The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 (NATO code name: Fresco) was a Russian fighter-bomber and the replacement for the MiG-15. Russian designers began work on it in 1949; the prototype flew in 1950 and it went into general service in 1951.
The MiG-17 has a blunt nose, bubble canopy, and a short, cigar-shaped fuselage. The single exhaust is overhung by a fin. The swept wings have thick wing roots and blunt tips. Most versions of the Fresco were armed with two 23 mm and one 37 cannon, the same armament as the MiG-15.
Although it went into service in 1951, very few fought in the Korean War. The latest version of the aircraft was armed with four AA-1 missiles and, although nearly obsolete, served notably in the Vietnam War. Eventually, the aircraft served with over 20 countries worldwide, including North Vietnam, Afghanistan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Indonesia, and Cambodia, besides the Soviet Union. China received a license to build MiG-17s under the name of J-5.
North Vietnam acquired MiG-17s, its first jet fighters, in early 1964. At the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the pilots and planes were still in China, finishing their training. They were hurriedly recalled, and MiG-17s (affectionately called ‘Silver Swallows’ by the Vietnamese) were soon flying regular sorties. The first combat came on April 3, 1965, a month after Operation Rolling Thunder began. Six MiGs engaged a US Navy strike force, and later claimed to have shot down two F-8 Crusaders. In fact, the only American loss was to flak, although the Frescoes had damaged one of the Crusaders so badly it had to land at Da Nang instead of returning to its carrier. No MiGs were lost. The next day, four MiGs engaged a force of F-105 Thunderchiefs and downed two (these losses were confirmed by the US Air Force). However, three of the North Vietnamese fighters were lost, one to an F-100 Super Sabre and two to unknown causes. For the first years of the war, Frescoes bore the brunt of air defence (MiG-21s arrived in 1966, but there were few of them compared to the MiG-17s), and although the machines were a full generation behind the American Phantoms, Thunderchiefs, and Crusaders, they inflicted losses on their opponents. Fresco pilots claimed over 60 kills between 1965 and 1968, of which about a third are confirmed by American records. However, the North Vietnamese were hampered by their lack of radar support and poor training compared to the American pilots, and over 80 Frescoes were lost over that same period, mostly to American fighters, but they also suffered a high accident rate in North Vietnamese service.
After Rolling Thunder ended, the air war entered a lull. By the time President Richard Nixon ordered strikes to resume in early 1972, North Vietnam had acquired more MiG-21s and also MiG-19s, so Frescoes were less prominent in this stage of the war. In 1972, Frescoes scored only three kills, while losing about a dozen of their own. However, Frescoes scored a victory of another kind on April 19, 1972. After weeks of training, two MiG-17 pilots attacked the destroyer USS Higbee and the cruiser USS Oklahoma City ten miles offshore, dropping two 550 lb bombs on each ship. The Oklahoma City was only lightly damaged, but the Highbee’s rear turret, with two 5 inch guns, was destroyed, and four sailors were injured. One of the pilots was Nguyen Van Bay, North Vietnam’s top MiG-17 ace with seven kills.
Egypt acquired about a dozen MiG-17s between 1955 and 1956, just in time to see action in the Suez Crisis, and they scored some successes against the Israelis, on the air and on the ground. A few of them were flown by Soviet advisors. After the war, Egyptian Frescoes were involved in occasional dogfights with Israeli Mysteres, which the MiGs were usually on the losing side of.
In the Six Day War, most of the Arab combatants’ aircraft were destroyed on the ground by the initial Israeli airstrikes of June 6. Syrian Frescoes did manage an offensive mission in the late morning of that day, while the IAF was still occupied with destroying the Egyptian airfields. Twelve MiG-17s, with an escort of MiG-19s and MiG-21s, attacked the oil refinery at Haifa. Damage was light however, and two Frescoes were downed by anti-aircraft fire. Syria’s and Egypt’s remaining MiG-17s flew combat air patrols, performed hit and run raids on Israeli forces, and even shot down a couple of Israeli fighters, but were by and large outclassed in air combat.
Although well into obsolescence by 1973, MiG-17s also saw heavy action in the Yom Kippur War. On the first day, Frescoes were used in airstrikes against Israeli targets, including air fields. One Egyptian force of 28 planes, bomb-carrying Frescoes and escorting MiG-21s, attacked Ophir Airbase in the Sinai, and were intercepted by two Phantoms. In what was probably the first air combat of the war, the Israeli planes downed six MiG-17s, but the remaining attackers hit the base, damaging the runway. Frescoes also served in the close-support role, their heavy armament proving effective against Israeli armored vehicles. Although relatively slow, the MiG’s robustness gave it an advantage in that type of combat environment.
After the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, the Nigerian Air Force acquired MiG-17s, its first modern fighters, from the Soviet Union. A strike by Biafran bombers destroyed some of them on the ground, but they became operational and flew their first combat sorties on August 30. The new fighters later supported a government offensive that captured Biafran airfields, and soon the NAF had air superiority.
Along with MiG-15s, Chinese MiG-17s took part in several conflicts over the Taiwan Strait. The Frescoes first saw action against the Nationalists, which flew F-84 Thunderjets and F-86 Sabres, during the Quemoy Crisis in 1958. The conflict also marked the first appearance of the Chinese-built J-5. The appearance of MiG-17s in Chinese hands came as a surprise to both the Nationalists and the Americans, and prompted the United States to ship several AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, which had only recently become operational in American units, and the missile saw combat for the first time in Nationalist service.
In spite of several victory claims, there’s no evidence that any Sabers were shot down by the MiGs, although one Saber was lost in a collision (a “Fox four”) with a MiG-17 that also went down. Frescoes did manage to shoot down three Thunderjets. Nationalist Sabre pilots are credited with downing 25 MiG-17s (ironically, no Frescoes fell to Sidewinders).
- The surviving pilot claimed to have seen them shot down by F-105s, but no Thud pilot claimed any hits on the MiGs that day. They may have been brought down by friendly flak.
- MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War, by Istvan Toperczer, Osprey Publishing, 2001
- Vietnamese Aces
- Suez Crisis, 1956
- Dogfight: Military Aircraft Compared and Contrasted, by Robert Jackson and Jim Winchester, Amber Books, 2006
- Arab MiG-19 and MiG-21 Units in Combat, by David Nicolle and Tom Cooper, Osprey Publishing, 2004
- War of Attrition, 1969-1970
- Israeli F-4 Phantom II Aces, by Shlomo Aloni, Osprey Publishing, 2004
- The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, ed. by Chris Bishop, Aerospace Publishing, 2001
- Civil War in Nigeria (Biafra), 1967-1970
- China and Taiwan since 1945
- PRC/Chinese Air-to-Air Victories since 1950
- Taiwanese Air-to-Air Victories
- USS Higbee: The Battle of Dong Hoi (a detailed account of the attack)