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Russia’s MiG-25 Foxbat Was Fast (It Could Hit Mach 3.2)

MiG-25. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

As I wrote in a previous article on the MiG-25 “Foxbat” interceptor, there are seemingly two truisms of military aviation that seem to contradict each other but nonetheless hold up. The first is that “speed is life,” while the second is that “speed kills.” As I also wrote, the first mantra is highly applicable to the world’s fastest air-breathing aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, which has never been shot down.

In the case of the Foxbat — the fastest interceptor ever built — the dictums apply in equal measure. The Foxbat is the last enemy aircraft to score an air-to-air kill against a Western warplane (in other words, not counting shootdowns by surface-to-air missiles or triple-A fire).

On the opening night of the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi Air Force Lt. Zuhair Dawoud, employing an R-40RD missile, shot down an F/A-18 Hornet piloted by U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, thus inflicting the first American KIA of that war. 

As for “speed is life,” well, the MiG-25 hasn’t been quite as lucky as the SR-71, but it hasn’t been too far off the mark. Only five MiG-25s have ever been shot down in aerial combat. Let’s now take a look at the stories of those lucky few U.S. Air Force and Israeli Defense Forces Air Force pilots who managed to pull off that impressive feat. 

MiG-25 Brief History and Specifications 

The MiG-25 Foxbat made her maiden flight on March 6, 1964 and entered into operational service with the Soviet air forces in 1970. The Foxbat officially had a max airspeed capability of Mach-3.2, though for all practical purposes (read: safety reasons), that was actually limited to Mach 2.83, which is 1,900 mph.

The plane was built for such speeds because Soviet senior leaders feared a U.S. Air Force warbird that never even made it past the prototype stage, the XB-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber.

The Foxbat was shrouded in mystery to Westerners until the daring 1976 defection of Lt. Viktor Belenko.

Akin to the F-4 Phantom, which is almost just as fast — “proof that if you put enough thrust behind a brick you can make it fly.” — the Foxbat was known for its large size: a fuselage length of 78 feet 2 inches was matched by a wingspan of 46 feet, a height of 20 feet, an empty weight of 44,092 pounds, a max takeoff weight of 80,954 pound, and the largest engines ever put on a fighter.

To repeat something else I said in my previous MiG-25 piece, “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.”

Eagles Kill Foxbat

Just as the Israelis were the first to successfully use the F-16 in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, so too were they the first to kill a Foxbat in aerial battle. This transpired on Feb. 13, 1981, when an IDF/AF F-15A Eagle shot down a Syrian-piloted MiG-25 over Lebanon after the Foxbat driver and his wingman were lured in by RF-4E decoys deploying chaff and electronic countermeasure pods. 

What makes the shootdown even more noteworthy is that it was accomplished with the much-maligned AIM-7F Sparrow semiactive radar-guided missile. As Tom Clancy noted in his nonfiction book Fighter Wing, the Sparrow scored the most air-to-air kills during Operation Desert Storm.

It also had the poorest hit rate, as it lacked the true fire-and-forget capability of either an infrared-guided (heat-seeking) missile such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder, or a true active radar-guided missile (more on this in a moment). 

Another IDF/AF Eagle driver repeated the feat on July 29 of that same year.

Fast-forward a decade, and now it was U.S. Eagle pilots’ turn to claim their share of Foxbat-killing glory. On Jan. 19, 1991 — two nights after Dawoud’s shootdown of Speicher — two F-15Cs flown by Air Force Capts. Rick “Kluso” Tollini and Larry “Cherry” Pitts  shot down two MiG-25s.Tollini eloquently described his kill: “‘The explosion was huge, like the Death Star from the Star Wars film.

The Foxbat totally disintegrated, and I was amazed because that had not happened to ‘Cherry’s’ MiG.” Once again, the unloved Sparrow did the trick.

Fighting Falcon/Viper Kills Foxbat

While rivalries between service branches are well known to American civilians, what is not quite as well known are the equally intense but mostly friendly rivalries within services. One such example is that between F-15 and F-16 drivers who vie to determine who flies the best damn fourth-generation fighter in the U.S. Air Force arsenal.

Naturally, the Viper pilots did not want to be outdone by letting their Eagle-driving counterparts have all the fun killing Foxbats. 

And so it was that on Dec. 27, 1992, one lucky F-16 pilot, Capt. Gary “Nordo” North, while enforcing the no-fly zone in southern Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch, caught one of Saddam Hussein’s MiG-25 pilots in flagrant violation.

Long story short, “Nordo” was cleared hot to engage.

In his own words: “I saw three separate detonations, the nose and left wing broke instantly, and the tail section continued into the main body of the jet, and finally one huge fireball.”

In the process, Nordo attained history thrice over: His was the first aerial victory scored by an American F-16, the first kill for the active radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM, and to my knowledge, the last air-to-air kill by anybody against the Foxbat.

However, the final scoreboard comes out to Eagles 4, Falcons 1. Sorry, Viper boys ‘n’ girls, the F-15 still holds the title of Top Foxbat Killer.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces 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. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. If you’d like to pick his brain in-person about his writings, chances are you’ll be able to find him at the Green Turtle Pasadena in Maryland on Friday nights, singing his favorite karaoke tunes. 

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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).