Cold War Flashpoints: 20th air combat from Suez to Iraq with former Tornado pilot Michael Napier

A Royal Navy Westland Wyvern practices a rocket atttack prior to the Suez Crisis. (W.H. COWLING VIA B. CULL via

Former RAF Tornado pilot Michael Napier has written a book about some of the most exciting and intrigueing military air campaigns of the Cold War, we met up with him to find out more.

HK: I know some historians are uncomfortable with the term ‘Cold War’- how do you feel about it? Also, the term ‘crisis*’ relating to post or late colonial warfare? 

I am very comfortable with the term Cold War – I think that it is an apt description of the world order in the ’50s, 60s, 70s and 80s when there was definite hostility between the USSR and Warsaw Pact on one side and the USA and NATO on the other, but the balance of force – both nuclear and conventional – ensured that open conflict never broke out. ‘Crisis’ too is a good description of various relatively short-term events where conflict either nearly or actually occurred.

*Hush-Kit note: Some see ‘crisis’ as a Government approved term to play down military actions, akin to the Russia state using ‘special military operation’ to describe the current attempted invasion of Ukraine. For example, ‘Suez Crisis’ is the British term for what others describe as the Tripartite Aggression

What was the Suez Crisis and which aircraft types were used – and for what roles?

The Suez Crisis was an attempt by the UK and France (colluding with Israel) to use force to seize back the Suez Canal which had been nationalised by the Egyptian government. A short bombing campaign was followed by amphibious landings and parachute assaults on the Canal Zone. Although the Anglo-French forces achieved the military aim, the venture was a politico-strategic failure. The RAF bombing force – Valiants and Canberras – were used to neutralise Egyptian air bases and military targets, supported by British and French carrier-borne aircraft – Wyverns, Sea Hawks, Sea Venoms, TBM Avengers and Corsairs. The carrier aircraft and land-based fighter-bombers – Venoms, Thunderstreaks and Mystères – also bombed and strafed tactical targets in the Canal Zone and provided air support to the amphibious and parachute troops. The Israeli air force operated over Sinai with Mustangs, B-17s, Meteors, Mosquitoes and Ouragans, while the Egyptian air force had Vampires, MiG-15s, Meteors and Il-28s. The Egyptian air force realised early on that it could not win, so it very sensible withdrew its aircraft out of range of the Anglo-French forces to preserve it to be able to fight another day.

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Which aircraft performed well and which performed badly in the Suez attacks?

The most surprising thing for me was to learn that the RAF Valiant and Canberra force were still using WW2 bomber tactics, with ‘pathfinders’ dropping Target Indicator flares n the targets and the bomber dropping on the flares. While it had worked to some extent for Lancasters bombing city-sized targets it did not really work against targets like airfields. So I would say that the bombing campaign was a failure. The most successful work was done by the French air force F-84F Thunderstreaks operating from Lod which destroyed 10 Egyptian Il-28s at Luxor. The most interesting aircraft from my perspective was the Wyvern which carried out attacks on coastal targets; unfortunately, it was restricted to operating over coastal areas because of concerns that propeller-driven aircraft would be vulnerable to Egyptian jet fighters. Wyverns from 830 NAS successfully destroyed an Egyptian coast guard barracks which was holding up the advance of paratroops near Port Said, but one aircraft was shot down by groundfire.

What air power lessons could be learned from the Suez campaign?

I think that the main lesson is that for anti-airfield attacks to be successful they must be delivered extremely accurately onto the operating surfaces and that medium-level bombing by heavy bombers and low-level attacks by fighter-bombers without specific-to-role weapons are unlikely to succeed. This lesson had not been learnt during the Falklands conflict. Another lesson was that reconnaissance interpretation equipment needs to be co-located with the aircraft operators if the intelligence is to be used in a timely manner; this was why the French recce effort was more successful than the RAF effort.

What was the Congo Crisis and which aircraft types were used – and for what roles?

The Congo Crisis was precipitated by the province of Katanga attempting to break away from Congo and the efforts of the United Nations to drive a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The Katangese air force (Avikat) comprised DH Doves and Dakotas converted into bombers as well as Fouga Magisters and later Harvards. The UN force included Indian Canberras, Ethiopian, Iranian and Philippine F-86 Sabres and Swedish Saab J-29s.

Which aircraft performed well and which performed badly in the Congo attacks?

The UN J-29s were very successful, as was the single Avikat Magister which ran a short “reign of terror” before the arrival in the country of UN fighters. Perhaps the most disappointing were the F-86s which did not appear to achieve vey much!

What air power lessons could be learned from the Congo Crisis?

The Congo Crisis is fascinating from an air power perspective because it shows firstly how effective airpower is if it is unopposed and secondly how limited it is once it is opposed. Avikat had the run of the country before the UN fighter force arrived, but once the UN fighters were established in Congo, Avikat was completely sidelined from the ground campaign.

What were the Arab-Israeli Wars and which aircraft types were used – and for what roles?

The Arab-Israeli wars were fought in 1967 (the Six-Day War) and 1973 (The October War) as Israel tried to secure its borders and the Egyptians and Syrians attempted to invade and destroy the state of Israel. In 1967, the Israeli air force was mainly equipped with French aircraft such as Mirages, Ouragans, Mystères and Vautors, all of which were employed as fighter-bombers, while in 1973 it had reequipped with American aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom and A-4 Skyhawk. The Egyptian and Syrian air forces flew Soviet aircraft such as MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, MiG-21 and Su-7, while the Iraqi and Jordanian air forces flew the Hunter.

Which aircraft performed well and which performed badly in the Arab-Israeli Wars attacks?

The star of the ’67 War was undoubtedly the Mirage and of the ’73 War the F-4; however, the MiG-21 also performed very well in ’73. The older MiG variants were generally outclassed in the combat arena.

What air power lessons could be learned from the Arab-Israeli Wars?

The pre-emptive counter-air strikes by the Israeli air force in the ’67 War was a masterclass in how to neutralise enemy airfields and prevent the opposition from using its own air power effectively. In ’73 probably the greatest lesson was the effectiveness of modern SAMs against aircraft and the necessity of electronic countermeasures and dedicated Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) missions. In addition, the lack of effectiveness of the Egyptian air force showed how the appointment of political, rather than professionally competent, officers to high ranks will inevitably render the entire force unfit for purpose.

What were the Indo-Pakistan Wars and which aircraft types were used – and for what roles?

The ’65 Indo-Pak War started with an attempt by Pakistan to cut Indian land access to Kashmir and was met by an Indian counter-offensive further to the south, resulting in a stalemate. In ’71, India intervened in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in support of the separatist movement, and Pakistan responded by attacking northwest India. East Pakistan succeeded in breaking away from West Pakistan, and in the west the ground campaign was much like a re-run of the ’65 campaign, once again ending in a stalemate. The Pakistan air force was all-American in ’65, comprising F-86 Sabres (both air-to-ground and air-to-air), F-104 Starfighters (air defence) and B-57 Canberras (bombers); in ’71 these aircraft had been supplemented by the Shenyang F-6 (Chinese version of the MiG-19 used for both air defence and offensive support)). The Indian air force was equipped with Hunters, Gnats, Canberras, Mystères, Ouragans and MiG-21s (the latter in the air-to-air role) in ’65 and in ’73 the line-up included more MiG-21s, the Su-7 and the HAL Marut (both of these types used for offensive support).

Which aircraft performed well and which performed badly in the Indo-Pakistan Wars?

The Pakistan air force F-86 Sabres performed very well in both conflicts, reflecting the excellent training and leadership of the Pakistan air force. On the Indian side, the Gnat was impressive in ’65 and in ’71 the Su-7 and Marut both performed very well in the ground-attack role. The Indian MiG-21s did not do well in ’65 largely due to poor Soviet missile technology.

What air power lessons could be learned from the Indo-Pakistan Wars?

The quality of leadership and training of the Pakistan air force showed just how important these factors are in the overall effectiveness of an air force. As Gen George Patton observed “you fight like to train” so high-quality relevant training is vital for any air force. In ’73, the Indian air force ran a highly successful counter-air campaign against airfields in East Pakistan and grounded the Pakistan air force, by using excellent weapon-to-target matching and employing an overwhelming force.

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What was the Iran-Iraq War and which aircraft types were used – and for what roles?

Taking advantage of the post-revolution chaos in Iran, Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 in order to take control, of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Expecting a swift and successful campaign, Iraq was surprised by the robust and ferocious response from Iran and by a war which dragged on for eight years. With the ground forces bogged down in a WW1-style war of attrition, the air forces switched to attacking each other’s oil production and export infrastructure, including the “tanker war” in which oil tankers were attacked in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian air force fielded F-4 Phantoms, F-5 Tigers for ground attack and F-14 Tomcats for air defence, while the Iraqis operated MiG-21, MiG-23, Su-7, Su-22 as well as Mirage F1s and MiG-25s.

Which aircraft performed well and which performed badly in the Iran-Iraq War?

Despite limited spares support, the Iranian F-4s and F-14s were very effective in role; the Iraqi Mirage F-1s also achieved some spectacular successes with long-range strikes against Iranian oil terminals. Perhaps the least successful was the Iraqi MiG-23 thanks to its less than ideal handling characteristics.

What air power lessons could be learned from the Iran-Iraq War?

Much like the Egyptians in 1967, the big lesson here is that political or quasi-religious interference in air forces will render them ineffective. Both the Iraqi and Iranian air forces suffered badly because of interference and mismanagement by political (Iraq) and religious (Iran) figures who knew nothing about air power.

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