The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps flew only two foreign planes in significant numbers during the Cold War—the British-developed Harrier attack aircraft and the Israeli-developed Kfir fighter. The Kfir was acquired during the Reagan administration and flown by the Navy and Marine Corps as a “dissimilar” aircraft for air-combat maneuver (ACM) training. Flying against dissimilar planes helped to hone the skills of fighter pilots.
By the early 1980s, Navy and Marine pilots were employing the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter and T-38 Talon trainer and the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk in that role. The Navy wanted the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon for ACM training, but the U.S. Air Force and several foreign air arms had priority for that plane. Marvin Klemow, a senior representative of Israel Aircraft Industries in the United States, became aware of this situation. At the same time he learned that the Israeli air force (Heyl Avir Le) was retiring its Kfir C.1 fighters. Klemow contacted the Navy in 1984 and proposed the Israeli warplane for the ACM role.1 He was later commended for dealing directly with the Pentagon rather than lobbying for the deal through Congress.2
One year later, on 29 April 1985, the Navy accepted the first Kfirs in ceremonies at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia.
The Kfir had been developed as a result of Arab pressure against France following the Six-Day War in 1967. For more than a decade, France had been the prime supplier of arms to Israel, including several types of aircraft. The French embargoed the 50 Mirage 5J fighters that had been built—and paid for—by Israel. These were later redesignated Mirage 5F and delivered to the French air force (the Armée de l’Air).
These events led to Israel’s decision to build its own combat aircraft. With some unofficial French cooperation, and the theft of key documents by Israeli agents, Israel Aircraft Industries produced the Nesher (Eagle), a close copy of the Mirage 5. The Nesher first flew in 1969, and 69 were produced through 1974.
Limitations with the Nesher, especially being underpowered, led to conversion of one to a prototype Kfir (Lion Cub). Performance was significantly enhanced through the use of an Israeli-built version of the General Electric J79 turbojet engine, which also powered the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom. The delta-wing aircraft was fitted with the Elta EL/M-2001 fire-control radar that provided a look-down/shoot-down capability. They were armed with two Rafael-built DEFA 553 30-mm cannon in their wing roots and could carry two air-to-air missiles. The fighters also could be fitted with a small centerline fuel tank.
According to Colonel Eliezer Cohen, a veteran Israeli pilot, “the production of the first model was delayed and did not meet expectations.”3 The initial Kfirs entered Israeli service in 1974 and, beginning on 14 April 1975, two squadrons were equipped with the 27 production models. Two of those were configured for photo reconnaissance. The C.1 variants were in service for only a few years and—in Israeli markings—had only one “kill.” On 27 July 1979, while escorting reconnaissance aircraft over Lebanon, Kfirs encountered Syrian-flown MiG-21 Fishbed-J fighters. A Kfir shot down one of the MiG-21s with Shafrir-2 air-to-air missiles.
By the early 1980s, the Kfir C.1s were being replaced by newer fighters, including the canard-fitted C.2 variants.
Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman quickly reacted to Klemow’s overture. President Ronald Reagan had recently spoken of the unique advantage the United States had in the Middle East through its strategic alliance with Israel.
Accordingly, with the encouragement of Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and Lehman, the Navy staff and Israelis began negotiations. At first Israeli air force leaders objected to the transfer, but in the interests of cooperation, the Israeli government directed negotiations to continue.
A three-part agreement eventually was reached.
• Kfir C.1s would be “leased” to the U.S. Navy at no cost to the United States.
• The U.S. government would ensure that the aircraft were maintained to Israeli air force standards so that, if necessary, they could be returned for service in Israel.
• The U.S. Navy would provide certain equipment on a similar free-lease basis to Israel. (The Israelis did not request any Navy equipment under this provision.)
With both governments agreeing to the terms, an Israeli maintenance team, accompanied by families, arrived at NAS Oceana, while U.S. Navy pilots traveled to Israel for a short course in flying the aircraft. The Israelis were needed because American personnel had no training in the maintenance of the Kfirs. Under the terms of the agreement, the U.S. Navy paid their expenses.
Twelve Kfirs arrived at Oceana in 1985. Given the U.S. designation F-21A and assigned “bureau numbers,” these planes were flown by adversary squadron VF-43. Subsequently, in 1987, the Marine Corps established an ACM training unit—VMFT-401—at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. Thirteen Kfirs were provided to that squadron.
Captain John Manning, whose Fighter Wing 1 included VF-43, described the Kfir as
a good MiG-23 Flogger simulator. It had very good level flight acceleration and a high top-end speed. The Kfir could run down an F-14 [Tomcat] and most any U.S. fighter without a problem.
Its shortcomings included not much fuel, poor turning performance, and, as I recall, not a good field of view out of the cockpit. The fuel limitations were not an issue for the training sorties we flew on the [instrumented] range. The turn performance was typical of a delta-wing airplane. You had about one hard turn in the Kfir before it was out of energy and easy to out maneuver.4
The Navy flew the Israeli fighters until 1988, when F-16N Fighting Falcons replaced them in the ACM role. The Marines flew Kfirs until 1989, when F-5E Tiger II fighters replaced them. The planes were returned to Israel, but not to service. Several were retired to museums.
The later Kfir variants flew in Israeli markings for several years and then were sold to South American countries—where some saw combat in regional conflicts—and to Sri Lanka. And Kfirs are still flying in the United States: ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Company) operates aggressor aircraft under contract to the U.S. government. The firm currently flies five Kfir C.2s in the ACM role, from airfields in Newport News, Virginia, and Point Mugu, California.
The Kfir in U.S.—and Soviet—military markings was a brief but interesting point in aerial combat training.
2. William H. Gregory, “Laurels for 1984,” Aviation Week & Space Technology. 7 January 1985, 11.
3. COL Eliezer Cohen, IAF, Israel’s Best Defense: The First Full Story of the Israeli Air Force (New York: Orion Books, 1993), 414.
4. CAPT John Manning, USN (Ret.), e-mail to VADM Robert F. Dunn, USN (Ret.), 12 October 2012.