The Syrian government’s plans to purchase MiG-21 fighters from Egypt were recently discovered by Zaman Al Wasl, a Syrian leading news site. According to the publication, Damascus sent a military-technical delegation of the Syrian Air Force command to Cairo to inspect several aircraft parked at the Egyptian airbases with the purpose of buying them.
Zaman Al Wasl underlines that the Syrian representatives were sent to Egypt after it became clear that no other countries would supply Damascus with new military aircraft. The publication’s source noted that about 40 Egyptian MiG-21 are just sitting around in the hangars. The deal has already been pre-approved by the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who most likely finds more sense in selling the jets than just keep them locked up.
The publication’s source also revealed that by the time the Syrian regime started to actively use aviation to fight the armed opposition in January 2012, the Syrian Air Force had three MiG-21 brigades: the 73rd brigade at the Khalkhala airport (20 aircraft), the 14th brigade in Hama and Abu al-Duhur airports (40 aircraft) as well as the 24th brigade in Deir ez-Zor and Tabqa (25 aircraft).
Egypt is today the world’s largest operator of the original Soviet design, with hundreds in service and several hundred more in reserve, although even serving squadrons are not assigned frontline duties.
As Egypt has moved to modernise its fleet, it has retired several older classes of combat jet including the F-16A, the Mirage 5 and the F-4E, and at least part of the MiG-21 fleet is likely to be replaced in its non-frontline position by F-16C fighters as the frontlines are filled out with newer MiG-29M, Rafale and Su-35 jets.
Egypt also operates at least one squadron of J-7 fighters, a Chinese derivative of the MiG-21, although it remains uncertain whether Syria is interested in these aircraft or whether they are available for export.
The Syrian Air Force previously deployed the more advanced MiG-29 and MiG-23 fighters and MiG-25 interceptors as its elite, and in the 2000s sought to purchase small numbers of MiG-29SMT and MiG-31 jets – the latter unsuccessfully and the former which have yet to be delivered.
Approximately 8-10 combat jets of each class were sought out from Russia, with the loss of Soviet aid and access to Soviet jets and spare parts at ‘friendly’ prices since the early 1990s having seriously undermined Syria’s ability to afford a more comprehensive fleet modernisation.
A devastating nine-year conflict with militant Islamist insurgent groups, however, has shifted the Syrian Air Force’s priorities away from air defence against possible Israeli and Western incursions – and towards reliable and low maintenance means of carrying out airstrikes on jihadists forces.
The MiG-21 has thus emerged as a favourite for the service, able to fly multiple sorties daily, not complex to fly, and not requiring expensive parts or high quantities of fuel.
The jet also has a low crash rate, a reasonable flight performance with the ability to exceed Mach 2 speeds, and can deploy a wide range of munitions including a range of indigenous gravity bombs. This makes it preferable to more complex designs such as the MiG-29 and MiG-23.
The MiG-21 is in high demand today, and with Egypt looking to retire part of its fleet a sale could be ideal for both counties.
Cairo also has an interest in strengthening the Syrian fleet, with many of the militant groups including Al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State all considered a threat to Egyptian security as well as that of its neighbour.