The MiG-25 Terrified the West Until A Defector Exposed its True Nature
The spy satellite photos created panic in the Pentagon. They showed an enormous Soviet airplane, probably an interceptor, with engine intakes the size of small cars. The wings were huge, too, hinting at maneuverability far beyond anything America’s first-rank McDonnell F-4 Phantom II could achieve.
These were prototypes of what would become the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat. After the airplane appeared in public for the first time in July 1967 and went on a record-setting spree, it appeared the Soviets had a wonder weapon that could match the best in the West—the Mach 3.2 Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spyplane. The lightened MiG-25 prototypes, designated YE-155R (reconnaissance) and YE-155P (interceptor), set 29 speed, altitude and time-to-climb records, some of which still stand. For pure speed, they notched 1,852 mph. They could climb to 98,425 feet in four minutes and 3.86 seconds and ultimately reached an absolute altitude record of 123,520 feet.
In truth, the MiG-25 turned out to be a Potemkin Village of an airplane. The same kind of surveillance failure behind the so-called “missile gap” that John F. Kennedy exploited during the 1960 presidential campaign was also responsible for “Foxbat hysteria.” The Foxbat interceptor did achieve its mission in one way, though. It kept the SR-71 out of Soviet airspace for several years while the West pondered the big MiG’s true capabilities. And big it was. The Foxbat was the size of a World War II heavy bomber—nine feet longer than an Avro Lancaster, two and a half feet taller than a Consolidated B-24 and with a gross weight almost 27,000 pounds heavier than a Boeing B-17. Photographs of MiG-25s looming over its swarms of technicians and ground crews suggested that the airplane was maintained by toddlers.
The Soviets were short on titanium technology, however, and titanium is a key ingredient of high-speed flight. The heat generated by skin friction at supersonic speeds softens and weakens aluminum, making titanium the best answer for flying extremely fast. But titanium is expensive and difficult to machine and shape. In the 1960s, the Russians lacked the cutting tools and the experience to work with the exotic metal.
Instead of titanium, the Soviets turned to stainless steel, even though steel weighs three times as much as the correspondingly strong aluminum. Fueled but without any ordnance, a steel MiG-25 weighed 64,000 pounds. A composites-and-titanium Lockheed-Martin F-35A, the Air Force’s heaviest fighter, grosses just under 50,000 pounds.
Aft of the cockpit, the Foxbat’s entire fuselage consisted of a single welded-steel fuel tank. (In the MiG-25R reconnaissance version, fuel was also carried inside the two big vertical tails.) Soviet aerospace workers had little experience with steel and hand-welding, though, and the Foxbat revealed that. Workmanship was crude enough that some Western observers thought they saw rough repair patches when they were actually looking at factory-fresh skinning. “Those repairs looked like a country tinker had gone to work patching up a pot,” said one British engineer, but they weren’t “repairs” at all.
The SR-71’s strength was that it could expose much of the strategic deception the Soviets had spent decades creating, to keep the West thinking they were more powerful than the facts warranted. They wanted to keep the Blackbird from revealing there was no Soviet Wizard behind the Iron Curtain. They were also worried about the potential of Strategic Air Command’s supreme Cold War bombers—the Convair B-58 Hustler and the under-development North American B-70 Valkyrie—and the MiG-25 had been created specifically to target them at altitude. Launch, climb, shoot, come home. Virtually all of it, including missile launch, was under ground control, as was the USSR’s wont. Soviet pilots were paid to take off and take orders.
But almost as soon as the Foxbat went operational, the U.S. revised its battle plan. A new generation of surface-to-air missiles made unbidden entry into Soviet airspace a fool’s errand. Any bomber heading toward Moscow high, wide and handsome was dead meat. SAC decided it needed to arrive low, fast and stealthy. It retired the B-58 Hustler and canceled the B-70.
That made the Foxbat a machine without a mission. The airplane had powerful pulse doppler radar, weighing over half a ton and full of delicate vacuum tubes, yet that radar had a range of barely 56 miles. One pilot noted that it would kill a rabbit at 300 yards, if the unlucky bunny got in the way while a MiG-25 was taxiing—but the radar was designed to search up into an open sky and burn through any bomber’s jamming tech from below. Countering a Northrop Grumman B-2 Stealth Bomber jinking through valleys and riverbeds demanded look-down/shoot-down radar that the Foxbat didn’t have. In fact, the Soviets wouldn’t develop look-down/shoot-down radar until the 1980s, and the Foxbat’s radar was blind below 500 meters (1,650 feet) above the ground.
The West learned this because of a man named Viktor Belenko. A 29-year-old Foxbat pilot, Belenko was crushed by a wife who was divorcing him and a Communist society that left him yearning for the West’s full supermarket shelves, so on September 6, 1976, he peeled off from his unit’s training sortie and headed for Japan—not a long flight, since he was based in Vladivostok. He failed to find the Japanese military airbase he’d selected as his destination and instead landed at the civil airport at Hakodate, where he overran the 6,000-foot runway and shut down with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining.
Belenko had delivered to the West its misunderstood bogeyman, a nearly new Foxbat. He even brought along a copy of the airplane’s training manual. Had the U.S. been allowed to place an export order at the MiG factory, they couldn’t have spec’d out a better Foxbat to buy.
For some reason, no Western pilot ever flew Belenko’s Foxbat. Perhaps the Japanese forbade it—it was temporarily their airplane, after all—or cooler heads sensed the political consequences. But Japanese and American technicians did spend two months completely disassembling the airplane. The tear-down revealed that the braggart was a toothless phony, too heavy to be maneuverable at low altitudes, limited in what it could accomplish up high, and with little range and no midair refueling capability. When later compared to the U.S. teen-series fighters, the F-15, -16 and -18, it was powerless, particularly because the Foxbat had a max-G rating of 4.5, and just 2.2 with full fuel. Excess Gs would rip its half-ton air-to-air missiles from their underwing hardpoints, since the airplane was intended to go fast but in a straight line. The Foxbat was a one-trick pony, and nobody was betting on that horse anymore.
The Soviets gave the MiG-25 a service ceiling of 89,000 feet but it actually could sustain an altitude of slightly less than 79,000 feet for two minutes, while carrying just two of its four missiles. (Foxbats had no guns.) Belenko admitted during his debriefing that the max altitude for a fully loaded Foxbat was 68,900 feet. Swedish radar frequently tracked MiG-25s trying to intercept SR-71s over the Baltic Sea, but the Soviets never got closer than 10,000 feet below the Lockheeds and quickly fell astern. After their initial caution, SR-71 pilots no longer considered the Foxbat a threat.
The MiG-25 was built around its engines, but the big Tumansky R-15 wasn’t up to the job. It was an unsophisticated single-shaft design that had lousy fuel specifics during transonic, non-afterburning flight, but thanks to its three-ring afterburner fuel nozzles, the engine was surprisingly efficient in sustained supersonic flight. (If you use twice as much fuel with the burners lit but go three times as fast, that’s a net gain.) At speed, the engine functioned as a ramjet. Much of the intake air circumvented the low-pressure compressor section and fed the enormous afterburner.
A jet engine can swallow only so much air. At Mach 2.0+, it’s drinking from a firehose. The intake air must be restricted. Lockheed accomplished that on the SR-71 with a movable cone in each engine’s intake. The faster the airplane went, the farther forward the cones moved to choke off the excessive inflow. MiG tried doing that with movable ramps on the Foxbat, but they apparently were ineffective at the airplane’s highest speeds. The influx of air demanded so much fuel flow that the engines turned into out-of-control blast furnaces.
But the R-15 was the best engine that Soviet metallurgy could create at the time. Engines intended for Mach 3+ flight needed exotic metallurgy just as much as did the airframe they powered, and it turned out that the Foxbat’s two supersized engines began to come apart at speeds over Mach 2.83, which was the airplane’s “operational top speed.” Any attempt to actually take them up to the MiG-25’s mythical top speed, Mach 3.2, literally blew them apart, sucking the cores straight out the tailpipe. Foxbats cruised at Mach 2.35 using partial afterburner and advancing the power levers any more had to be done with caution.
The interceptor version’s only armament was four massive AA-6 missiles, the radar-guided versions more than 20 feet long, a foot in diameter and weighing just over half a ton, including the huge 220-pound warhead. The AA-6, code-named Acrid by the West, was the largest air-to-air missile ever produced, and it was designed specifically to shoot down B-70 bombers, airplanes that existed as only two prototypes before being canceled. The AA-6 came in two versions, one guided by the launching airplane’s own radar and the other homing in on its target’s infrared heat signature. Foxbats carried a mix of both kinds and a kill shot was intended to be a salvo of two AA-6s; first a heat-seeking missile and then the radar-guided version, to avoid the possibility of the heat-seeker homing on the radar missile’s exhaust.
The Acrid had a limited range of between 30 and 50 miles, and its speed coasted down to Mach 2.2 after the solid-fuel rocket motor burned out. It had virtually no chance of catching an SR-71 from behind and a beak-to-beak attack would have meant that, with a closing speed of Mach 6, an AA-6’s guidance system had no time to lock onto a Blackbird from beyond a maximum of just 50 miles out. (No Soviet aircraft ever fired an AA-6 in combat, but an Iraqi MiG-25 downed Lt. Cdr. Scott Speicher’s F/A-18 with an Acrid during the first night of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.)
The U.S. set out to develop a new generation of air-to-air missiles specifically to counter the MiG-25. They were radar-guided Mach 3.5 rockets with a range of more than 90 miles, to be called AIM-97 Seekbats, but the program was discontinued in 1976 when Viktor Belenko revealed the Foxbat to be a paper tiger.
After 67 days of study, Belenko’s Foxbat was shipped back to the Soviet Union in pieces. The Russians claimed some parts were missing and billed the Japanese $20 million for them. The Japanese more civilly counterclaimed $40,000 for shipping fees and runway repairs at Hakodate. No money ever changed hands, and Belenko, after two months of debriefing, became an American citizen, married a music teacher from North Dakota, fathered a son and found work as an aero engineering consultant to the USAF and various manufacturers. He never bothered to finalize his Russian divorce.
Fortunately for the Russians, the Foxbat had originally been envisioned as a superfast, superhigh, unarmed reconnaissance platform, which would turn out to be the airplane’s forte when its failings as an interceptor became apparent. The MiG-25 was designer Mikhail Gurevich’s swan song, though he retired before the project was fully formed. But it was thanks to him that recon became an important part of the plan. (Serious consideration was also given to developing a bizjet version of the Foxbat, with a plush six-seat cabin and a conventional cockpit replacing the military fuselage forward of the air inlets. It would have been solely for Soviet elites, not the Western market, but the Soviet Union’s immensity and the MiG’s limited range made the project a nonstarter. Moscow to Vladivostok would have been an embarrassing two-stop trip, and the Russians would have been better off buying Gulfstreams.)
Viktor Belenko’s defection had removed the Foxbat from top-dollar super plane status, but that made it affordable enough that tinpot dictators from Libya, Syria, Algeria and Iraq were delighted to buy the world’s fastest fighter, if only for bragging rights.
It was in the Mideast and northern Africa, not the Soviet Union, that the MiG-25 made its bones. The airplane was far more effective at reconnaissance than as a fighter, for F-14 Tomcats and F-15 Eagles in the employ of U.S. forces and client nations such as Israel dined on Foxbat interceptors pretty much at will.
The MiG-25 was introduced to foreign affairs in 1971, when the Soviets sent a package of four Foxbats—two fighters and two recon aircraft plus seven top pilots and a retinue of ground-
support personnel—to Egypt as a response to Israeli penetrations, one of which had culminated in an attack on a generator station that blacked out all of Cairo. The Soviets retained total control of the Egyptian unit, and their Foxbats would suddenly launch from the Cairo West Egyptian air base at will, ignoring air-traffic controllers. The Foxbats cruised through Israeli airspace untouched and they provided Egypt with priceless intelligence.
The first Foxbats to see actual combat were operated by Syria, which had bought two dozen MiG-25 interceptors and recon platforms. The debut did not go well. An Israeli F-15 downed a Syrian MiG-25 over Lebanon in February 1981 and repeated the feat in July—the first times Foxbats had fallen to enemy fire. (Syria may still have one or two Foxbats, though nothing that remains flyable.)
In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, and Syria’s MiG-25s began flying recon over Beirut. They were untouchable, since the lightened MiG-25R was lighter and faster than the -25P. The IAF set up a complex ambush mission, however, and netted its third Foxbat kill.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq operated Foxbats and claimed to have shot down some 15 Iranian aircraft, but it was a list that included several C-130 Hercules, a Fokker F-27 and a Gulfstream III. Iraq’s leading Foxbat ace, Mohammed Rayyan, claimed 10 victories before he was himself shot down by Iranian F-14s in 1986. Iran claimed to have downed nine recon MiG-15Rs and one MiG-15P interceptor, though Iraq insists that it lost only three Foxbats. A clue to the reliability of Rayyan’s claims: some reports suggest that he never actually existed but was a bogus propaganda myth invented to boost morale.
The Iraqi Air Force was particularly noted for having tried to protect its Foxbats from the invading Americans during Desert Storm by burying them in the Arabian Desert sand. U.S. forces found one of them, minus its wings, and it is now under restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. It is the only Foxbat in the United States. (The museum is looking for a set of wings, if you happen to have any.)
India also bought six MiG-25RBK reconnaissance versions, plus two trainers, for surveillance of its mountainous borders with Pakistan and China. Flying high and fast, the Indian Foxbats were still only 30,000 feet above the highest Himalayan ground, so their photo intel was particularly crisp, revealing details of Chinese and Pakistani trenches, redoubts and other defensive structures. The excellent aviation blog Hush-Kit (hushkit.net) published an interview with Indian Air Marshal Sumit Mukerji, who had commanded a Foxbat reconnaissance unit. His words reveal some of the MiG-25’s strengths and weaknesses.
“A 20-ton aircraft that carries 20 tons of fuel, flies in the stratosphere and cruises at Mach 2.5 in minimum after-burner with ease…it was an awesome airplane,” Mukerji said. He explained that the remarkably accurate first-generation inertial navigation system (INS) automated much of the Foxbat’s operation. “The MiG-25 would execute the complete mission, photography included, and return to base, descending to a height of 50 meters, when the pilot needed to take control and flare for the landing. All the pilot was required to do through the entire mission was manipulate the throttles.
“Sure, you can call it an archaic, unsophisticated machine, but there was no ‘sophisticated’ aircraft to match its performance or shoot it down,” said Mukerji, who had apparently never met an F-15. “With a navigation accuracy of a maximum of 10 kilometers off track over a 1,000-kilometer run, with a lateral photo swath of 90 kilometers…targets were never missed.”
Twenty tons of fuel, however, was barely adequate. “We operated on the fringe…. We always returned for landing with 200 to 400 kg of fuel remaining, [and] 200 to 250 kg was required to execute one circuit and landing. The runway had to be kept clear—no other flying permitted for fear of runway blockage—once the MiG commenced its descent.
“The Foxbat was a bullock cart, we would joke. She was heavy but responsive. There was a lot of inertia, requiring anticipation [on the controls]. The aircraft would wallow on approach, if pilot anticipation and control inputs were not timely. The greatest joy was to be able to throw a fighter around in the sky with abandon, which you missed when you flew the MiG-25. We missed the G [forces].”
However, the Foxbat did the United States one big favor. The Air Force was in the midst of a competition to create the next-generation air-superiority fighter, initially tagged the F-X. The F-X program was driven in large part by dismaying losses to fast, maneuverable and simple Soviet MiG-21 day-fighters over Vietnam. Fear of the MiG-25 set the bar substantially higher, however, and engineers at McDonnell Douglas ramped up their efforts to design what became the F-15 Eagle.
Thanks to the Foxbat, the airplane intended to outfly it became the most successful air superiority fighter ever fielded. So far, F-15s have notched 104 shoot-downs without losing a dogfight. Without the phony threat of the Foxbat, that might never have happened.
Despite all its faults, the Foxbat had one feature that made it popular with the Russians who maintained it—an unusual and not particularly effective air-conditioning system that relied upon the evaporation of a mixture of distilled water and 240 liters of near-pure grain alcohol. MiG-25s often returned from missions with a small portion of the brew still in its tank, but the airborne vodka quickly disappeared into mechanics’ canteens. It also helped that the small bowsers used to refill the system had convenient spigots to tap the keg. No wonder the Foxbat was often referred to as the Flying Restaurant. Na zdorovye!
Contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson suggests for further reading MiGs by Bill Sweetman, MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lt. Belenko by John Barron and Foxbat Tales: The MiG-25 in Combat by Mike Guardia.
this article first appeared in AVIATION HISTORY magazine
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A Model MiG
Almost as soon as Soviet air force pilot Viktor Belenko touched down at Hakodate, Japan, in September 1976, intelligence personnel from Japan and the U.S. began to pore over his “mysterious” MiG-25P fighter. Some say that engineers from the Hasegawa Corporation, a well-known Japanese model company, were included in that group.
Clearly, Hasegawa’s model makers took full advantage of first-hand observations and photographs of Belenko’s Foxbat. According to rumors, company representatives were present while the jet was being disassembled for transport back to the Soviet Union. With accurate dimensions and details of the jet, Hasegawa gained a scoop in the world of plastic modeling. In the model’s instruction sheet the company even boasted about how it went from zero to manufacturing complete kits in only 100 days.
The result became headline news in the modeling world. The box art even duplicated a news photo of Belenko’s jet on the ground in Japan, partially covered with a tarp. Hasegawa had produced the first accurate kit of the MiG-25 Foxbat, one that quickly appeared on workbenches all over the world. A simple, straightforward kit by today’s standards, the Hasegawa Foxbat is still in production. — Guy Aceto
This article appeared in the Autumn 2022 issue of Aviation History. Click here to subscribe.
Stephan Wilkinson July 21, 2022 at 12:53AM
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