By Tom Cooper
Terminus ‘MiG-23’, perhaps even ‘Flogger’, is likely to appear at least ‘common’ to many of readers. Yes, that’s that arrow-like design from a stable of well-known, Soviet-made fighters, many of which were captivating our minds during the times of the Cold War, back in the 1970s and 1980s. Younger readers are going to recognize it from several recent – indeed: ongoing – conflicts, like those in Libya but especially Syria.
The MiG-23 was never a ‘star’: although once manufactured and rolled out in numbers hard to imagine in these days, and widely exported, it was easily overshadowed by the Mach-3 capable MiG-25, the type the ASCC/NATO code-named the ‘Foxbat’. On the contrary, and although famed not only by the Soviets but even in diverse Western intelligence assessments shortly after its service entry, the MiG-23 was something of an anti-star: the type belittled by many. In the West of nowadays, it is best-known as something like an ‘awful’ aircraft to fly, technically unreliable, problematic – if not outright impossible to control, and then one the reputation of which was definitely ruined by heavy losses the Syrian Arab Air Force is claimed to have suffered during the Lebanon War of 1982, not to talk about the defection of a Syrian pilot with a MiG-23 to Israel, seven years later.
Actually, these were only two episodes in the history of this type – and then two actually minor episodes in a long history.
Far more important is that the MiG-23 was never studied within the context in which it came into being, nor within which it was originally expected to be operated. Not only multiple researchers in the West, but all the Russian-language researchers are usually concentrating on revealing the technology-related secrets of this family only: very little attention is paid to its operational service, and even less so to a comparison
The aim of the book ‘MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East’ is to set that record straight: it is a culmination of 30 years of related research, in the course of which I wanted to find out what do ‘those’ MiG-23s flown by diverse air forces in the Middle East look like, who was flying them, what were their experiences, and how effective they have proven themselves.
The MiG-23 came into being along ideas of the General Staff (‘GenStab’) of the Soviet military: a cast of highly-qualified military minds indoctrinated to think in best traditions of von Clausewitz. Back in the early 1960s, the GenStab envisaged the type as a ‘hands-off’, ‘remotely controlled’ interceptor – a literal ‘missile with a man inside’, carrying a radar and missiles capable of hunting F-104 Starfighters and USAF’s F-105 Thunderchiefs, armed with nuclear bombs and underway at very low altitudes over Central Europe. This type was not expected to ‘waste time’ with searching for its targets, in dogfights or any other discipline of air combat: it was supposed to operate with full support of a well-developed network of ground-based early warning radars and electronic warfare stations, to take-off, catch its target, fire, kill – and return to base. It was supposed to bring the emphasis of air warfare to the point. For this reason, it carried a bare minimum of necessary avionics.
So much for planning. In reality, even the best plans tend to come apart as soon as they encounter the enemy. In reality, it was so that because the GenStab changed its requirements several times, it took too long to develop the MiG-23. By the time it appeared, it was de-facto obsolete in comparison to its Western competitors.
Nevertheless, by then it was too late: even Moscow could not argument pro a project that meanwhile took billions of Rubles and seven years to develop – without pressing it into service. At least as important was the fact that diverse of Soviet customers in the Middle East were demanding an advanced interceptor, something better than the MiG-21 – droves of which were shot down by Mirages and Phantoms of the Israeli air force, equipped with vastly-superior armament, in early 1970s. Some of customers in question conditioned the state of their relations to the Soviet Union on deliveries of such aircraft. Unsurprisingly, the Soviets rushed to deliver: in a matter of two years, more than 200 MiG-23s have reached Syria, then Egypt, followed by Iraq and Libya. As proud as always, the Soviets famed their new interceptors as at least matching, if not clearly outmatching anything the West was likely to deliver to its local allies. With exception of the Algerians, most of their local customers were more than happy to buy this version.
It turned out that rushing is never a good idea – especially not when it comes to the research and development of an advanced combat aircraft. Early MiG-23 variants were suffering far more from incomplete testing and poor manufacturing quality, than to combat attrition. Eventually, it took them years of additional efforts – including hiring of US test-pilots who then wrote a new flight manual for the type in Libya – to turn the aircraft of this family into combat-effective platforms.
Meanwhile, diverse variants of the MiG-23 saw combat in most diverse conflicts – and nearly always without the kind of support from the ground as originally envisaged. While often not declared into ‘Soviet supported’, even the Syrian military did not receive the equipment necessary to provide proper support for its MiG-23s, and this is not to talk about the Iraqi military, or that of Libya. Egypt meanwhile abandoned the idea of continuing the acquisition, while Algeria de-facto went its own way.
Nevertheless, advanced variants of the MiG-23 did enter service in Iraq and Libya of the mid-1980s, and these then saw more of intensive combat operations in these two countries alone – than in all other air forces around the World, combined.
In the early 1990s, the MiG-23 rapidly fell out of everybody’s favour: no matter what variant, the entire fleet became block-obsolete due to the appearance of such types like MiG-29 or Sukhoi Su-27. Thus, only air forces out of condition to replace it have continued to keep their MiG-23s in operational condition. But, and once again, exactly such air forces – those of Iraq, Libya, and Syria – were to see more combat action over the last 20 years, than most of other air forces around the Globe.
The story provided in ‘MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East’ remains incomplete: the type is still in operational service with three air forces involved in diverse wars. And plenty of details remain outside my reach. However, thanks to the cooperation of nearly two dozen active- and former-MiG-23-pilots from six different air forces, this book provides a host of exclusive insights, and de-facto re-writing the operational history of this type.
MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East: Mikoyan I Gurevich MiG-23 in Service in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, 1973-2018 is available to order here.