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Russia’s MiG-23 Fighter: Just How Awful Was It?

MiG-23. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

While the Soviet Union’s MiG-23 was designed to go toe-to-toe with American and European third-generation fighters and replace the aging MiG-21, it is not remembered as a particularly safe aircraft to fly. Its mixed (at best) combat history, poor safety record, and age has meant that the MiG-23 was one of the first models which Russia and many other post-Soviet states retired after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What was the MiG-23 Capable of?

Initially designed as a response to the United States’ F-4 Phantom II and F-105 Thunderchief, the MiG-23 was instead challenged by the F-111, which had a larger range and higher top speed.

The Flogger (as it was referred to by its NATO designation) was propelled by a single Khatchaturov R-35-300 afterburning turbojet, which gave it a max speed of 1,553 miles per hour and a range of 1,200 miles.

In addition to its 23 mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23L autocannon, the MiG-23 had six hardpoints total across its fuselage and wings, which allowed the aircraft to carry a variety of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles.

The MiG-23 Flogger was designed for export in mind, and thusly was deficient in comparison to some other Soviet fighters of a similar period and role.

However, its “swing” wing geometry and advanced radar and fire control systems made it a fairly advanced aircraft when it was first introduced in 1970 and began entering operational service in 1971.

Service in Foreign Air Forces

Soon after it entered production for the first time, the Soviet Union’s MiG-23 and its many variants were picked up by Soviet-friendly air forces around Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa.

In addition to seeing service in the air forces of every Warsaw Pact state, the Flogger saw service with the Afghan, Algerian, Cuban, Egyptian, Indian, Iraqi, Libyan, North Korean, and Syrian air forces.

With such a wide distribution, the MiG-23 inevitably saw significant combat service in a variety of conflicts. However, rather than this being a chance to show off the capabilities of the Flogger, those experiences almost universally were negative testaments to the drawbacks of the MiG-23, frequently when the aircraft went up against U.S. designs.

The Flogger performed abysmally in Syrian service in the Arab-Israeli Wars, in Iraqi service against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, and in  Libyan service in the Libyan-Egyptian War.

This cannot be attributed to pilot skills alone, as U.S. test pilots of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron evaluating the Flogger reportedly strongly disliked flying the aircraft, in significant part due to its propensity to explode and difficulty to maintain.

MiG-27 Ground-Attack Update

Despite its non-negligible, serious issues with the Flogger, Soviet engineers decided to create a ground-attack version of the MiG-23, the MiG-27. Known as the Flogger-D/J, the MiG-27 featured a sloped down nose for better front visibility, improved jamming and radio navigation systems, and increased armor plating at vital points of the aircraft.

The MiG-27’s 30-millimeter GSh-6-30 cannon reportedly was so powerful and shook the aircraft so deeply when fired, that it could damage the aircraft’s structure and avionics. This ground attack Flogger saw service with a variety of Air Forces around the world, including in Sri Lanka, where it featured prominently in the Sri Lankan government’s air campaign against the Tamil Tigers, all the while experiencing many accidents along the way.

Legacy of the Flogger

The MiG-23 Flogger has already gone down in history with the dubious distinction of being retired in many cases ahead of the MiG-21, the aircraft it was designed to replace. It was one of the first aircraft to be retired by Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and only remains in service in the air forces of several African and Asian air forces, as well as that of Syria and Cuba.

Russian Military Secrets MiG-23

As time goes on, the Flogger’s troubled history all but guarantees it will continue to be overshadowed by its more successful predecessor and successor MiG cousins.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.