During the Cold War Syria and Israel were considered leading adversaries in the Middle East from the mid 1960s, with the former armed and supported by the Soviet Union and the latter, particularly after 1967, gaining access to top end American military hardware. Syria emerged the following decade as a priority client for advanced Soviet weapons systems, and would be the first in the world to receive the MiG-23 fighter, MiG-25 interceptor, T-72 tank and S-200 air defence system among other prominent weapons systems. While the capabilities of early MiG-23 variants in the Syrian Air Force were underwhelming, and were compromised by neighbouring Egypt’s defection to side with the Western Bloc after which it provided the very same fighters for study to the United States, later variants that entered service from the mid-late 1970s were considerably more refined and would play a prominent role in the Soviet fleet until the state’s disintegration. The MiG-23ML/MLD would see combat in the South African border war, deployed by the Cuban Air Force to support Angola against the South African Air Force, where they quickly proved to be the most capable fighters in the region and their pilots highly proficient. What is less well known, however, is that an advanced MiG-23 much more capable than those Egypt had supplied to the United States was obtained by Israel after Syrian Air Force pilot Major Mohammed Bassem Adel defected on October 11, 1989.
Syria was one of the largest MiG-23 clients in the world, and Major Adel’s defection provided an important opportunity for the Israeli Air Force to familiarise itself with the fighter’s capabilities and limitations to prepare for possible future clashes with the Syrian fleet. Other Israeli adversaries Iraq, Algeria and Libya also deployed MiG-23s, and a small portion of the Syrian fleet had been delivered from Libyan inventories as aid. The fighter was a single engine third generation design with variable swept wings, and had an engine and radar with comparable power to early variants of the F-16 – but a much higher speed, altitude ceiling and turn rate. The aircraft was hampered by its lack of access to air to air missiles classes comparable to those of Soviet or American fourth generation fighters such as the AIM-7E or R-27, and by its relatively high maintenance needs for a single engine design which led it to be seen as less cost effective than the cheaper MiG-21 and slightly more costly MiG-29.
A senior Israeli Air Force officer cited by local media highlighted that intelligence on new MiG-23 variants, which differed greatly from earlier models in both the airframe and avionics, would be shared with friendly states in a comment widely interpreted domestically as referring to the United States. The officer credited Major Adel with providing extensive cooperation, stating: “He gave us all the information we needed, and more.” After studying the aircraft, Israeli officials expressed surprise at its high sophistication particularly its early warning and countermeasures systems. The Israeli test pilot who flew thee aircraft after three months of preparation said he was impressed by the MiG-23’s climb rate, and that after taking off with the American made F-15 and F-16 the MiG shot upward in a stiff climb “and left them standing.” The capabilities observed would have been very different from the poorly preforming Egyptian supplied MiG-23s which Israel gained intelligence on through the United States in the mid 1970s.
The compromising of the capabilities of top end MiG-23s, which were reportedly of the MiG-23ML/MLD variant, may have been a factor in the Russian Air Force’s decision in 1993 to retire the class entirely, although by then NATO by then had access to large numbers of them through its absorption of East Germany and its arms inventories. Unlike Russia, Syria would continue to invest in the aircraft and in 2008 ordered 33 surplus MiG-23MLDs from Belarus. The fighters took part in joint exercises with the Russian Air Force near the Israeli border in January 2022. Other notable MiG-23 operators include Ethiopia, Angola, Cuba and North Korea, with Korean models most recently deployed to counter South Korean F-16s during an exchange of fire on the ground in 2010. Although modern R-77 missiles and fourth generation level sensors and avionics were tested on the MiG-23 airframe, and integration of the AL-31 engine was experimented with, the Soviet collapse and Russia’s subsequent focus on newer fighter classes meant that the promising variable swept wing design never neared its full potential as investment in upgrades remained limited. This has left the MiG-23 effectively obsolete today against modern variants of the F-16, and even enhanced MiG-21 variants, as most clients have shifted to rely on the MiG-29 or other newer fighter classes.