JERUSALEM — A Syrian pilot landed his MIG-23 jet fighter at an Israeli airstrip Wednesday, presenting military intelligence analysts with what could be a wealth of valuable information.
The pilot set his plane down on a civilian airstrip near Megiddo in northern Israel about noon, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said. He said the pilot, identified as Maj. Adel Basem, 34, had broken away from a training operation in Syria.
Israel said the pilot had defected, and if so it would be the first defection by an Arab flier to Israel in more than 20 years.
Syria denied that the pilot had purposefully flown to Israel. An official in Damascus was quoted as saying that the pilot was forced to land because of mechanical trouble. Smoke was pouring from the jet's engines, the Syrians insisted.
Examination of the plane could contribute to Israel's air superiority over Syria, which is regarded as Israel's No. 1 rival. In addition, the embarrassment of the defection could be a blow to Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose main base of military support is the air force.
"I think in one sentence we can say that this is an important event for the air force, without a doubt," Mordechai Hod, a reserve major general and former air force commander, told Israel Radio. "The significance is that the air force can now examine the plane secretly and test its electronics."
It was not clear how the pilot evaded Israel's air defenses. Some observers said he may have identified himself while being observed by radar. There were reports that the MIG was shadowed by Israeli fighters.
But other sources speculated that something went wrong and that the country's air watchdogs, not in a state of high alert, may not have noticed the intrusion. Military officials would not comment on this.
"It's simply possible that the air defenses are not impregnable," said Zeev Eytan, a military expert at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
The Syrian plane, normally armed with cannon and missiles, came in without weapons.
Surprised personnel at the airstrip gave water to the thirsty pilot, who was said to have told them repeatedly that he had "no hostile intentions."
A resident of the area told Israel Radio, "I was so surprised that I followed in my car to see what it was."
According to witnesses, Israeli military officers did not arrive at the strip until 20 minutes after the landing. Later, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, the armed forces chief of staff, went to greet the defector, indicating the value Israel evidently attaches to the incident.
By nightfall, Israeli technicians were moving the plane to an air force base.
Since it was first delivered by the Soviet Union in 1973, the MIG-23 has become a mainstay of the Syrian air force. It is by no means the most sophisticated craft in Syria's arsenal, but Israeli experts said that valuable data may be acquired from equipment on board that has probably been upgraded in recent years.
"OK, so it would have been better if the pilot had come with a MIG-29, but we'll have to make do," said Eytan, the Jaffee center expert who co-authors a respected semiannual review of the Middle East military balance.
Eytan pointed out that upgraded items on many MIG-23s include new radar, navigation systems and electronic measures to confuse enemy missiles. Inspection of such systems could give Israel the key to countermeasures.
Eytan said he was enthused about the chances that the jet might include equipment that prevents its being shot down by friendly missiles. Such equipment could also be used to protect Israeli planes.
The Syrian pilot may also provide a wealth of other information, not all of it purely military. For example, he may give the Israelis details on equipment, deployment and training methods.
"He should be able to tell us whether Syria trains its pilots mainly in defense or offense, and how much air time pilots have," Eytan said.
He may also provide clues as to whether there is discontent in the air force.
Syria, which is still in a state of war with Israel, has about 140 MIG-23s.
If Maj. Basem has defected, he is the first Syrian pilot to do so. In 1973, two Syrians landed in Israel by mistake. They were returned to Syria in a prisoner exchange, but Israel kept their MIG-17s.
In 1966, an Iraqi pilot landed a MIG-21 in Israel. Iraq said the defection was arranged by the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, and Israel has never denied it.
Two years earlier, an Egyptian pilot flew a Soviet-supplied training plane to Israel and defected. No Israeli pilot has defected to an Arab country.
The MIG-23, nicknamed the Flogger, has been around more than 20 years, first showing up at an aviation day in Moscow in 1967. It went into production in 1970 but was not deployed in large numbers until 1973. By 1982, the MIG-23 and the related MIG-27 formed the backbone of Soviet tactical and interceptor forces and was being turned out at the rate of more than 600 a year, according to Jane's All the World's Aircraft. It is flown by all of the Warsaw Pact nations except Romania, and it has been exported to at least nine other air forces. The MIG-23, according to Jane's, has a maximum speed of Mach 1.5, a typical range of 240 miles and a ceiling of 52,500 feet.