The Iran-Iraq War Saw U.S. F-5Es and Soviet MiG-21s Battle To The Death

Robert Beckhusen

Key point: It became obvious that both the F-5E and the MiG-21 lacked the advanced sensors, weapons and electronic countermeasures necessary for survival over a battlefield saturated with massive volumes of anti-aircraft weaponry.

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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