The Complete Story Of The Soviet TOPGUN Program
This video was made possible by Curiosity Stream. Watch thousands of high-quality documentaries and get access to my streaming service Nebula using the link in the description. On May 16, 1986, the world saw the release of the movie Top Gun . Which not only became a huge commercial hit but also raised the heroic image of American fighter pilots to exceptional heights, interestingly enough, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. What do I mean? As a Soviet kid whose father was a MiG pilot, did I know about the best-in-the-world American Top Gun Fighter Weapons School? Sure thing I did.
At the same time, what did I know about the Soviet fighter school? absolutely nothing. And that is said considering that my father served in one of the most combat-capable fighter regiments of the entire Soviet Air Force. Funny thing even though I knew nothing about the Soviet Top Gun, out of all my father`s work trips, those to the Fighter Weapons School were actually my favorite ones. The thing is that in my home region the central part of Ukraine normally you would get fresh fruit only twice a year: either in the summer if it was something locally grown, like apples and pears, or during the New Year holidays, when we would get the only exotic fruit available to us: oranges.
And nothing in between. However, since the Soviet Fighter Weapons School was located in the far Asian region of the USSR, each time my father came back from the trip, he brought with him delicious Asian grapes and huge honey melons the size of artillery shells. For me, getting such treats off-season was always a special occurrence, and that is why even despite 35 years having passed since then, I still remember each day of my father`s return from the Soviet Top Gun. However, even all those tasty treats combined didn`t help me fight the growing seed of doubt regarding the real power of the Soviet Air Force when I first watched the Top Gun movie on VCR. The climax of the movie, as you remember, is the main character`s overwhelming victory against MiG fighters.
Of course, there was no direct statement in the movie that those MiGs were Soviet, but a kid`s mind doesn`t bother with such nuances when he sees red stars all over the place: on bogeys, their cockpits and pilots. Of course, beating the Soviets in Hollywood movies wasn`t anything of a novelty whatsoever. Ironically though, it was at exactly the time of the Top Gun movie release when the real combat capabilities of Soviet fighter aviation were, arguably, at their very peak not only matching their American counterparts, but, arguably, even starting to surpass them.
For one thing, it was the time of the mass introduction to the Soviet Air Force of new, highly capable fighters like the MiG-29 and Su-27. For another thing, the new and advanced fighters were coupled with an intense fighter pilot training program, which had been taking shape for decades and was being perfected at the so-called Center for Combat Employment 1521. Among the Soviet pilots, however, this place had a short and simple (though totally unpronounceable for foreigners) name: Maryy. Center 1521 became the proving ground where Soviet fighter pilots would master and test their skills to become the best pilots in the world. Though different in some aspects, the common ground for the American and the Soviet fighter schools is that the main reason for their very inception was heavy and painful defeats suffered by fighter aviation. In the same way that it is impossible to understand the American Top Gun school without knowing the painful losses suffered by US fighters in Vietnam, it is impossible to understand the Soviet Center Maryy without knowing the details of the crisis that Soviet fighter aviation experienced in the 60s and which led to not less painful losses and defeats.
In the 1950s, for any military department around the world, 3 things were clear and obvious. If the next war were to happen, it would be a war between NATO and the USSR. The war would be a nuclear one and the main threat in such a war would be strategic bombers, since they were at the time the only reliable carrier of nuclear bombs.
Meanwhile, the best available means of defense against such bombers were fighter aircraft. Such a future war prediction affected military aviation in many ways, like how the new fighters were built, equipped, and armed, but most importantly, the way the pilots were now trained. It was obvious that enemy bombers would not have escort fighters all along their route over enemy territory, and since there`s no way a clumsy bomber could outmaneuver an interceptor aircraft, therefore close-range maneuvering tactics were seen as useless and redundant. Thus, the pilot training program was now focused primarily on mastering high speed interception tactics while sacrificing close-range combat maneuvers. In the late 50s such an approach was relevant for both the United States and the USSR, and in less than a decade both of them would eventually learn the fallacy of such a concept.
However, the Rolling Thunder of the painful American experience in Vietnam has greatly overshadowed Soviet failures, despite their problems being quite painful as well. Furthermore, according to Colonel Petr Chernysh and his colleagues, all former senior combat-training inspectors for the Soviet Air Force, Russian fighter aviation in the 60s ended up in, although invisible to the public, but nevertheless, a true crisis. The roots of the crisis lay in a combination of multiple complex and intertwining reasons, related, just to name a few, to the new Air Force doctrine; new yet imperfect types of aircraft armament; as well as some troubles with the flight personnel. For the latter, arguably, one of the main negative reasons became the changes to the Pilot Class System. The System was originally introduced in 1950 and established 3 classes for Soviet military pilots, with 1st Class being the highest and 3rd Class being the lowest. The classes were determined by the level of pilots` knowledge and practical skills, as well as their ability to execute certain tasks according to specific quality standards.
For the Soviet pilot in the 50s, getting 1st Class was highly prestigious, though not that easy to achieve. Suffice to say that after completing a long list of all prerequisite conditions, 1st Class was awarded only after a personal in-flight examination by a senior inspector from the General Headquarters of the Soviet Air Force. However, at least it was achievable for pretty much any Soviet pilot. In the 50s, it was quite normal for the Commander of the Fighter Regiment to have a 2nd Class rating with one of his deputy squadron commanders having a 1st Class rating.
Considering the realities of the communist prosperity , what was important is that other than the prestige itself, 1st Class also promised huge financial and career advantages. For instance, upon achieving 1st Class, the pilot was promoted up one rank ahead of the usual schedule, which, in turn, was reflected in his salary. Pilots also received additional financial bonuses, for instance, 2 roubles per minute of flight in harsh weather conditions.
Other than money, 200 hours of such flights would earn the 1st Class pilot the Order of the Red Star; meanwhile 400 hours would gain him the Order of Lenin. Which altogether was a huge motivation for the Soviet crews to continuously master their piloting and combat skills. But in 1959 all the privileges and incentives in regard to the pilot classes were cancelled. In addition, the required level of skill for achieving 1st Class was significantly lowered. According to Colonel Petr Chernysh, altogether it eventually resulted in a slow degradation of the piloting and combat skills of Soviet flight personnel.
However, it would be wrong to think that Soviet pilots started to fly worse simply because they did not get extra pay. The truth is, the Air Force Command didn`t need that level of piloting skills anymore. From the Command`s point of view, the new types of fighters entering the service had better avionics and equipment that reduced the pilots` workload and made flying seemingly easier. Polished piloting skills previously required for complex maneuvers to shoot the enemy with a gun, now with the introduction of guided air-to-air missiles seemed to be less important as well.
Not to mention that the new and most advanced Soviet fighters, like the MiG-21 for instance, didn`t have cannons at all. Gun firing exercises conducted by the Air Force in 1961 on the very first version of the MiG-21 (F13) concluded that the overall efficiency of its gun employment in air combat was utterly unsuccessful. Which, coupled with the aircraft`s poor maneuverability, eventually resulted in canceling the production of the F13 version for the needs of the Soviet Air Force and a farewell to the artillery armament on further MiG-21 modifications. As Soviet pilots joked, the gun on the MiG-21 simply dried up and dropped off . The Fighter
Training Program, meanwhile, was also shaking off unnecessary elements, like practising group dogfights, with the last 2-on-2 mock fight being held in 1959. But to be fair it didn`t really bother anyone that much, since it looked like the concept of air combat maneuvering was quickly dying and dying for good, being completely displaced by the concept of high-speed interception. The typical training mission for MiG-21 pilots in the early 60s was the interception of an airborne target, the flight parameters of which did not require the fighter pilot to perform any extensive or exhausting maneuvers. In fact, the pilot needed to avoid hard maneuvers that exceeded a G-force of 2; otherwise, the MiG`s missiles would fail to launch. According to Colonel Petr Chernysh the overall result of this new style of flying led to the appearance in Soviet fighter aviation of literally beer-bellied pilots, who almost completely lost their skills for combat maneuvering, but nevertheless were proudly considered the elite of Soviet supersonic fighter aviation. It`s important here to understand that the main driver in the decline of aerial combat skills wasn`t the Air Force pilots being lazy about executing their service tasks or being required to engage in any new tasks.
No, the Air Force was still executing the very same service tasks; however, the means of execution were now adapted in accordance with the stream of new types of aircraft and weaponry being adopted by military aviation. For better interception efficiency, the new GCI system Vozdukh was developed and entered service in 1960. The system allowed the Command Officer on the ground to input the coordinates of enemy aircraft in the computer, which automatically calculated the best route for the interception and then, by sending commands directly to the fighters` control system via telecode, the Vozdukh would automatically guide Soviet interceptors to the required area.
The system still had some issues with intercepting actively maneuvering targets but, nevertheless, for its time it was an amazing piece of technology. However, such automation led to a change in fighter tactics exercises in the Soviet Air Force, so that there was no longer any room for pilots` own tactical decisions or actions. Usually, aside from including enemy flight path vectors, locations of opposing air bases, and areas of fire engagement, training exercise briefing materials had nothing in them that was even closely related to fighter tactics.
To simplify, just for the sake of the video, the training was limited to: fly to the point, find the target and launch your missiles. If it was a group interception, whether by a pair or a flight of 4, the air target was typically attacked by a single aircraft or in turns, one fighter after another. But still nothing close to tactics per se. Of course, none of this mattered much during staged military exercises; however, according to Petr Chernysh, the real combat capabilities of Soviet Fighter Aviation in the early 60s were, arguably, at the lowest level they would ever reach in Soviet post-World War 2 history.
Of course, such serenity could not last for long. One thing about the Armed Forces is that it`s almost impossible to evaluate their real combat capabilities during peacetime. They all look great in military parades and in propaganda movies, but this doesn`t automatically translate to effectiveness in combat situations. However, in the case of the Soviet Air Force there was one area that truly reflected the real level of their capabilities, and it was the actions of the Russian QRA units, which were quite busy at the time protecting the Soviet borders, quite often getting into real fire engagements. One of the most interesting such episodes happened with Fighter Aviation Regiment #982 stationed in the Transcaucasian Military District of the USSR.
The MiG-21PF piloted by Captain Taratuta was scrambled to intercept a Turkish RF-84 that had intruded on Soviet airspace. Strictly following commands from the ground captain, Taratuta reached the required region and found the intruder. He positioned his MiG-21 behind the enemy and reported that he had acquired the missile lock signal. However, unlike in training exercises, instead of receiving the command to engage, Taratuta was ordered to approach the enemy aircraft and visually confirm its type and nationality. Which was actually a good thing, as the violator might have been one of their own with, let`s say, a malfunctioning responder.
Captain Taratuta shortened the distance to the unknown aircraft and reported that he clearly observed the Turkish Air Force markings on the plane. After getting confirmation, the Command Post ordered Taratuta to shoot down this violator of the Soviet skies. But things were not that simple now. The problem was that the air-to-air missiles on Taratuta`s MiG-21 required a certain range to the target and aircraft speed to make the missile launch.
In the case of the Soviet Sidewinder`, this was a minimum range of 1 km and aircraft speed over 900 km/h. So to properly execute the order, Taratuta should have made a tactical turn, then accelerated to 900 km/h, found the target once again, obtained the lock signal and shot a missile from a proper distance. But the problem was that the target was quickly approaching the border of Soviet airspace and there was not enough time for proper maneuvers. Therefore Captain Taratuta reduced the speed of his MiG-21 and launched the first missile. However, the distance to the Turkish aircraft appeared to be too short for the missile to properly lock on the target, and it simply went straight into the sky.
To make things worse, the exhaust gasses from the missile went into the MiG-21`s air intake and, due to the fighter`s reduced speed, they shut down the aircraft`s engine. To Captain Taratuta`s credit, it looked like the dead engine didn`t scare him a bit. His MiG`s altitude and speed were quickly dropping, but just as quickly the distance to the Turkish aircraft was increasing. And soon Taratuta heard the signal of his missile getting locked on the target. Wasting no time, he launched his second and last missile. Though the distance this time was good, the speed that was barely sufficient to keep his MiG in the air was not enough for a proper missile launch, and the 2nd missile headed straight to the ground.
Now, flying the dead-engined, weaponless MiG-21, all that Captain Taratuta could do was just helplessly watch the Turkish plane flying away to safety. Fortunately, Taratuta managed to re-start his engine while on descent and soon landed his MiG at the airbase. Of course, not all Soviet interceptions ended like this, although the number of similar incidents was only growing and, unfortunately, not all of them had happy endings. For instance, Captain Eliseev from the very same Fighter Regiment 982, after failing to shoot down an Iranian reconnaissance plane with all of his missiles, had to ram the violator and was killed in the crash. What makes the Taratuta case a bit unique among others is that it revealed the majority of existing problems all at once: the absence of an aircraft cannon that could have easily helped Taratuta, the imperfection of the missile armament, the lack of pilot training for close range engagements, but also the poor quality of the Ground Command officers.
Typical for such cases in the USSR, someone had to take responsibility for the resulting shame, and obviously Captain Taratuta was the best candidate for becoming a patsy. But during the investigation it appeared that all the pilot did was to strictly follow the commands from the ground. If the pilot could not be blamed, then next in line for charges was the management of the factory that produced such unworthy missiles.
But after the factory engineers arrived at the Transcaucasian District for the investigation, it was quickly discovered that the command officers who guided fighters from the ground were simply not familiar with the launch requirements for air-to-air missiles. Thus, the Command of the Military District decided to quietly close the case. By the way, it was precisely after this incident that the Soviet Air Force developed a new interception tactic that was called the eye and the shooter . Going forward, Russian QRA
units always sent at least two fighters for interception: while the first aircraft closely approached the violator for visual identification, the second fighter always stayed way behind, ready to launch missiles if required. A true understanding of modern close-range combat, however, came with the War in Vietnam. It`s been said many times what a huge shock US aviation experienced during the initial period of the war when the Americans suddenly realized that their numerous, most up-to-date supersonic F-4 Phantoms with exclusively missile armament, all of a sudden experienced serious difficulties fighting just a handful of what were apparently hopelessly outdated subsonic MiG-17 fighters, armed only with guns.
However, it is almost never brought to attention that at the very same time no less of a shock was also experienced by the Soviets, who understood perfectly well that if the Russian pilots were put in the place of the Americans, their problems in many ways would have been exactly the same. It`s true that the American F-4 Phantoms were struggling in dogfights against the MiG-17s, and considering the various forms of military support provided by the USSR, this particular success of the Vietnamese pilots is also generally attributed to the Soviets, among others. However, what is almost always left out of the picture is that before the Soviets, there were the Chinese instructors, who had already started teaching the Vietnamese pilots the dogfight tactics, which they, the Chinese, had learned themselves from the Soviets a decade ago.
However, by the time of the Vietnam War, political relations between the USSR and China had significantly diverged, which led, in particular, to the severing of military cooperation between the USSR and China in the early 60s. And since at the time Chinese industry was not capable of producing on its own new and advanced fighters comparable to the Soviet and American aircraft, thus the Chinese pilots were still flying older planes, and were trained according to what seemed at the time already outdated fighter tactics, though these now turned out to be so relevant to the conditions of the new local war. To be fair though, the North Vietnamese were very successful in combining the dogfighting skills of their MiG pilots with the capabilities of the Soviet GCI system Vozdukh . Typically,
the Vietnamese MiG-17s tried to utilize the surprise factor and carried out the first attack in full accordance with the theory of interception, and if the situation was developing favourably, the MiGs imposed a maneuvering fight on the Americans. On the surface this was a huge success of Soviet technologies, although behind the curtains the Russians, watching the Americans struggling in close range combat, didn`t have any illusions regarding their own Air Force, since they`d been building their fighter aviation on pretty much the same principles as did the Americans. It was clear that the problem of the close-range maneuvering fight could not be ignored anymore, and one of the first Soviet attempts to address it happened on May 22, 1969, when the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Force, Pavel Kutakhov, issued an order to create special squadrons of Air Combat Masters in each Fighter Aviation Regiment.
The order, in particular, specified that such squadrons must consist of 1st Class Pilots only. Which surely sounded powerful on paper, if not taking into consideration that those were the same elite "pot-bellied" pilots of the 60s. The problem was that by the time of this order, the majority of those pilots had almost completely lost all their skills for air combat maneuvering, but most importantly, they were not really eager to put any effort into relearning them. As a result, after some time, many of these pilots were quietly written off from flight duties, which in fact had some positive effect since it cleared the path for pilots with a different mindset.
Anyways, the squadrons of "Masters" in the Soviet Air Force lasted for less than a year. Meanwhile, unlike the relative success in Vietnam at the very same time though in a different place in Egypt, Soviet fighter tactics and GCI Vozdukh in particular, proved to be almost useless against the Israeli Air Force. The Soviets might have continued to put all the blame for devastating and humiliating losses on the Egyptian Command and their pilots, but a bit later the Russians themselves had a chance to test their fighter aviation against the Israelis.
On August 1, 1969, Soviet colonels Konstantin Korotyuk and Yuriy Nastenko both received an order or, to be precise, they were asked if they didn`t mind leading a group of volunteer pilots to provide international assistance to the people of Egypt in repelling Israeli aggression . Just to quickly address any confusion, if there`s anyone who knows history, here the Israeli aggression means the so-called War of Attrition yet another war started by Egypt against Israel in 1969. Korotyuk and Nastenko were given just 1 month to get their flight personnel ready for the secret trip to Egypt, which received the code name Kavkaz . Considering the amount of resources allocated by the Soviet Command for the preparations, one can say with great certainty that the Soviet Air Force was sending some of their very best fighter pilots. The primary air base that fighter regiments used for training purposes was located in a small Soviet town, Maryy, which was chosen because it fully matched the Egyptian climate. So for the next month, Soviet pilots were engaged in an exhausting and intense training at Maryy Air Base.
But what were they getting trained for? In comparison to the standard Soviet Fighter Training Course, the Kavkaz program indeed was more intense: pilots were flying at maximum allowed speeds and g-forces, as well as learning to navigate and search for the enemy over desert terrain devoid of natural landmarks. But in essence they were still trained to intercept a high-speed air target while following guidance from the ground the same old fly fast to the target and shoot it down . But what happens if the target suddenly starts to maneuver? And that`s exactly how the Israelis were fighting. Unlike the US pilots in Vietnam who were mostly trained for long-range missile engagements, the Israelis, similar to the North Vietnamese, learned from their own experience that with the introduction of air-to-air missiles, the close-range maneuvering fight not only didn`t die but was still developing, only under new conditions. Thus, most of the skills and tactics being mastered by Soviet pilots to perfection at Maryy, didn`t find any use later in Egypt.
Whether it was just a lack of intel about IAF or simple arrogance, all in all it resulted in perhaps the Soviet Air Force`s worst and most painful defeat since World War Two. Right in the very first clash with Israeli fighters the Soviets lost 4 MiG-21s and 3 pilots, while failing to shoot down a single Israeli aircraft. However, to the credit of the Soviet Air Force, this humiliation was taken very seriously. As the commander of Soviet Aviation in Egypt, General Grigoriy Dolnikov said to his pilots soon after the defeat, ... starting from now all the existing restrictions on piloting and combat maneuvering are lifted.
We must start the fighter training from scratch and should be guided not by someone else`s but by our own understanding . And that`s exactly what they did. Not long after the defeat in Egypt, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Force, Ivan Pstygo, ordered the launch of a special training center of a new type the so-called Air Base 1521 . The Soviet Top Gun had begun.
The Soviet Union was a huge country. Which for a military person automatically translated into a huge variety of remote places where they potentially could be sent to serve. Obviously, all those places were not equally desirable destinations; however, some of them were more famous than others. There was a popular expression among the Soviet military: There are three dark holes in the Soviet Union: Termez, Kushka and Maryy, referring to the Soviets` most southern military bases located in sparsely populated desert areas of the USSR. It was the air base in the small town of Maryy, located in the Turkmen Soviet Republic, which became the home of the new Training Center for Combat Employment 1521 or simply Air Base 1521. The Training Center at Maryy was entrusted with the task of preparing Fighter Aviation personnel for combat operations in the Middle East, in particular teaching Soviet pilots close-range fighter tactics.
Unlike the unfortunate 1969 preparations for Egypt, this time the Soviet Air Force decided to address the problem with all possible thoroughness. Military analysts from the General Headquarters of the Soviet Air Force worked through huge amounts of information, meticulously analyzing details and results of all known fighter engagements during the Vietnam and Arab-Israeli wars. Unlike the US Navy Top Gun school, where the syllabus was built by a handful of flight instructors, the Soviet Air Force entrusted this task to no less than the Yuri Gagarin Air Force Academy. A bit later the work was transferred to the Training Center at Lipetsk where Colonel Goundinovich, the Head of the Fighter Aviation Research Department, together with Colonel Nemtsevich, the Deputy Commander for Soviet Air Force Combat Training, started the development of new types of combat tactics and maneuvers. The first one mathematically calculated and designed them on paper while the second one tested and verified those maneuvers in real life.
The result of their work was the so-called Exercise 500 an intensive training program which consisted of multiple close combat maneuvers applicable for a single, a pair and a flight of fighters. If flying under the Kavkaz program differed from the standard training course primarily in the extent of piloting like flying low, at the maximum speed and max g-force in contrast the main feature of Exercise 500 became the intensity of piloting, which was evaluated by speed and g-force factors, or in other words, the relative time spent maneuvering at high speed and overload. For instance, to get an excellent mark in an individual or group mock fight, the pilot`s time at speeds over 800 km/h and g-forces higher than 4 needed to be at least 60% and 40% respectively of the total time spent on the execution of the required maneuvers. Otherwise, the task was considered failed.
The second priority was given to completeness and consistency meaning executing the exercise without missing any required maneuvers and performing them in the proper order. The five hundreds was quite a demanding program, and before the training all pilots had to master not just basic but complex aerobatic maneuvers, both individually and in pairs. No less important were the physiology requirements. To roughly understand the level of intensity, while doing the 500 program the pilot was allowed no more than 3 flights in one shift, and there were just 3 shifts per week. As the pilots would say, after a month of such flights, a pilot on his 1st shift of the week, let`s say on Tuesday, would be quite excited to fly the five hundreds , yet by Thursday there wouldn`t be that much excitement, and on Saturday, if the flights for whatever reason had to be cancelled, the pilot wouldn`t regret it at all. Also, the 500 reinstated the practising of group dogfights.
However, the most important thing was that the reality of Exercise 500 was such that the preparation for even a 1-on-1 dogfight required the pilots to plan and visualize on paper 15 to 20 possible variations of the beginning and further development of the dogfight. Since the tactical training of fighter pilots was now given a high importance, the Air Force requested that the instructors of Air Base 1521 at Maryy plan and visualize all their flights, even those for individual self-improvement, without using standard or common techniques. Which became a big turning point in the process of Soviet fighter training. The 500 program was introduced to the Soviet Air Force in spring 1972. Initially, the process was very similar to the US Navy Top Gun : Fighter regiments sent their pilots to the Training Center at Maryy to learn and practice Exercise 500 , and then they returned to their operating units as surrogate instructors. By the middle of 1972 all Soviet fighter regiments had their MiG-21 instructors ready and trained under the new program.
Things remained this way up until 1974, when the Soviet Air Force Command decided that Exercise 500 should be scaled up for all fighter aviation, and the Training Center at Maryy would now be responsible for conducting regular check-ups of all Soviet fighter regiments for their combat capabilities. Such checkups were conducted each year at Air Base 1521 and were based on the employment of Exercise 500 . Typically, the annual inspection included testing each pilot`s individual flying skills, including complex maneuvers, extra low flights over the desert area, dogfights and QRA performance, and finally cannon and missile fire engagements against maneuvered target drones, which emulated the actions of an enemy aircraft in a given situation.
As for the fighter tactics, they were examined in action on all levels starting from flights and squadrons up to the entire fighter regiment all together. In general, Exercise 500 , coupled with thorough checkups at Training Center 1521, became a great leap forward for the Soviet Air Force, and its flying personnel in particular. They not only significantly raised the average level of piloting skills in Soviet Fighter Aviation, but also provided fighter crews with mastery of planning and simulating all stages of the upcoming air battle, as well as professionally analysing its results. However, new and even bigger changes were coming. And once again, for the Soviet Air Force they were caused by a bitter loss. As the true value of any school is determined largely by its teaching personnel, Soviet Training Center 1521, in this matter, was no exception.
From day 1 of its existence, the flight personnel of Air Base Maryy consisted of highly talented and skillful pilots, most of whom had real combat experience obtained in the Middle East. Of course, over time the number of such veterans decreased, but nevertheless, Training Center 1521 always kept the skill level of its instructors at the highest level possible. The air group of Maryy personnel consisted only of 1st Class and Sniper pilots, with the latter being the new top-tier class introduced in the Soviet Air Force in 1976. Considering Air Base 1521`s task of checking all Soviet fighter regiments, which typically translated into roughly 2 flights per day, the workload on Maryy`s flight instructors was brutal, but on the other hand it resulted in the extremely high quality of their piloting and combat skills, and soon it didn`t matter who they fought against or in what conditions.
Therefore it`s no surprise that it was quite rare for the fighter regiments being examined to receive excellent marks when dogfighting against Maryy instructors, whose MiGs soon received formidable shark mouths, eerily warning that they would devour anyone who made a mistake. Meanwhile, in the mid-70s, once again voices started to appear proclaiming the likely upcoming end of close-range fights. The main reason for such conclusions was that the 3rd gen fighters started to receive a new, highly capable medium-range missile armament. The thing about these medium-range semi-active radar-guided missiles is that they could track a target no matter which way the enemy aircraft was facing relative to the missile. The old classic tail-chase engagement was no longer the only way to win a battle, since now the enemy could be hit from any direction.
Also, to successfully use the medium-range missiles, visual contact on the target was not required. That is why it is usually called BVR combat, and thus the fight became more of the Clash of Electronics, in which the winner was decided by whose radar could "see" further, whose IFF system was faster and more reliable. The BVR wasn`t anything new, though. In fact, it had already been used quite intensely during the war in Vietnam. However, its efficiency at that time was extremely low.
But technologies were constantly improving and, unfortunately for the Soviet military, they badly missed the moment when this technological shift was completed. Once again, understanding came to the Soviets from the Middle East, and once again it cost them very dearly. This time it happened during the 1982 Lebanon War, when the Israeli Air Force literally annihilated the entire Syrian anti-air defence system together with their Air Force. Considering that the Syrian forces had been armed and trained by the Soviets, this was a huge blow to the world prestige of the Russian armament and Soviet MiGs in particular.
Sure, the Soviets doubted the exact number of Israeli air victories and losses. Sure, the Israeli F-15 and F-16 belonged to the 4th generation, while the Syrian MiG-21 and MiG-23 belonged to the 2nd and 3rd generation, respectively. Sure, the Soviet Minister of Defence said, It`s not the Soviet weapons` fault, it`s just the Arabs s at fighting . But all those were just bad and belated excuses. The Russian Armed Forces were trailing badly once again. To be fair, the Soviet Air Force themselves didn`t have any illusions regarding their most up-to-date fighter the MiG-23 and its capabilities against the American F-15. Truth be told, they had already been working for years on an adequate response to the American F-15 fighter.
Such a response was already in the last stages of trials; meanwhile the personnel of Training Center 1521 concluded that something could be done even now, and that it was yet too early to bury close-range combat maneuvers. The pilots of Air Base 1521 had simulated the episodes of the Lebanese air battles and found that there were no hopeless situations, even in current conditions. Maryy instructors concluded that even the very best missile evasion maneuvers weren`t worth much on their own, since by the time one evaded the first missile, the enemy would have launched another "fox" from an even shorter distance. Thus, using the known limitations of radar guidance systems, the evasive maneuvers would only be effective when the MiG fighter had developed its maneuvers not only to evade the missile but also to disappear from the enemy tracking system as well, at the same time trying to shorten the distance to the enemy to create a better counter-attack position. Though this wasn`t that simple to do, nevertheless, jumping a bit ahead in time, the viability of such tactics was later confirmed, when Soviet 4th generation fighters began to enter service. Still flying the MiG-23 during evaluations, Maryy pilots, nevertheless, more than once beat fighter regiments that were already flying advanced MiG-29s, despite the seemingly predetermined outcome of such battles.
1984 became, arguably, one of the most important years for both the Soviet Air Force and Training Center 1521, in particular. First of all, it was a time when Soviet fighter regiments began to receive new 4th generation fighters like the MiG-29 and Su-27, which in some areas exceeded the combat capabilities of the existing American fighters. It was arguably the only time in history when the combat capabilities of Soviet Fighter Aviation not only managed to match but, in some areas, could start to outpace their American counterparts. Second, in 1984 the approach taken for annual inspections at Maryy had undergone some serious changes. In the preceding years fighter regiments were given in advance the exact date and task for their annual inspection and technically had the whole year to prepare for their final exam.
Since the final mark from Maryy was very important for both the fighter regiment and the air army it belonged to, one of the most negative aspects of such an approach was that the action plan for Maryy exercises was usually developed and given to a fighter regiment commander from his superior officers. And given not as a suggestion or recommendation. Which in general was very typical for the Soviet Air Force altogether, no matter the type or scale of the military exercise.
However now, the fighter regiment received their mission only upon their arrival at Air Base 1521. To be precise, the first to arrive at Maryy was the reconnaissance group of the regiment, which was provided with the mission tasks for their regiment. The recon group was also given the conditions under which their task would be fully or partially accomplished, or considered completely failed. However the biggest change was that now, after getting this information, it was the fighter regiment commander himself who was responsible for deciding how exactly the given task would be executed, arguably, for the first time acting independently in his decisions. Considering that typically, fighter unit commanders participating in the exercise were given the task together with the precise way of executing it, this was a big improvement for the Soviet Air Force and a solid start to address the infamous stiff decision-making process in the Soviet Army. The grading system in Maryy had also changed.
For instance, according to the standard Fighter Combat Training Course, the task of intercepting an enemy reconnaissance plane was evaluated by one factor only the accuracy of aiming, which was determined by a guncam picture or by obtaining a missile lock on the target. Now, though, this wasn`t enough in Maryy anymore, because the task was now evaluated by the degree of its completion. For instance, in the same case of intercepting an enemy reconnaissance plane, for the fighter pilot to get an excellent mark, he had to find the enemy aircraft and shoot it down before it entered the protected zone. If it was shot down over the protected zone the pilot got the mark good , and if it was destroyed after leaving the zone the given mark was average . Thus, without violating the existing Combat Training Course, its quality standards were put on the dynamic of the tactical exercise so to achieve a higher training efficiency.
Before the beginning of the exercises, the fighter regiment commander provided the head of Maryy Air Base with his action plan. The head, in turn, based on the plan`s feasibility, either approved it or perhaps suggested some improvements. The commander of the opposing side , which was represented by the commander of the Maryy air group, knew only the mission task of the regiment being examined, like, for instance, escorting the bombers to a specific area. Based on that information, he also provided the action plan for his air group to the head of Maryy Air Base. Thus, it was only the commander of Air Base 1521 who knew the details of both action plans, which allowed him to foresee the overall flow of the exercise, ensuring, in particular, its flight safety. The final result of the extensive evaluation at Maryy was an ample report compiled by the Maryy instructors in regards to the examined fighter regiment`s performance and task execution.
An important part of such a report was, in particular, a detailed assessment of the regiment`s commander and his ability to personally make decisions; his skills on planning and executing the mission task; as well as his competence in command and control while in the dynamic of the combat exercise. For Soviet fighter regiment commanders, this evaluation was extremely important for their further career growth, and nothing else in their profile could replace the grade received at Maryy. The year 1984 was also the year when Maryy Air Base began to annually check the combat capabilities of the Training and Research Regiment from the Lipetsk 4th Centre for Combat Employment and Retraining of Personnel. Despite its very similar name, the Lipetsk Center`s role was a bit different to that of Air Base 1521.
Unlike the Maryy Training Center, which provided fighter weapons training in close-to-real conditions, the Lipetsk Center was responsible for the initial training or re-training of existing pilots on how to fly new types of aircraft, including their proper use in combat. That is why sometimes the Lipetsk Center is also referred to as a Soviet Top Gun. Here it might be a good moment to quickly address this matter it`s hard to find an exact analog of the American Top Gun in the Soviet Air Force.
Arguably, other than the first years of the Training Center at Maryy, there wasn`t any at all. The Soviet Air Force was developing in its own way; furthermore, the roles and responsibilities of various Soviet training centers would change quite often. For instance, the abbreviation of the Lipetsk Center at one point in time was even jokingly paraphrased as the Center for Constant Reshuffles and Transfers of Personnel . Anyways, the Lipetsk pilots were among the very best airmen in the entire Soviet Air Force, and in general the Research Regiment was considered an elite one.
They were always among the very first units in the Soviet Air Force to receive new types of aircraft and were, in particular, responsible for developing the regulations for those aircraft for proper piloting and armament use. The reason they were assigned for annual inspections at Maryy was a highly negative mark received by Fighter Regiment 145 during the exam at Air Base 1521. The 145 was among the first 3 Soviet regiments to receive the most advanced fighter at the time, the MiG-29, however during the 1984 inspection at Maryy, they failed to shoot down a single air target. The fighter regiment command didn`t want to accept the negative mark since their pilots were strictly following the provided regulations for the MiG-29 and its armament.
However, the head of the inspection at Maryy was adamantly against changing the final grade. The conflict went up to the higher Air Force Command, which then ordered the Lipetsk pilots to test the MiG-29 and new R-27 missile once again, which confirmed that the initially provided regulations were incorrect. To be fair, part of the problem was the new missile itself, which required further improvements and trials. However, Colonel Kashirov, head of the Soviet Air Force Combat Training, rightfully decided that since the instructions for combat employment are made by the specialists of the Lipetsk Center, then they should themselves confirm them in close-to-real combat situations.
And the best way of doing that would be in fights against the pilots of Air Base 1521 at Maryy. Therefore, the Lipetsk Regiment began arriving at Air Base 1521 annually to fight the Maryy instructors while testing their new tactics and maneuvers. Such combining of brains and arms eventually raised the quality of the regulations being developed by the Lipetsk Regiment for regular Air Force units, and, in particular, helped to perfect the employment of the new 4th generation fighters, the Su-27 and Mig-29. Interestingly enough, when it comes to Maryy Air Group, they received their first MiG-29s only in 1987, and for the 1st squadron only. The 2nd squadron continued to fly MiG-23s, which were at Maryy starting in 1975, when they, in turn, replaced the MiG-21bis.
When speaking about Maryy`s fighters, you can`t avoid their famous nose art. The thing is that the Soviet Air Force Command, in general, was always quite conservative and didn`t endorse any type of art on military planes. However, since all Soviet fighters carried the same camouflage, there was soon a need to somehow distinguish Air Base 1521`s fighters from those of the operational units, and Maryy`s pilots used to full advantage their remoteness from the high command.
In addition to shark mouths, Maryy`s MiGs were painted with golden stripes and stars. Among the pilots they were called the cognac stripes for their similarity to the label of Soviet cognac, where stars represented the age of the liquor. Each squadron also had its own emblem: the snow leopard for the 1st squadron, and the Viking for the second squadron. The 1st squadron also displayed a winged number one on their tails; meanwhile the 2nd squadron, upon exchanging their MiG-23s for new MiG-29s, painted on their tails a big hornet and the letters AM, which stood for Air Base Maryy.
Usually both squadrons also carried the emblem of Air Base 1521 an eagle ripping apart an enemy fighter. The arrival of fighters from the famous Air Base "Maryy" at any other Soviet airfield always aroused great interest among the local personnel, and the glorious reputation of Maryy pilots was reinforced by the stunning appearance of their fighters. Interestingly enough, Maryy`s 2nd squadron was not supposed to get the MiG-29 and received them in 1990 only as a necessary measure per se. Initially the squadron was planned to retrain on the Su-27. In fact, at first, this was supposed to happen in 1987, then due to economic difficulties it was postponed to 1988, 1989, and then 1990. The constant rescheduling ended in 1991 when the USSR itself ended its existence.
For a short period of time Air Base 1521 continued to exist as a part of the armed forces of the so-called CIS, but in the conditions of the severe economic crisis, obviously, nobody really cared about retraining to Su-27, or for that matter, about fighter pilot training altogether. Over the next few years, the flight personnel of Air Base 1521 either simply retired or left to their home countries, which now became independent states. This was the case for instance with Kostyantyn Morozov, one of the former commanders of Air Base 1521, who then became the first Minister of Defence of Ukraine and a key figure in establishing Ukraine`s policy of seeking to join NATO.
As for the planes of the Maryy Air Group, under the fake reason of requiring repairs, most of the fighters were transferred to Russia to avoid sharing them between the former Soviet Republics. And thus ended, in a quiet and undistinguished way, the story of one of the most unique units of the Soviet Air Force: the Air Base 1521 Maryy , the Soviet Top Gun. As much as it is hard to imagine the Top Gun movie without the magnificent F-14 Tomcat, it is the same for its ominous red-starred adversary the MiG-28. Of course, the MiG-28 never existed in real life, and it was the F-5 Tiger that played the role of the enemy in the movie.
However, the F-5, with real Soviet Red Stars, indeed existed. What you see here is not a video from the shooting of the Top Gun movie; neither is it the flight of the US Air Force Aggressors Squadron. In fact, it is the captured F-5 Tiger during one of the test flights conducted by the Soviets in 1976. The tests whose final results, in particular the mock fights against the Russian MiG-21 and 23, hugely shocked and surprised the Soviet Air Force Command.
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