The MiG-21 is possibly the most iconic supersonic fighter to ever be developed by the then Soviet Union. First entering service with the Soviet Air Force in 1959, the MiG-21 was at the time the most advanced fighter aircraft the Soviet Union had produced and was the Communist regime’s most exported aircraft. Up to sixty nations would adopt the MiG-21 as their primary air superiority aircraft and for a number of countries today, that is still the case. But in the 1960s it was the West who wanted the MiG-21 more than anyone, and they were willing to do anything to get their hands on the USSR’s most advanced fighter.
In 1966, one nation would do the impossible to acquire one of these jets. An event which would shake the intelligence community to its very core, as well as show the world just what this small middle eastern country was truly capable of.
The story begins in the early 1960s, when a young nation by the name of Israel found itself surrounded by nations which did not care too much for the Jewish state. A situation which it had lived with since their nation was founded in 1948 and as a result Israel had found itself in a constant state of hostilities with its neighbours. During this time the Israeli government made attempts to modernize its armed forces, a task which was easier said than done. As a number of western nations, including the United States, had arms embargo in place over the Jewish state. This affected the Israeli Defense Forces greatly, as most of their equipment was slowly being out classed by the Soviet backed Arab States.
In 1962, Israel was able to acquire the French built Mirage III for their air force, mainly because it was the only advanced jet fighter they could get their hands on. But it still would not be enough to beat back the Arab powers if/when another war broke out. While this was going on, Arab countries such as Egypt and Iraq had begun to acquire the Soviet built MiG-21, which unlike the Mirage, was designed with the full intent of Dog Fighting. While capable of dog fighting, the Mirage was more of an interceptor. If the Israeli Air Force were to have any chance of winning the next war, they would need to get their hands on a MiG.
For this, the task was given to Israel’s intelligence agency: The Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, More commonly known as The Mossad. Now when it comes to intelligence organization, the Mossad is possible one of the more famous/infamous agencies, as they have been known to do some questionable things to achieve their mission goals. Now they were tasked with doing what looked to be the impossible and steal an Arab jet from an enemy air force.
Their first attempt to acquire a jet was a disaster, as the Egyptian pilot who had been approached by Israeli agents ended up turning them over to the Egyptian authorities. Mossad Agent Jean Thomas and his team were imprisoned and eventually hanged for espionage. Another attempt, this time in Iraq, also failed, with the Mossad team ending up assaulting two Iraqi pilots so as to prevent them from alerting their superiors. But in 1964, Mossad got a break in the form of an Iraqi born Jew by the name of Yusuf.
Yusuf worked as a servant of an Christian family in Iraq and had a close friendship with them. Yusuf’s girlfriend was also friends with a Christian pilot in the Iraqi Air Force by the name of Munir Redfa and before you ask, yes there were Christians in the Iraqi military at the time. But there was also a lot of discrimination towards non Muslims and Redfa was not immune to it. Not to mention that Redfa was forced to attack Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country, something which troubled him very much. Knowing just what his friend was dealing with, Yusuf managed to get in contact with Israel services and informed them about Redfa.
Soon an agent was dispatched and managed to get in touch with the Iraqi pilot. Soon he travelled to Europe to meet with other Mossad agents. While there, Mossad informed Redfa of there plan for him to fly his MiG-21 to Israel. If he was able to do this, he would be given not only one million dollars, but Israeli citizenship and even a full time job. Redfa agreed, but he wanted to be sure that his family would be smuggled out of Iraq, so they would not be punished by the government for what he had done. Mossad agreed to this and sent agents to Iraq to prepare Redfa’s family to leave the country and when everything was in place, the operation began.
On August 16th 1966, Redfa took off from his base for what was supposed to be a normal training mission. But suddenly he turned towards Jordan and made a bee line towards Israel, where he was intercepted by two Israeli Mirage IIIs. Who themselves were surprised to see the Iraqi jet: Up unit that point, no Israeli pilot had seen the Arab world’s most advanced fighter aircraft in flight. Getting into formation with the MiG, the two Mirages escorted Redfa to Hatzor and to safety. But this is not the end of the story.
One hour after the MiG-21 landed in Israel, news reached to Danny Shapira. Who at the time was the Jewish state’s top test pilot and would be given the task of flying the MiG-21 for the IAF. Making him the first pilot in the western world to fly the Soviet’s most advanced Fighter. After a few days and being briefed by Redfa, Shipira took to the sky in the MiG-21 and after getting familiar with the fighter, Shipira began to fly with senior Israeli pilots so as to see just what the MiG-21 was capable of. As well as develop tactics which could be used to defeat Arab jets.
It was during these flights the Israeli discovered that although the MiG-21 was fast and nimble at high altitudes, the controls became sluggish and unresponsive when flying at high speeds at low altitudes. Also the MiG-21 had little to no rear visibility, meaning there was a massive blind spot which could be exploited by an attacking aircraft. But despite these flaws, the Israelis came to appreciate the MiG for just how easy it was to maintain, even joking it was like a Volkswagon, just fuel and go. It was a decent, yet low cost air frame which was able to meet the needs of many an air force, like those in the Arab world.
In 1968, the Israeli government leased the MiG-21 to the United States under the “Have Doughnut” program. Where the aircraft re designated the “YF-110”and was used in aggressor training against Air Force and Navy Phantoms in flights which took place over the Groom Lake facility in Nevada. As a result of this lease, the IAF was able to acquire American made fighters such as the F-4 Phantom and even A-4 Skyhawks throughout the 1970s. As for the information gained by the Israeli test flights, they were put to use months later during the Six Day war and later on in the Yom Kippur war.
Israel’s apparent theft of an Soviet built MiG-21 was a massive intelligence coup for the time and still remains as the one of the more successful operations in the history of Mossad. It just showed how determined one country was to ensure its survival against its many enemies.