two 20-millimeter Colt M39 cannons installed internally. But in Iran the type was primarily deployed as a fighter-bomber, armed with different bombs.
Operated by nine squadrons, the MiG-21 was the backbone of the Iraqi Air Force, or IrAF. The best units were equipped with the ultimate MiG-21bis-variant and the latest Soviet-made air-to-air missiles such as the AA-2C Advanced Atoll and the AA-8 Aphid.
A few MiG-21s were locally modified to carry French-made R.500 Magic air-to-air missiles, a small batch of which was delivered to Iraq in summer 1980 pending the first deliveries of Dassault Mirage F.1EQ interceptors.
Training of Iraqi and Iranian pilots was of similar quality. All the Iranians underwent extensive training in the United States and some in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Iraqis developed their own tactical procedures informed by the Arab experience in the October 1973 war with Israel. Indian, French and Soviet input also shaped Iraqi training.
Iranian F-5Es and Iraqi MiG-21s clashed for the first time on Sept. 24, 1980, two days after Iraq invaded Iran. Two MiGs sneaked up unobserved on a four-ship of Tigers that was approaching Hurrya Air Base loaded with Mk.82 bombs.
One of the Iraqi’s missiles detonated harmlessly under the aircraft flown by Capt. Yadollah Sharifi-Ra’ad, alerting him to the enemy’s presence. Sharifi-Ra’ad then splashed one of the Iraqis with a single Sidewinder.
In attempt to destroy the main Iraqi source of income, the IRIAF began bombing the Iraqi oil industry starting on Sept. 26, 1980. This operation resulted in most of the clashes between the two fighter types.
The first of these occurred on the same day and developed when a pair of Tiger IIs was intercepted by a pair of MiG-21s while approaching the Qanaqin oil refinery. While Iraqis claimed to have shot down an aircraft flown by famous Iranian pilot Capt. Zarif-Khadem — formerly a member of the Taj-Talee Acrojet team, an Iranian equivalent of the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds — the Iranians insisted he hit the ground while attempting to evade one of the MiGs.
On Nov. 14, 1980, a pair of MiG-21bis from №47 Squadron, led by a captain we’ll call “Zaki,” caught an F-5E that had separated from its formation after striking an oil refinery in Mosul. Wrongly describing his target as an F-4 Phantom, the Iraqi described what happened next.
“Our order was to patrol an area we thought was used as a waypoint by the enemy. We carefully scanned the skies and few minutes later saw a lonesome Phantom [sic]. I dove and accelerated while cutting the corner, got a good tone and pressed the trigger.”
“I never fired a Magic before, but heard of the first kill scored with it nearly a month before,” the Iraqi MiG-21 pilot continued. “The missile guided and everything looked fine — until it passed harmlessly by the tail of my target! My first reaction was that of a shock, but friction of second later the Magic detonated near the cockpit, causing a big fireball.”