The Israelis have long known that they are vulnerable to embargoes. After decades of equipping their air force with French aircraft, DeGaulle embargoed arms sales to Israel. But Israel had already begun to build their own arms industry, to include building their own fighter aircraft.
Designing and producing a new design was beyond their capability, but copying existing French designs was practical. The first “home built” Israeli fighter was the Nesher, essentially a copy of the French Dassault Mirage III‘/5. It enjoyed service with the Israeli Air Force, and even a modicum of success in the export market (and will make an appearance in our series on the Falklands War).
The Israelis turned to the US as a replacement to the French as a source of arms. But they also wanted to continue the ability to weather any embargo by continuing to develop their own aircraft industry. And so they received a license to build the GE J79 engine locally. And they then produced a variant of the Nesher powered by the J79. This jet, the Kfir, was first produced in the C.1 model. 27 C.1’s were produced, with only limited combat capability. The C.2 and later C.7 models were fully combat capable and served for many years in the Israeli Air Force. But the C.1’s were sitting around doing nothing. So the Israelis had the bright idea to lease them to the US.
In the mid 1980s, the US Navy and Marine Corps placed enormous emphasis on dissimilar air combat training- that is, letting fleet pilots train against as many different aircraft as possible, since each aircraft has different characteristics. The Navy had several schools and squadrons dedicated to providing the training.
The most famous institution was of course TOPGUN, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, which was in essence a graduate level program in fighter tactics. Fleet squadrons would send a crew or two to TOPGUN for the intense course. These crews would then become the subject matter experts in the squadron, expected to pass on their skills and knowledge to the rest of the squadron.
But several other squadrons also provided the day to day “aggressor” aircraft that fleet squadrons needed to hone their skills. And so it came to pass that VF-43 and a Marine squadron (IIRC, VMFAT-101) were equipped with some of the surplus Israeli Kfir C.1 aircraft. In US service, the Kfir was given the designation of F-21A. After several years, the F-21s were returned to Israel.
So why do we care? Because there’s a US civilian company that operates a couple of these former F-21s. Under contract, they provide aggressor aircraft training, or use them to simulate cruise missile attacks, or provide tracking targets for Navy missile destroyers.
And our fellow blogger Neptunus Lex just snagged a job as an F-21 pilot with this company. Nep is a long time Naval Aviator, fighter pilot, and has tours with an aggressor squadron and served as XO of TOPGUN as well as serving as a squadron commander of a fleet F/A-18C squadron. Few people in the world have such credentials as an aviator and fighter pilot.