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How the MIG-25 Fooled the West

Updated on April 28, 2019

The Cold War was a tense period between the West and the Soviet Union. No shots were fired between the superpowers, but the fear was real back then. With the possibilities of armed escalation anytime, it was hard to stay calm. I mean we got two nuclear-armed nations (U.S and the Soviet Union) constantly rattling their nuclear sabers at each other. They did maintain a well-armed force, ready to fight in the chilling event of a Nuclear war. And when they were not spying at each other, they engaged in propaganda campaigns, psychological warfares, proxy wars, embargos, technological competitions, and even the Space Race. The two nations did anything to dominate each other. The rivalry was so bitter that it showed even in sports event.

The Soviet Union did beat the West in certain scenarios. In fact, they were the one that started the Space Race. And one day, the West was shocked when the Soviet Union unleashed a new weapon. First seen in reconnaissance photos, it sparked concerns among planners, fearing that the skies now belongs to this potent Soviet combat aircraft. Officially it was known as the Mikoyan-Gurevich MIG-25 (or simply the MIG-25). NATO called it the “Foxbat.”

Development of the Foxbat

The MIG-25 taking off.
The MIG-25 taking off.

During those years, the performance of U.S. strategic bombers and reconnaissance aircrafts were steadily improving. High altitude jets like the U-2 spy planes made overflights in the vast airspace of the Soviet Union. Then there was the nuclear capable B-52 long range bomber. What the Soviet Union needed was a type of aircraft that could take on these menaces if they stray into their air space. In short, they needed an interceptor jet capable of flying at 3000 km/h and at a height of 27 km. And after working on several prototypes, Mikoyan-Gurevich released the MIG-25.

This aerial beast was a major leap in Soviet aeronautical technology. It was an advancement in aerodynamics, metallurgy and engineering. To endure the heat of high speed, the canopy material had to be heat resistance. The wings and fuselage are made of high strength stainless steel. Its powerful twin afterburning turbojets could produce a 22 494 lbf of thrusts, enabling the aircraft to streak at almost 3 times the speed of sound. Being a killer of high-altitude jets, the typical armament includes 4 long range R-40TD air to air missile (with thermal homing head). In addition, it had R-40RD radar guided missile, and capable of carrying unguided gravity bombs.

How it Scared the West

MIG-25 in flight.
MIG-25 in flight.

How it scared the West

The new interceptor was spotted through reconnaissance photography, and immediately it became a major concern. Following the combat experiences of Vietnam War, the U.S. now favored agility in combat aircrafts. And when the photos of the Foxbat emerged, they thought that they were looking at a highly maneuverable aircraft rather than a high-speed interceptor. It looked like a fighter after all, and analysts assumed that it was a fighter. For one thing the Foxbat was quite big to be an interceptor of that time. It had a length of almost 20 meters and a wingspan of 14 meters. It also appeared to be built for performance. The large wings may also indicate aerial agility, a type of maneuverability superior to any fighter.

In terms of outside shape, appearance and design, the MIG-25 had no comparable aircraft in the West at that time. Nothing existed like that in the U.S. or any NATO country, and they never seen such combat plane before. With nothing to compare it to, photographs and rumors were all military analysts had. The fact that it could also fly at almost Mach 3 didn’t improve the situation either. The Soviet Union now had a combat jet designed for air superiority, with great agility and high speed.

At least that’s what they thought.

When a Soviet Pilot Defected

Soviet pilot Victor Ivanovich Belenko.
Soviet pilot Victor Ivanovich Belenko.

The appearance of the Foxbat now left the West in deeper worries. Pressured to build a more superior fighter, the U.S. then prompted a dramatic increase in the performance of an aircraft they were developing at that time. Later, we will learn what it was, but a fateful event happened in 1976 that basically killed the scare switch induced by the MIG-25.

Someone from the Soviet Union defected. Not just anyone, but the pilot of the aircraft the West feared. It happened on September 6, 1976, when Soviet pilot Victor Ivanovich Belenko flew his MIG-25 plane to Hakodate, Japan. His defection caused quite a damage to the Soviet Airforce and it revealed some of the guarded secrets the Foxbat had, He even brought the pilot’s manual with him to assist U.S. pilots in assessing his aircraft.

The West now had a tangible opportunity to closely inspect an enemy fighter jet. Belenko on the other hand was well rewarded for his act. He first underwent debriefing by the U.S. Government for five months, and President Gerald Ford granted him a trust find. It ensured a very comfortable living for the former Soviet pilot for years. Belenko was even employed as a consultant.

And as for the MIG-25, its close examination revealed that the feared Foxbat is not as fearsome as first thought.

MIG-25 Fooled the West

Thanks to poor and inaccurate intelligence, the West was led to believe that they were looking at an agile air superiority aircraft. The MIG-25 is still a devastating aircraft in its own rights, but it’s not the feared fighter that scared the West. Firstly, the jet was basically an engine with wings. The plane was built around massive engines. These large engines were meant for high speed and brute force. With that said, it’s not a very agile aircraft. In a dogfight, it could withstand 11.5 g pull, but it could damage the airframe when it did. The aircraft was also hand welded and uses vacuum tubes for avionics.

In the end, this jet was meant for speed and not agility. It’s an interceptor, made to chase high altitude spy planes and bombers. And if it flies at Mach 3, it will burn the engine beyond repair as what happened when a MIG-25 flew at Sinai at Mach 3.2.

It Gave Birth to an Even more potent U.S. Weapon

F-15E Strike Eagle.
F-15E Strike Eagle.

Despite of the scare, it did benefit the U.S. weapons program in some ways. The false assumption that the MIG-25 was for air superiority pushed the West to improve the performance of F-15, which was in an ongoing development at that time. The F-15 will be made to take on the MIG-25 and will be later known as the finest fighter of that time. Even today, the Eagle remains unbeaten in dogfights, and when it saw action in the Israeli Air Force, it shot down several MIG-25 in 1981.

References:

1. "Global Aircraft - Top 50 Fastest Aircraft." The Global Aircraft Organization, April 24, 2007.

2. "MiG-25 Foxbat was specifically designed to intercept the XB-70 Valkyrie".

3. "Intelligence: Big-Mouth Belenko." Time, October 11, 1976.

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