Warplanes: MiGs Over Nevada


April 5, 2007: Last Fall, the U.S. Air Force has declassified details about a secret program that wasn't much of a secret. "Constant Peg" was the 1977-1988 program that put of a squadron of Soviet warplanes into American service. The force consisted of about two dozen MiG-17s, 21s and 23s. The aircraft were used for training U.S. pilots and, more importantly, finding out what kind of air force the Soviet Union had, and what it could do. A lot of what was learned, leaked out over the years. But in the six months since Constant Peg came out of the cold, there has been quite a lot of chatter among pilots in air forces that operate older Soviet aircraft, or might be facing them. In Taiwan, for example, there was relief that it was now public knowledge about how most Chinese aircraft (which are MiG-21 clones) were, well, pretty third rate.

While the Constant Peg pilots leaned was that the Soviet aircraft were quite maneuverable, they also learned about a lot of interesting quirks, which could be exploited in combat. But perhaps more important, was what aircraft maintainers learned about how well Soviet aircraft held up. Not well, it turned out. Based on the American experience with these Soviet aircraft, it was discovered that the rumors of much higher accident rates in the Soviet air forces were true. Soviet accident rates turned out to be about five times higher than American ones. Maintaining these Soviet aircraft day after day revealed why most users of these aircraft didn't get much time in the air. The aircraft were poorly built, with often shoddy components. Even if the Soviets had wanted to give their pilots more air time (and make them more effective), it was not possible. Soviet aircraft simply could not be flown frequently enough. All this was in support of Soviet military doctrine, which called for the maximum number of aircraft to be ready for the early stages of a war. The concept was that quantity would overwhelm quantity. This never worked in practice, and even the Soviets were having doubts at the end of the Cold War.

The U.S. Air Force didn't want to run their precious Soviet aircraft into the ground, so they carefully collected data on flight characteristics of the MiGs, and found ways to use American aircraft, flown by pilots, who could fly it like a MiG. But that did not make up for the visual experience. American pilots who did fly against the MiGs were struck by how small and elusive the Soviet aircraft were. It was also startling to see them in the sky, painted in realistic colors (including the red stars). But hundreds of American pilots did get this experience, and passed on to others in their units.

The source of the MiGs is still a secret, apparently to spare the providing nations embarrassment. However, word on the street is that most of the MiGs were purchased from Middle Eastern countries who, at one time or another, were big users of Soviet aircraft. Egypt is often mentioned, but there were others as well.

The MiGs were based at a secret facility near Las Vegas, and were part of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron. The MiGs ended up flying over 15,000 sorties, far more than they would have if operated by a regular Soviet squadron.




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