Let me start with my standard disclaimer: I was a bomber guy. The only fast-mover time I logged was as a T-38 instructor. I am not an expert on fighter tactics. My experience with fighters mostly consists of trying to hide from them! If any fighter jocks want to correct me here feel free.
It was never a very well kept secret that we had MiGs at a base in Nevada. I remember fighter pilot friends of mine talking about the "petting zoo" out at Nellis where you could see a MiG up close and sit in it.
What I never knew, until it was recently declassified, was that we actually had an operational unit out there that flew MiGs as adversaries against US pilots. It sounds like the plot of a made-for-HBO movie but it's true.
It's well known that we used USAF F-5s and Navy A-4s as stand-ins for MiG-21s and MiG-17s in exercises. Both services had "Aggressor" pilots that specialized exposing US forces to Soviet-style tactics in a peacetime environment.
There was another unit, however, that did the same thing with actual MiGs. These guys were hand-picked from the ranks of the USAF, Navy and Marines and appropriately named the "Red Eagles". They operated MiG-17, MiG-21 and MiG-23 aircraft that we had obtained from various countries by various means. The story of how we got hold of these aircraft and managed to keep them flying is right out of Tom Clancy. It's not like we could call up the Russians back in 1982 and say "Hey, would mind selling us a spare engine for a MiG-21? Um, no reason, just curious."
What I found most interesting is just how good the MiG-21 was and just how awful the MiG-23 is. When they screw up they do it in a big way!
A little history. The MiG-23 was developed in the mid 1960s to have greater range than the MiG-21 and to carry an improved radar and radar-guided missile. It has those F-4 looking side intakes, so that it can carry a larger radar in the nose. It was the first MiG to have a Beyond Visual Range capability with its AA-7 missile.
The swing-wing design seemed like the hot setup back in 1960s and early 70s. It was supposed to give the best of both worlds - high speed flight plus low speed handling.
The downside was increased weight and complexity.
Libyan 2-seat version with wings swept part way.
In the MiG-23's case it was meant to give it the ability to operate from short, unimproved airstrips. The MiG-21 had notoriously short range and needed a fairly long runway. This limited its tactical usefulness. The '23 was to have better range and the ability to operate closer to the front.
It entered Soviet service in 1967 and starting in the early 1970s was exported to pretty much everybody. Just over 5000 were built and they're still in service with 11 countries.
So what does the "Flogger" (Who comes up with these names!) as it's code-named have going for it?
1. Speed, speed and more speed! With the wings swept all the way back it's a manned missile. Mach 2.3 at altitude and over 900 knots at low altitude! They could actually catch an F-111 down low and I didn't think anything could do that. Acceleration was also very impressive. I've seen pictures of it spitting out an afterburner plume as long as the aircraft. Top speed was limited by the canopy imploding (bad).
Look at the size of that afterburner plume. This thing was pure thrust.
2. It's small and hard to see. Especially from the front.
This shows the small front cross-section. Very difficult to spot when it's pointing at you.
3. They had 5000 of 'em. It was cheap to build and they built plenty.
So what's not to like?
1. Limited radar. It's supposed to have (limited) look-down/shoot-down capability. The US pilots who flew it said that the radar wasn't all that useful. It could only lock on to a target directly in front of it.
Soviet tactics relied heavily on ground controllers to direct the pilot to a stern conversion (rear shot). Then and only then would the MiG pilot would lock on his radar and fire.
2. Terrible visibility both front and rear. There was actually a periscope to look rearwards. US pilots found that to be appropriate because it "handled like a submarine".
3. The engine only lasts 150 hours. This was common with Soviet fighters and was possibly a feature rather than a bug. Soviet client-states that got out of line found their spare parts pipeline shut off by Moscow. Their MiGs quickly turned into static displays when the engines wore out.
4. It can't turn - period. We assumed that the wing could be swept forward for low-speed dog-fighting but we were mistaken. The plane was very unstable with the wing swept forward. This feature was only used for takeoff and landing.
Wings swept forward.
5. Ergonomics were terrible. Modern fighters like the F-15/16/18 are set up for the pilot to be able to do everything without taking his hands from the stick and throttle. I've heard them refer to this as "playing the piccolo". The MiG-23 has switches all over the place and requires a lot of switch-flipping by the pilot to employ the systems. They also stuck the flight instruments wherever they had room for them rather than in a well thought out pattern.
MiG-23 cockpit showing poor visibility and lack of attention to human factors.
6. This is the big one: IT WILL KILL YOU
Keep in mind that the Red Eagles were some of the best fighter pilots the USAF, Navy and Marines had to offer. They were all Fighter Weapons School or Top Gun graduates and they'd all flown as aggressors. They were almost to a man afraid to fly this airplane. One US pilot said:
Every time I put my foot on the ladder I would say to myself "This plane will kill you today if you let it."
It was unstable at low speeds and it could also be unstable at high speeds. If you got into trouble at high speed there was no way to slow down quickly short of shutting down the engine. A throttle interlock prevented rapid deceleration because the engine would otherwise be torn from its mountings!
Landings, especially in a crosswind, were "an event". The narrow landing gear and yaw instability made the plane quite a handful to land.
Part of the problem was that we didn't trust the ejection seats. The explosive cartridges have a shelf-life and replacements weren't available so we had to reverse engineer them. There were many cases of MiGs being dead-sticked into Tonopah after an engine failure.
The KM-1 ejection seat used in the MiG-23 and later model MiG-21s. Note how the headrest blocks rear visibility.
In combat the Flogger is pretty much a one-trick airplane. Crank that Tumansky R-29 engine up to "Ludicrous Speed", get vectored in for what is hopefully a surprise attack, take the shot and run like hell. There's a good chance the Flogger will be out of missile range by the time somebody figures it out.
Firing an AA-7 missile. Roughly equivalent to the US AIM-7 Sparrow.
Its disadvantages become less of an issue when employed in large numbers. If they come at you from multiple directions, then whichever way you turn there's probably one pointing at you. Quantity has its own quality comrade.
The Flogger's actual combat record depends on who you ask. The Iranians claim to have shot them down in large numbers during the Iran-Iraq War. Most of the Iranian kills recorded were against ground-attack models, however.
In the 1980s the Israelis achieved favorable kill ratios against Syrian MiG-23s in various engagements.
In Desert Storm we claimed 8 MiG-23 kills while the Iraqis claimed 2 F-16s and a Tornado as kills plus 2 F-111s as damaged. We denied the F-16 kills, claiming they were shot down by SAMs.
I have talked to some F-15 and F-16 pilots who got to fly against the USAF Floggers. They didn't consider it to be much of a threat.
In the B-52 community we respected the MiG-23 but I think he'd have had a very tough time finding us down low. His "look-down" capability was pretty limited and our countermeasures could likely have defeated his missile shot. The MiG pilots said that at Red Flag the B-52s flew so low their wings masked the engine's heat signatures, preventing a heat-seeking missile lock-on. I always thought that would work but it's nice to have it confirmed. Still didn't want to meet one, mind you.
These have been replaced in Russian and Eastern European service by newer aircraft but there are still quite a few in service with other countries. Mostly the "usual suspects" like North Korea, Cuba and Syria.
There are actually a handful of these in civilian hands. If you have money where your brains ought to be there are even a couple up for sale. You too can fly your very own Soviet death-trap! Paging Tom Perkins....
I like this quote from one of the Red Eagles:
The best thing we could have done was buy as many as we could afford and then give them all to our enemies so that they could all kill themselves flying it.
Perhaps we can talk the Koch brothers into buying a two-seater?
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