A Retired U.S. Air Force Officer Explains the Significance of the MiG-25: As the saying goes, “Speed is life.” But then there’s also the saying, “Speed kills.” When it comes to military aviation, both of these utterances have a degree of paradoxical truth. If the American SR-71 Blackbird – still the world’s fastest air-breathing aircraft – embodies the former mantra, then the Soviet-built MiG-25 “Foxbat” fits the latter billing. Let’s take a closer look at the world’s fastest interceptor ever built.
Foxbat Foments Fear
Of all the Cold War-era Soviet-designed fighters and interceptors, none genuinely scared the hell out of Western airpower strategists and tacticians quite like the Foxbat did … at least at first. Ironically enough, it was fear, in turn, that had motivated the Soviets to design the Foxbat in the first place. Fear, that is, of an American warplane that never even made it past the prototype phase: the XB-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber.
Even though the Valkyrie bomber never actually went operational, that didn’t prevent the Soviets from pressing the MiG-25 into frontline service with PVO (voyska protivovozdushnoy oborony, literally translated as “Anti-Air Defense Troops”). They couldn’t allow the craft’s combat potential and amazing speed capability to go completely to waste. The top speed of the warbird (yes, I’m still using an avian metaphor even though foxes and bats are both mammals) was an incredible Mach 3.2 (2,455 mph/3,951 kph) – at least on paper. For practical purposes, the airspeed was actually limited to Mach 2.8, which is still plenty impressive.
This speed was made possible in part due to having the largest engines ever put on a fighter. Yes, even bigger than the engines on the previous speed record-holder amongst jet fighters, the American F-4 Phantom II, which in its own right had inspired the joke about “proof that if you put enough thrust behind a brick you can make it fly.” As a quick personal aside, having personally seen the Foxbat’s afterburners up-close-and-personal at the MiG graveyard on Al Asad Airbase, Iraq, I can attest that its engines are truly quite a sight to behold.
As an interesting bit of gee-whiz trivia, the MiG-25 was the last aircraft designed by Mikhail Gurevich – one-half of the Mikoyan and Gurevich (MiG) corporation’s namesake – before his retirement. Tovarish (“Comrade”) Gurevich’s final patent made its maiden flight on March 6, 1964, and was officially introduced into the service of the Rodina (“Motherland”) in 1970.
The plane’s debut, shrouded in an aura of mystery, made heads spin in the Western intelligence and military aviation communities. Grainy footage carried over from a Soviet airshow revealed an aircraft that appeared to have all the hallmarks of an agile fighter. The unusually large wings suggested extreme maneuverability. Enormous air intakes hinted at massive engines and experts suspected the use of advanced lightweight titanium – which, at the time, was not easily available in the U.S.
Belenko Bursts the ‘Bat’s Bubble
Fast-forward to 1976, and a 29-year-old PVO Lieutenant by the name of Viktor Belenko helped dispel the dual shrouds of mystery and fear surrounding the Foxbat and did so by escaping in one.
Belenko started his journey from Vladivostok and from there made his daring defection to the Hakodate airstrip on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Now the Western aviation experts had a golden opportunity to perform a full firsthand assessment of the interceptor’s strengths and weaknesses alike. My 19FortyFive colleague Peter Suciu elaborates:
“Unlike the Blackbird, which was built out of titanium to withstand the heat generated by the friction at high speeds, the Foxbat was largely built out of steel, which was welded together by hand. The Foxbat could fly at extreme speeds but in doing so it would risk damage to the airframe and engines. Because of its size, it was easy to track on radar, and when the U.S. took apart the aircraft flown to Japan it was discovered the technology within was antiquated – including vacuum tubes rather than transistors. Likewise, while fast, the MiG-25 had limited range.”
In addition, the big ‘Bat lacked maneuverability – a factor that also plagued the aforementioned fast-but-huge F-4 Phantom in dogfights against the MiG-21 Fishbed over North Vietnam. With 20/20 hindsight, the limited range factor on the gas-guzzling Foxbat makes Lt. Belenko’s escape story just that much more remarkable and cliffhanger-like.
Though the MiG-25 never got to fulfill its originally-intended mission of killing supersonic bombers, it still saw plenty of combat action, in the hands of Iraqi Air Force (IqAF) pilots, both during the Iran-Iraq War of 1981-1988 and Operation Desert Storm in 1991. In fact, even though the MiG-25 was not designed for dogfighting the fighters of adversaries, it was nonetheless a Foxbat driver, then-IqAF Lt. Zuhair Dawoud, who managed to score the IqAF’s only air-to-air kill of the Gulf War, when he shot down then-Lt. Cdr. (USN) Michael Scott Speicher’s F/A-18 Hornet on the opening day of the conflict. In Lt. Dawoud’s own words:
“I locked a target 38km [20.5 miles] from me and at 29km [15.6 miles] I fired [the] R-40RD missile from under my right wing. I kept the target locked with my radar [un]till I witnessed a huge explosion in front of me.”
Prior to the official Western confirmation of Dawoud’s aerial victory, it had been widely assumed that no Coalition aircraft had been shot down by IqAF pilots and that all of the Coalition’s aircraft combat losses had been due to Iraqi ground fire – SAMs and triple-A fire alike. In exchange, two MiG-25s were shot down by F-15 pilots during the actual Desert Storm conflict itself, and another one was downed by an F-16 on 27 December 1992 for violating the post-war no-fly zone over southern Iraq. This latter shootdown was the first-ever kill for the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.
The MiG-25 remains in limited service to this day – namely with Algeria and Syria – thus claiming the current title of the fastest manned serial-produced aircraft in operational use.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security.