The MIG 25 Foxbat loom large in the annals of military aviation history despite having been something of a disappointment, and much of this is down to the impact it had on the West, NATO fighter design and, as a result, popular culture. We can thank the MIG 25 for the ‘Firefox’ novel and Clint Eastwood film adaptation, and also a rash of highly advanced fourth and four point five generation fighters like the F-15 Eagle, still very much in service with air forces around the globe.
The need for a plane like the MIG 25, an interreceptor capable of flying at nearly Mach 3, had become steadily more apparent to the soviets as the sixties progressed. US long range bombers like the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, B-58 Hustler and its planned replacement, the stillborn B-70 Valkyrie, gifted the West with the ability to strike anywhere in the world, Soviet airspace very much included. The latter two planes proved especially worrying to communist minds as they were supersonic, and as such dramatically reduced the amount of time a Soviet pilot would have to intercept them should the Cold War turn hot.
The task of developing a suitable interceptor, one able to fly fast and high enough to engage planes like the B-58 and Valkyrie before they could release their deadly cargo on Soviet cities, was given to the Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau, specifically its founder and patriarch, Mikhail Gurevich. He swiftly realised that any plane capable of fulfilling the brief would need to be able to fly faster and higher than any plane then in service with the Warsaw Pact powers, and also that doing so would require the perfection of a number of experimental design ideas and processes.
The deciding factor would be the aircraft’s ability to generate immense amounts of thrust, and as such there was only ever one engine in the frame, the Turmansky R-15. The MIG 25 would eventually employ two of the massive engines placed side-by-side, an arrangement which dictated that the airframe itself be massive. The Foxbat’s size also grew through its need to carry as much fuel as possible, both to keep the rampantly thirsty engines well fed and to give it the range needed to reach the extremities of Soviet airspace.
The upside to using the Turmansky was the MIG 25’s potential to fly high and fast – very, very fast. Mach 2.8 was possible with relative ease, with a potential top speed of Mach 3.2 available if the pilot was willing to do the engines severe, possible terminal damage, and presumably receive a Soviet-style reprimand when he landed!
Of course, merely deciding on the means of propulsion was only half the battle; the MIG design bureau still had to design an airframe capable of actually surviving at this speed, and with all the constraints of the Soviet system ranged against it. Titanium would have been the material best suited for the task but it was both incredibly expensive and scarce, and as such a mixture of nickel steel alloy, aluminium and just 9% titanium. It was then ‘glued’ together via spot welding, machine welding and arc welding.
Meanwhile, in the US, word of the new Soviet plane had been received, then confirmed through a dedicated reconnaissance flight. This seemed to confirm the US intelligence service’s worst fears in the wake of its experience in the skies above Vietname, namely that the Russian’s had developed a massive, supersonic fighter capable of out-flying third-gen planes like the F-4 Phantom. To say that the proverbial excrement hit the fan wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration.
The very idea that the Soviets had designed such a fighter sent various US aerospace design firms into something approaching a panic, and a number of in-development fighter programmes were re-evaluated as a direct result. The F-15 was born from the perceived threat of the MIG 25, an update variant of which remains among the most capable fighters in the world, which says a great deal about how much US military nous, engineering ability and treasure was invested in its development more than four decades ago.
It wasn’t long before MIG 25s were setting speed and altitude records across the globe, while also conducting deliberately visible recon flyovers of key Middle Eastern states in the USA’s sphere of influence, most provocatively of all during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Perhaps the Foxbat’s most famous achievement in terms of speed occurred towards the end of its life, in the eighties, when the plane demonstrated its ability to get vaguely close to intercepting the SR-71 Blackbird over Swedish airspace.
The trouble was that the Foxbat had more than a touch of the ‘smoke and mirrors’ about it and its capabilities. It was fast, no doubt about that, but it was also built to a budget and to a very strict set of flight parameters. It was no dogfighter and never would be, its radar wasn’t a patch on those seen in Western jets and going to Mach 3.2 would require a complete strip down and rebuild of its massive, thirsty engines.
Quite how wide of the mark Western intelligence had been when assessing the MIG 25 only became apparent in September 1976, when a Soviet pilot called Viktor Belenko defected to the West, landing his brand new Foxbat at Hakodate Airport in Japan. Something of an international furore ensued, one heightened when the Japanese defied Soviet wishes and invited representatives from the US military to inspect the aircraft.
The US, champing at the bit to learn more about a plane they’d grown to fear more than any other in the Soviet arsenal, transported it to one of their own facilities on the Japanese mainland, then set about a forensic deconstruction. This enabled them to glean a great deal about the Foxbat, not least that it was never intended to be anything but an interceptor of bombers. They also concluded that much of the welding was done by hand, that non-flush rivets were used in areas unlikely to cause drag, that it was heavy at 29,000kg, and, most damningly of all, that it lacked range.
The US and the Japanese did eventually return the MIG 25 to the Soviets, though they did it in fully disassembled form – and the former even tried to charge the Russians for storage and disassembly costs.
The discovery of the MIG 25’s true character took much of the fear from its image, though it still remained a formidable adversary throughout the seventies and eighties. It saw combat in the Middle East via Soviet proxies throughout the eighties, though not always successfully – the big, cumbersome Foxbat proving susceptible to US planes like the F-14 Tomcat.
Now all but retired from frontline service, the Foxbat remains in the inventories of the Algerian, Azerbaijani, Syrian (as of 2016) and Libyan air forces, a potent symbol of Cold War paranoia and willingness to push the performance envelope. It might not have been the epoch defining fighter-bomber the West feared for much of its development, but the ballistically quick MIG 25 Foxbat is a certified Retropower Hero.