Intelligence: Acquiring Enemy Aircraft


November16, 2006: The Department of Defense recently declassified details of an " aggressor squadron" run by the Air Force, that used real Russian planes. Why did they wait for nearly fifteen years after the end of the Cold War to do so? The answer - as always, was making sure it could do little harm. Getting possession of enemy aircraft is a delicate business, and can have a decisive effect. The recovery of a Japanese Zero fighter, lost in the Aleutians in 1942, enabled the United States to figure out how to defeat the plane that had been the scourge of the skies over the Pacific.

The current program primarily involved MiG-21s and MiG-23s, most of which were acquired through irregular means. Often they were acquired from defectors (like the MiG-15 acquired shortly after the Korean War and the MiG-25 flown to Japan in 1976). Other times, they were probably acquired via the black market.

Why get these when the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy already had programs like Red Flag and Top Gun? The answer lies in the aircraft themselves. Top Gun and Red Flag used American aircraft to simulate MiGs, and the approach worked, but they used planes like the A-4 Skyhawk and F-5E Tiger. While they were good at providing dissimilar air combat training, they had shortcomings. For instance, the A-4 was subsonic, and the F-5E was a full 835 kilometers per hour slower than a MiG-21. That's a lot.

Now, why keep the fact you have them secret? The answer is that planes, starting around the early 1960s, began to be much more than just engines and weapons. They began to rely much more on electronic equipment like radar, electronic countermeasures, and other systems. These are highly-classified systems - and knowing how a MiG's radar works makes it easier to jam.

This was why the fact we had these planes was kept secret. By getting information on the radars of these MiGs, the United States was able to ensure victories against countries that used these in the 1980s and 1990s, including Libya, Iraq, and Yugoslavia. This is still going on. In 1998, the United States bought 21 MiG-29s from Moldova. Ostensibly, it was to keep them from unfriendly hands. This force is roughly the size of one squadron. Some of these were taken to the National Air Intelligence Center, where they will be dissected and the gear examined. This will give the United States an edge against countries that use the MiG-29, including Iran and North Korea.

The United States of America, though, has also been on the wrong end of this. After the fall of the Shah of Iran, several American-designed planes sold to Iran (including an F-14) found their way to Russia. At least one Pakistani F-16 has found its way to China as well. Countries have been "acquiring" each others' equipment in this manner for a long time. They will continue to do so, looking for an edge in the next war. - Harold C. Hutchison (


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