Cold War

MiG-23 – An Emblem of Soviet Air Supremacy

The MiG-23, a multi-role fighter aircraft and the pride of the Soviet Union’s aerial arsenal is a marvel of 20th-century military aviation.

This supersonic marvel, designed by Rostislav Apollosovich Belyakov at the Mikoyan Design Bureau, left an indelible mark on the pages of aviation history with its advanced technology, notable performances in conflict zones, and the powerful symbol it represented during the Cold War.

Contents

Design and Development

The development of the MiG-23 was initiated in the 1960s to answer the need for a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor that could replace the earlier MiG-21.

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Soviet engineers set out to create a jet that could not only operate effectively in the interceptor role but also offer significant ground attack capabilities, thereby rendering it a “swing-wing” multi-role fighter.

The MiG-23, much like the F-14 uses variable wing geometry.
The MiG-23, much like the F-14 , uses variable wing geometry.

The MiG-23 was characterized by its variable-geometry wings, also known as “swing wings”, a feature that distinguished it from its contemporaries.

This revolutionary wing design allowed for optimal performance across a wide range of speeds and altitudes, thus increasing the aircraft’s versatility. In essence, the wings could be swept back for high-speed flight and spread out for slower speeds and landing.

The aircraft was powered by a single Khachaturov R-35-300 afterburning turbojet, providing a maximum speed of Mach 2.35.

One of the distinguishing features of the R-35-300 is its two-shaft axial design.

This allows the high-pressure and low-pressure sections of the engine to rotate at different speeds, thereby improving efficiency and engine lifespan.

The Tumansky engine is immensely powerful. This one came from a MiG-23BN. Photo credit - Valder137 CC BY 2.0.
The Tumansky engine is immensely powerful. This one came from a MiG-23BN. Photo credit – Valder137 CC BY 2.0.

Furthermore, the engine uses a three-stage low-pressure compressor and a six-stage high-pressure compressor, which contributes to its high performance.

Despite its powerful performance, the R-35-300, like many engines of its time, had relatively high fuel consumption, especially when using the afterburner.

This often limited the range and endurance of the MiG-23. Nonetheless, it played a crucial role in giving the MiG-23 its iconic speed and manoeuvrability.

The Flogger was equipped with an advanced radar and weapon system, and also boasted an arsenal comprising of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, cannons, bombs, and rockets.

Its primary air-to-air weapon was the R-23 (AA-7 Apex), which had a range of 35 km, substantially more than the range of the MiG-21’s weapons.

The MiG-23 was also one of the first Soviet aircraft to have a look-down/shoot-down radar, enabling it to engage low-flying targets.

The MiG-23 housed advanced avionics. Photo credit - Akpch CC BY-SA 3.0.
The MiG-23 housed advanced avionics. Photo credit – Akpch CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Flogger

The MiG-23’s design is characterized by a large, sharply pointed nose cone, housing its advanced radar system, and a single tailfin.

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The aircraft is 16.7 meters long, has a wingspan of 7.779 meters with the wings fully swept back, and 13.965 meters when they are fully spread. Its maximum takeoff weight is about 18,030 kg.

The service ceiling of the MiG-23 is roughly 18,300 meters, and it has a ferry range of 2,820 km with external tanks.

Equipped with an advanced RP-23 Sapfir look-down/shoot-down radar, the MiG-23 was one of the first Soviet aircraft to have the ability to track and engage low-flying targets, an essential attribute in the tactical landscape of the Cold War.

The MiG-23 also boasts an impressive array of weapons.

Its armament includes a 23mm GSh-23L autocannon with 200 rounds and up to three R-23/AA-7 Apex or four R-60/AA-8 Aphid air-to-air missiles for air superiority roles.

A pair of R-60 missiles. These IR weapons are deadly at close range.
A pair of R-60 missiles. These IR weapons are deadly at close range.

For ground-attack roles, it can be equipped with a variety of unguided bombs, rockets, and gun pods. This adaptability made the MiG-23 a formidable multi-role fighter.

The cockpit of the MiG-23 provides the pilot with a clear bubble canopy for excellent visibility. The instrumentation layout, designed for a single pilot, is relatively straightforward for an aircraft of its generation.

Some variants of the MiG-23 feature an advanced HUD (Heads-Up Display), further aiding the pilot in navigation and combat.

The MiG-23 is a remarkable example of Soviet-era aviation technology.

The Flogger could also carry advanced long range radar missiles.
The Flogger could also carry advanced long-range radar missiles.

Despite having been phased out of service by many nations, it continues to command respect for its innovative design and technological advancements.

Operational History

First introduced to the Soviet Air Forces in 1970, the MiG-23’s operational history spanned continents and conflict zones.

It was heavily exported and used by a range of nations aligned with the Soviet Union, such as Cuba, Syria, Iraq, and North Korea.

The MiG-23 played an active role in several conflicts including the Yom Kippur War, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Gulf War.

The Yom Kippur War marked one of the first major appearances of the MiG-23 on the international stage.

An Iraqi MiG-23ML. Photo credit - Miroslac Cika CC BY-SA 3.0.
An Iraqi MiG-23ML. Photo credit – Miroslac Cika CC BY-SA 3.0.

As part of the Soviet Union’s strategy to aid its allies in the Middle East, a number of MiG-23s were provided to the Syrian Air Force prior to the outbreak of the war.

This move was aimed at countering the advanced American-made aircraft, such as the F-4 Phantom II flown by the Israeli Air Force.

During the war, the Syrian Air Force used the MiG-23 primarily for air superiority and ground-attack missions.

The swing-wing design of the MiG-23, which allowed for superior manoeuvrability and speed, was a significant factor in its combat effectiveness.

Moreover, its advanced avionics and weapons systems, including air-to-air missiles and a look-down/shoot-down radar, posed a substantial challenge to the Israeli Air Force.

However, the lack of adequate pilot training and combat experience proved to be a major handicap for the Syrian Air Force. Despite the MiG-23’s technological superiority, it had a mixed performance in combat.

A Libyan MiG-23 being intercepted over the Gulf of Sidra by an F-4J Phantom.
A Libyan MiG-23 being intercepted over the Gulf of Sidra by an F-4J Phantom.

While the aircraft did participate in successful missions and scored victories, it also suffered significant losses, largely due to the superior tactics and pilot training of the Israeli Air Force.

Despite its technological advantages, the aircraft’s effectiveness was often hampered by a lack of training and maintenance in these third-world air forces, leading to mixed combat records.

Nevertheless, there were occasions when the MiG-23 was able to demonstrate its full potential.

For instance, during the Soviet-Afghan War, the MiG-23’s ground attack capabilities were used extensively by the Soviets against Mujahideen positions.

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The MiG-23 was one of the primary aircraft used by the Soviet Air Force during the war in Afghanistan.

Its deployment was necessitated by the challenging combat environment, characterized by rugged mountainous terrain, unpredictable weather, and the hit-and-run tactics of the Mujahideen fighters.

The MiG-23’s primary role was air superiority, but as the war progressed, its versatile design allowed it to be used extensively for ground attack missions.

Despite being built primarily as a fighter, the Flogger was also capable of devastating ground attacks.
Despite being built primarily as a fighter, the Flogger was also capable of devastating ground attacks.

It was frequently deployed for close air support, interdiction, and reconnaissance missions.

The swing-wing design of the MiG-23 made it highly adaptable to the demanding Afghan environment. Its ability to alter wing configurations for optimal performance at different speeds and altitudes proved highly useful for the diverse mission requirements.

The MiG-23 was well-equipped for ground-attack missions. Its powerful Khachaturov R-35-300 turbojet engine allowed it to carry a substantial payload, including a range of air-to-surface munitions such as bombs, rockets, and gun pods.

However, the MiG-23 faced several challenges. The Mujahideen, supplied with American-made Stinger surface-to-air missiles, posed a significant threat to the Soviet Air Force.

The MiG-23 saw great export success had has a long combat record.
The MiG-23 saw great export success and had a long combat record.

These shoulder-fired missiles were capable of hitting the MiG-23 at low altitudes, which often forced the aircraft to operate at higher altitudes, reducing the accuracy of their ground attacks.

Despite these challenges, the MiG-23 remained a vital asset for the Soviet Air Force throughout the war.

Its flexibility and adaptability to challenging conditions made it a workhorse in the Soviet air campaign.

The use of the MiG-23 in the Soviet-Afghan War brought valuable lessons. The experience underlined the importance of adaptable and multi-role aircraft in modern warfare.

Legacy

Despite some of its shortcomings and mixed combat records, the MiG-23 was an iconic representation of Cold War-era military aviation technology.

Its distinctive design, revolutionary variable-geometry wings, and multi-role capabilities left an indelible mark on military aviation history.

The MiG-23 is often cited as being a bad aircraft, however in reality it was often down to pilot training.
The MiG-23 is often cited as being a bad aircraft, however, in reality, it was often down to pilot training.

Moreover, its widespread usage provided crucial insights for military strategists and aircraft designers alike, informing the development of later aircraft models. Lessons learned from the MiG-23’s combat experiences influenced subsequent designs, contributing to the continuous evolution of military aviation technology.

As of 2023, the MiG-23 is no longer in active service in Russia or most other countries, but it continues to serve in a few air forces around the world.

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Even as it fades from active service, the aircraft holds a special place in the annals of aviation history.

The MiG-23, with its innovative design and multi-role capabilities, embodied a leap forward in the development of jet fighters. While it had its share of criticism and operational hitches, it undeniably played a significant role in shaping the trajectory of military aviation.

Today, the MiG-23 continues to be an object of fascination for aviation enthusiasts worldwide, a symbol of a past era of tension and technological innovation.

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Specifications

  • Crew: 1 sat on a Mikoyan KM-1M ejection seat
  • Length: 16.7 m (54 ft 9 in)
  • Wingspan: 13.965 m (45 ft 10 in) fully spread 7.779 m (25.52 ft) fully-swept
  • Height: 4.82 m (15 ft 10 in)
  • Gross weight: 14,840 kg (32,717 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 17,800 kg (39,242 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Khatchaturov R-35-300 afterburning turbojet, 83.6 kN (18,800 lbf) thrust with variable-geometry nozzles dry, 127.49 kN (28,660 lbf) with afterburner
  • Maximum speed: 2,499 km/h (1,553 mph, 1,349 kn) / M2.35 at altitude 1,350 km/h (840 mph; 730 kn) / M1.1 at sea level
  • Range: 1,900 km (1,200 mi, 1,000 nmi) clean
  • Combat range: 1,500 km (930 mi, 810 nmi) with standard armament, no drop-tanks 2,550 km (1,580 mi; 1,380 nmi) with standard armament and 3x 800 L (210 US gal; 180 imp gal) drop-tanks
  • Service ceiling: 18,300 m (60,000 ft)
  • g limits: +8.5
  • Rate of climb: 230 m/s (45,000 ft/min) at sea level
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