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

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

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

  • F-14s shot down the two MiGs in what was one of several clashes between American and Libyan forces in the 1980s.

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

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

At 11:55 a.m., one of these aircraft, an E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft, detected two Libyan Air Force MiG-23s taking off from a northern airbase. -east of Libya and heading towards the aircraft carrier.

Two nearby F-14 Tomcats were ordered to intercept the MiGs. The ensuing aerial battle was a victory for the Tomcats, but quickly became a headache for the Pentagon.

Mediterranean tensions

Libyan corvette burning in the Gulf of SidraLibyan corvette burning in the Gulf of Sidra

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

By the late 1980s, US-Libyan relations had deteriorated, in part due to territorial disputes in the Mediterranean.

In 1973, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi claimed almost the entire Gulf of Sidra as territorial waters and said any crossing of his “death line” would receive a military response.

The United States flatly rejected the statement and conducted freedom of navigation exercises with warships and aircraft in defiance of Gaddafi’s claim. Consequently, there have been a number of interceptions and standoffs in the airspace and waters around Libya, some of which have turned violent.

In 1981, US Navy aircraft carriers shot down two Libyan Su-22 fighter-bombers in the Gulf of Sidra. In March 1986, a clash with the US Navy left dozens of Libyan soldiers dead and several Libyan ships were sunk or damaged. In April, the United States bombed dozens of Libyan targets, including Gaddafi’s residence, in retaliation for a Libyan-sponsored terror 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 United States accused Libya of trying to build a chemical weapons factory.

‘Good killing! Good murder!’

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

A US Navy F-14 takes off from the USS Forrestal as it sails near Malta in December 1989.Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

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

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

The two Navy F-14s assigned to intercept them, call signs Gypsy 207 and Gypsy 202, arrived within radar tracking range within minutes. Soon the four planes were closing within about 70 miles of Tobruk.

Flying at high speed, the F-14s made a series of turns and lowered their altitude. The Libyans followed these turns and even accelerated to ensure they were approaching the Tomcats head-on.

MiG-23 fighter jets at base in LibyaMiG-23 fighter jets at base in Libya

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

As the MiGs closed in, the Americans feared carrying Soviet-made AA-7 Apex missiles, which have a range of 12 miles. Kennedy’s air warfare commander warned the pilots that the MiGs might be preparing to attack and gave them permission to fire if they felt the aircraft was hostile.

The Tomcats had taken up position under the MiGs, allowing them to use the clutter of the ocean to confuse their radar – a tactic learned while training against secretly acquired US MiG-23s – and carried out five more corners that were matched by their Libyan opponents.

Now less than 20 miles from the Libyan jets, the Americans cocked their guns. Thirteen miles away, the radar intercept officer aboard Gypsy 207, Cmdr. Leo Enwright, fired an AIM-7 Sparrow at one of the MiGs – without telling the pilot, Cmdr. Joseph Connelly, beforehand – but the missile failed to follow. Enwright fired a second missile 10 miles away, which also failed.

The two F-14s then made a defensive separation – Gypsy 207 turned left and Gypsy 202 turned right. The MiGs turned and headed straight for Gypsy 202, whose radar intercept officer, Lt. Cmdr. Steven Collins, fired an AIM-7 which hit one of the MiGs about 5 miles away.

Observing the kill, Connelly radioed “good shot, good shot on one!”

Gypsy 207 then took up position behind the other MiG and, after some difficulty acquiring a lock and color tongue, fired an AIM-9 Sidewinder which shot down the Libyan fighter.

“Good move! Good move!” Connelly forwarded. Gypsy 202’s pilot, Lt. Herman Cook III, replied, “OK, good kill.”

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

A headache at home

Pentagon spokesman Dan HowardPentagon spokesman Dan Howard

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

Although a victory, the shootings have become a bit of a headache for the Pentagon and the Reagan administration.

After the incident, Libya claimed that the Americans shot down two unarmed reconnaissance planes. 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-American relations and set back the Middle East peace process.

The Pentagon has repeatedly defended the actions of the F-14 crews, saying the MiGs displayed “clearly hostile intent” and that the US jets were justified in firing. “Actually, they fired too late,” Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci said.

The US Navy also released footage of 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 spokesperson said the video proved Libya’s claims that the United States shot down a reconnaissance plane were lies, although media at the time noted that the video was blurry.

US Navy F-14 with MiG-23 silhouette after shooting downUS Navy F-14 with MiG-23 silhouette after shooting down

A MiG-23 silhouette on a US Navy F-14A, seen in a video made after the engagement on January 4, 1989.US Navy

The Pentagon has admitted that the MiGs never turned on their onboard radars needed to guide their Apex missiles towards the US jets.

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

Aspin and Navy airmen interviewed at the time also raised doubts about the Pentagon’s characterization of the F-14’s actions as “evasive” maneuvers. Pilots said they appeared to be standard intercept maneuvers.

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

The mission of the Libyan pilots remained unclear after the incident and should probably never be known, Aspin said in March 1989, and although the Libyan pilots were seen ejecting and parachuting into the sea , it is not known if they were ever recovered.

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