How an air-to-air victory by Navy F-14 fighter jets became a headache for the Pentagon

A US Navy F-14 takes off from USS John F. Kennedy in the Red Sea, January 25, 1991AP Photos

  • In January 1989, two US Navy F-14s collided with Libyan MiG-23s over the Mediterranean.

  • The F-14s brought down both MiGs in what was one of several clashes between US and Libyan forces in the 1980s.

  • The aerial victory became a headache for the Pentagon, which had to defend its decision to fire on the Libyans.

On January 4, 1989, the United States Navy’s aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy sailed through the Mediterranean with multiple aircraft from its air wing in the air for training exercises and patrol missions – a common practice while carriers are at sea.

At 11:55 a.m., one of those aircraft, an E-2C Hawkeye early warning and control aircraft, detected two Libyan Air Force MiG-23s taking off from an airbase in northeastern Libya and en route to the aircraft carrier.

Two nearby F-14 Tomcats were ordered to intercept the MiGs. The dogfight that followed was a victory for the Tomcats, but it quickly turned into a headache for the Pentagon.

Mediterranean tensions

A Libyan corvette burns in the Gulf of Sidra after being attacked by a US Navy attack aircraft A-6E Intruder, March 24, 1986.US Navy

By the late 1980s, US-Libya relations had deteriorated, driven in part by territorial disputes in the Mediterranean.

In 1973, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi claimed almost the entire Gulf of Sidra as territorial waters, declaring that any crossing of his “line of deathwould get a military response.

The US categorically rejected the statement and conducted freedom-of-navigation exercises with warships and aircraft in defiance of Gaddafi’s claim. As a result, there were a number of interceptions and standoffs in the airspace and waters around Libya, some of which turned violent.

In 1981, the United States Navy aircraft carrier shot two Libyan Su-22 fighter-bombers in the Gulf of Sidra. In March 1986, a clash with US navy dozens of Libyan troops were killed and several Libyan ships were sunk or damaged. In April, USA bombed dozens of Libyan targets, including Gaddafi’s residence, in retaliation for a Libya-sponsored terrorist attack in Berlin.

All the while, Gaddafi continued to support terrorist groups with training, equipment and funding. In 1988, the situation became even more tense when the US accused Libya of trying to build a chemical weapons factory.

‘Good kill! Good kill!’

Navy F-14 Tomcat takes off from aircraft carrier USS Forrestal

A US Navy F-14 takes off from USS Forrestal while sailing near Malta in December 1989.Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

USS John F. Kennedy sailed to Haifa for a scheduled port visit amid those tensions, but the carrier was not in the Gulf of Sidra. It was actually about 120 miles to the north, closer to Crete.

Anyway, two Libyan MiG-23s from Al Bumbah airport near Tobruk were dispatched and flew to the general location.

The two Navy F-14s tasked with intercepting them, callsigns Gypsy 207 and Gypsy 202, arrived in radar tracking range within minutes. Soon the four planes were approaching each other about 70 miles from Tobruk.

The F-14s flew at high speeds, making a series of turns and lowering their altitude. The Libyans followed these turns and even accelerated to make sure they approached the Tomcats head-on.

MiG-23 fighter jets based in Libya

Soviet-era MiG-23 fighter jets at a base in the southern Libyan city of Waddan, November 1, 2011.PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP via Getty Images

As the MiGs got closer, the Americans worried that they would carry Soviet-made AA-7 Apex missiles, which have a range of 12 miles. Kennedy’s air war commander warned the pilots that the MiGs might be preparing to attack and gave them permission to fire if they found the aircraft hostile.

The Tomcats had taken position below the MiGs, allowing them to use ocean clutter to confuse their radar—a tactic they’d learned through training against secretly obtained MiG-23s back in the US – and made five more innings matched by their Libyan opponents.

Now, less than 20 miles from the Libyan jets, the Americans were arming their weapons. At 13 miles, the radar intercept officer aboard Gypsy 207, Cmdr. Leo Enwright, fired an AIM-7 Sparrow at one of the MiGs – without the pilot, Cmdr. Joseph Connelly, advance – but the missile failed to track. Enwright fired a second missile at 10 miles, which also failed.

The two F-14s then executed a defensive split – Gypsy 207 turned left and Gypsy 202 turned right. The MiGs turned and headed straight for Gypsy 202, whose radar interceptor, Lt. cmdr. Steven Collins, fired an AIM-7 which hit one of the MiGs at a distance of approximately 5 miles.

While observing the murder, Connelly sent out “good hit, good hit on one!”

Gypsy 207 then took place behind the other MiG and, after some difficulty acquiring a lock and some colorful language, fired an AIM-9 Sidewinder which brought down the Libyan fighter.

“Good kill! Good kill!” Connelly sent. Gypsy 202’s pilot, Lieutenant Herman Cook III, replied, “OK, good kill.”

Before returning to the aircraft carrier, the F-14s both reported seeing the Libyan pilots eject and deploy parachutes.

headache at home

Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Dan Howard

Chief Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard describes maneuvering the F-14s and MIG-23s a day after their dogfight, January 5, 1989.Bettmann/Getty Images

While it was a win, the shootings became a bit of a headache for the Pentagon and the Reagan administration.

After the incident, Libya claimed the Americans had shot down two unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. Gaddafi claimed it was “official US terrorism” and called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to condemn US actions.

Other Arab officials, including Yasir Arafat, said the incident would negatively affect Arab-US relations and delay the Middle East peace process.

The Pentagon repeatedly defended the actions of the F-14 crews, saying the MiGs displayed “clear hostile intent” and that the US fighter jets had the right to fire. “In any case, they fired too late,” Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci said.

The US Navy has also released imagery from one of the F-14s showing that at least one of the MiGs was armed with two AA-7 Apex missiles and two AA-8 Aphid missiles. A Pentagon spokesman said the video proved Libya’s claims about the shooting down of reconnaissance planes by the US were lies, although the media noted at the time that the video was blurry.

US Navy F-14 with MiG-23 silhouette after shoot down

A silhouette of a MiG-23 on a US Navy F-14A, seen in a post-combat video on January 4, 1989.US Navy

The Pentagon did admit that the MiGs never turned on their onboard radars needed to direct their Apex missiles to the US jets.

Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the US House Armed Services Committee, said later that according to secret Pentagon briefings and discussions with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other government officials, the MiG’s twists and turns were too small to be considered hostile.

Aspin and naval pilots were interviewed at the time also raised doubts on the Pentagon’s characterization of the F-14’s actions as “avoidance manoeuvres.” The pilots said it looked like standard interception maneuvers.

However, Aspin said the F-14’s actions were justified given the speed with which the MiGs were approaching and the Libyans’ record of firing first in previous combat.

The Libyan pilots’ mission remained unclear after the incident and will likely never be known, Aspin said in March 1989.

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