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Some of you may have seen our MiG-23 article in the February issue of Airfix Model World in which we drew on the research already undertaken for our various MiG-23 decal sheets . If you found the article of interest, The first draft of the text was actually much longer before I edited it down for publication. The earlier draft offered a more extensive synopsis of our friend Tom's experiences as an 'Auswerter' with NVA LSK/LV MiG-23 regiment JG-9. Here's the full version of the text. You're welcome...
MiG-23 Fighter Variants
Dismissed by Western observers early in its service career on the basis of the poor performance of the first export machines in the Middle East, the MiG-23 became an essential combat asset of Warsaw Pact air forces and many nations of the Non-Aligned Movement during the last two decades of the Cold War. The MiG-23, originally notorious for its failings of an underpowered engine, poor avionics and, in the case of the export MS variant, poorly trained pilots, was upgraded during the course of its service career into a stable, pilot-friendly, potent multi-role fighter and interceptor with phenomenal acceleration when required. In all over 4,500 ‘Floggers’ (NATO code name), including the MiG-27 strike variant, were manufactured in the USSR, with series production commencing in 1969 and concluding in 1985. In 2015 the MiG-23 is still in service with a handful of widely scattered nations’ air forces across the globe.
Development of the MiG-23 began in the early 1960s, as the design limitations of the ubiquitous MiG-21 airframe became more apparent. The advent of the F-4 Phantom had convinced the Soviet Air Force High Command that the new fighter should possess a greater speed, acceleration, maneuverability, low speed handling, payload, range and firepower, with much improved sensors to alleviate the need for the tactical straitjacket of the standard Soviet Ground Control Interception (GCI). The requirements further dictated that the new fighter would need to be bigger and heavier than the MiG-21. Furthermore, ground conditions on the European East-West frontline of the Cold War, namely the proliferation of ground-based tactical nuclear missiles aimed at Warsaw Pact airfields with vulnerable long runways, dictated that the new Soviet fighter would required short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities with a robust undercarriage enhanced for unpaved airstrips. In the 1960s the solution to this long list of supposedly mutually exclusive capabilities seemed to lie in variable geometry configuration of the wings. The MiG-23 would be designed with fully and continuously variable wing-sweep angles from 16˚ to 72˚, with the three most common settings (16˚, 45˚ and 72˚) marked as easily selectable ‘stops’.
The resulting ‘Type 23-11’ prototype first took to the air on June 10th, 1967 at Zhukovskii under the control of the MiG Design Bureau’s chief test pilot Aleksandr Fedotov. Only one month later ’23-11’ took part in the now-legendary Soviet airshow at Domededovo airport south of Moscow. By 1969 series production of the ’23-11’ had begun in Moscow (at Khodynka airfield, nowadays populated by luxury apartment blocks). The new fighter gained the designation MiG-23S, the ‘S’ referring to the Sapfir (‘High-Lark’) radar. The new fighters were disappointing, to say the least, and required all the skills of the pool of test pilots tasked with demonstrating it to the Soviet High Command to convince them that the aircraft was worth developing. In all fifty S variants were built.
The development of the ‘M’ variant resulted in the first true MiG-23 tactical fighter. The sleek angular look of the MiG-23S gave way to a more bulbous profile. The new powerful R-29-300 engine with throttled reheat, SAU-23A autopilot, Lasur command data link system, RSBN-6 short-range radio-navigation system, revised ‘No.3’ wing with the leading edge ‘dogtooth’ and four slats, and the radically improved Sapfir RP-23 fire control radar and TP-23 forward-looking infrared sensor with new (but limited) look-down/shoot-down capability all served to make the production series MiG-23M a potent tactical fighter. Starting in 1973, the M variant served exclusively with the Soviet Air Force (VVS) and later with Air Defence Forces (PVO).
Early production batches of the M variant normally sported the then standard Soviet overall grey colour scheme. They could be also distinguished by the cockpit canopy’s lack of a centreline frame bisecting the mirror housing. In VVS service the early production machines did not fare very well, with a contemporaneous attrition rate comparable with NATO’s F-104 Starfighter fleet. However, continuous refinements were introduced on the production line and, as reliability improved, pilots began to warm to the aircraft, especially its promised independence from the straitjacket of GCI instruction during combat sorties. Enhanced pilot training also helped with optimization of the MiG-23M as a weapons platform.
The relative complexity of the MiG-23M in comparison with the simpler MiG-21 was a bone of contention for ground crews. Engine FOD was a constant problem, as was reliability of the temperamental RP-23 radar.
VVS MiG-23Ms first arrived on the westernmost Cold War frontline in 1973. They were delivered to the 16thAir Army (VA) of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). The first unit to receive the new fighter was the 33rdFighter Aviation Regiment (IAP) at Wittstock in East Germany. Additional units Flogger units were 85thGuards Fighter Aviation Regiment (GvIAP) at Merseburg and the 787th IAP at Finow. The Soviet Southern Group of Forces in Hungary received its first M variants in 1975. In the vanguard was the 14thGvIAP at Kiskunlacháza, to be followed by the 5thGvIAP in 1976.
One particularly sensitive chapter of the MiG-23M’s VVS service history in the 1970s and early 80s has only recently been researched in more depth, namely the secondary tactical nuclear role to which it was assigned. Since the 1960s the West had suspected that the USSR was storing tactical nuclear weapons on its airfields in East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Soviets had done a professional job in keeping most of the storage facilities secret. However, the presence of tactical nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe was finally confirmed in spectacular fashion when on May 23, 1973 Lt. Yevgeny Lvoich traversed the inner-German border in a Su-7BM and ejected from his aircraft near Brunswick, which then crashed in open fields. Lvoich detailed multiple nuclear storage sites. One of the first MiG-23M units to convert to the nuclear role in the mid-1970s was one squadron of the 35thIAP at Zerbst, followed by the 2ndSquadron 14thGvIAP at Kiskunlacháza, Hungary and the 1stSquadron 871stIAP at Kolobrzeg, Poland . In Czechoslovakia Milovice was the main nuclear storage depot. One squadron of MiG-23Ms from the 114th IAP made regular deployments to this airbase.
In PVO service, which commenced in March 1976, the MiG-23M supplemented the more complex Su-15TM, whose production had suffered numerous delays. The MiG-23M’s shorter range normally ensured that it was deployed to regiments on the peripheral land borders of the USSR, both in Europe and Asia. The PVO’s Ms were gradually replaced by MiG-23MLs and Ps from 1980 onwards.
In the 1970s the PVO’s MiG-23Ms in the southern Caucasus and Caspian Sea regions were particularly active in combating aerial border incursions from Turkey and Imperial Iran. These incursions for the most part involved reconnaissance balloons, however there were a couple of occasions when the MiG-23M fired on other aircraft. The most notorious incident involved the 152nd IAP based at Ak-Tepe AB (now in Turkmenistan) on July 21, 1978. Ak-Tepe was one of the southernmost outposts of the USSR, close to the mountainous border with Iran. Four Iranian CH-47C Chinook helicopters appeared on PVO radar screens. The first MiG-23M scrambled identified the helicopters as friendly, whereupon Capt. Valeriy I. Shkinder was ordered to take off and intercept the intruders. Shkinder destroyed one Chinook with R-60 missiles and forced a second down with cannon fire near the village of Gjaurs (now
Gäwers) near the Soviet – Iranian border. The other two CH-47s managed to escape back across the border. Eight Iranian crewmen were killed in the incident and four were captured, and then subsequently released. The PVO’s Turkmen MiG-23Ms actually soldiered on (with the help of technical upgrades) until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The success of the MiG-23M in VVS service triggered inquiries by a number of Non-Aligned countries regarding the possibility of an export version. The MS variant (Flogger-E) was a very much downgraded version of the M, with a reversion to the old RP-21 Sapfir radar, which was housed in a smaller nose cone and could only handle short-range R-3S, R-3R and R-13M missiles. Some customers also received the less powerful R-27F2M-300 engine. Thus the MiG-23MS was roughly only as combat capable as the MiG-21bis. Major operators included Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. On January 4th, 1989 Libya lost two MiG-23MSs in a single engagement with US Navy F-14A Tomcats over the southern Mediterranean.
The MS was not a great success. The USA quietly acquired a handful of Flogger-Es (most probably from Egypt) in the late 1970s. These machines were first flown at the top secret Groom Lake facility, and then in 1980 some were transferred to the 4477thTES (‘Red Hats’) at Tonopah Air Base for further evaluation. The general view of the pilots who flew the MS was that it was a ‘handful’.
The MS was also photographed occasionally in VVS colours, possibly due to either a temporary shortage of the M variant or the collapse of an export deal.
The second export MiG-23 was more successful. The MiG-23MF (Flogger-B) was outwardly identical to the M variant (with a couple of small exceptions) and was originally offered only to Warsaw Pact air forces. With the MF a single-point pressure refueling system was introduced. The only conspicuous outward characteristic distinguishing the MF from the M was the addition of flutter damper cylinders to the central hinge of the rudder. This has often been mistakenly characterized in the West as a ‘doublehinge’. Soviet Ms never featured the cylinders, and this practice was actually continued with early production second-generation
MIG-23MLs destined for the VVS.
Production of the MF took place at the State Aircraft Production Plant No. 30 in Moscow (MAPO) between 1978 and 1983. Warsaw Pact member states Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania gradually began receiving the MF in 1978. Prior to service entry, selections of pilots and technicians had been sent to Frunze in Central Asia (now Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) for conversion training. MiG-23MFs were never acquired in huge quantities by the member states; each received about a dozen MFs between 1978 and 1981.The MiG-23MF was also acquired by a select group of non-Warsaw Pact nations considered friendly by Moscow, namely India, Cuba and Angola (via Cuba). A number of Middle Eastern MS customers (e.g. Iraq, Syria and Libya) were also able to acquire the MF variant in the early 1980s. In all, over 1,300 M, MF and MS variants were built.
Sparka – MiG-23U and UB
It was quickly acknowledged that the complex and powerful new MiG-23 fighter would require a training dual-control version. The Soviet Council of Ministers approved production in late 1967. The first prototype (Type 23-51/1) was based on the MiG-23S with the Type 1 ‘toothless’ wing. This variant became the MiG-23U, which went into small-scale production at Irkutsk in 1970. A second improved two-seat prototype (Type 23-51/2) first flew in April 1970. This aircraft was fitted with the M’s Type 3 wing and went into production at Irkutsk with the service designation MiG-23UB (Flogger-C). The addition of the ‘B’ suffix defined the new aircraft as a combat-capable trainer, however the UB dispensed with the much-maligned Sapfir R-21 radar and replaced it with ballast in the nose. This very much limited offensive armament beyond the internal GSh-23L cannon and R-3S heat-seeking AA missiles, unless a ‘Delta-N’ external guidance pod was carried.
Production of the MiG-23UB lasted at Irkutsk from 1971 to 1978, with around 800 machines being built. It’s interesting to note that the general consensus among East German service personnel was that the manufacturing quality varied considerably between the Moscow-built MFs (preferred) and the Irkutsk-built UBs (not so much). The UB was exported in small numbers to virtually every international MiG-23 customer.
Lightweights – MiG-23ML, MLD and P
Throughout the first half of the 1970s Mikoyan constantly worked on improving the handling characteristics, manoeuvrability and combat capability of the MiG-23MF. By 1974 the number of upgrades had crossed the threshold whereby a new variant was ready for production. The MiG-23ML (L = ‘Legkiy’ or Lightweight), or Flogger-G in NATO parlance, was lightened by 1,250 kg thanks to the removal of the M’s fourth fuel tank. The tank could be removed because the upgraded R-35-300 engine simultaneously increased both thrust and fuel efficiency. Externally the M’s prominent extended dorsal fin fillet was removed and the folding ventral fin was reduced in size.
A new version of the ‘Sapfir’ fire control radar (S-23ML) was installed in the ML. Also upgraded was a new IRST, the TP-23M. The IR fairing below the nose was slightly enlarged to accommodate it. Furthermore the four-section slats of the M were replaced by more robust yet lighter three-section units and a strengthened nose landing gear oleo. The prototype ML first flew in early 1975, with series production commencing in Moscow in 1976 and continuing until 1985. It is estimate that altogether approximately one thousand ML and MLA variants were built.
The first public appearance of the MiG-23ML in the West occurred in August 1978, when six specially stripped down aircraft from Kubinka made a goodwill visit to the Finnish Air Force’s Karelia Wing at Rissala Air Base. Aircraft Illustrated magazine’s contemporary report of the visit remarked on the improved standard of workmanship in comparison with previous VVS visitors to Rissala; a MiG-21bis squadron in 1974. The MiG-23ML began replacing the MiG-23M in VVS service almost as soon as production had begun. The new aircraft exhibited fewer initial technical hitches than its predecessor, although hydraulic leaks continued to frustrate ground crews. The new uprated R-35-300 engine suffered from a lack of reliability, mostly due to high turbine temperatures and resultant blade failures. The improved avionics suite of the ML meant that this variant could now simultaneously carry the R-23T and R-23R AA missiles, with up to four R-60s under the fuselage.
Exports of the ML began in 1981 with Czechoslovakia. East Germany acquired 32 MLs in 1982. Further export sales were made to North Korea, Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, Cuba and Angola. After 1994 Angolan MLs saw much action in the country’s civil war, operations now being outsourced to the well-trained and resourceful international contract pilots of the South African security company Executive Outcomes.
Air Defence Fighters – MiG-23P and MLA
As the MiG-23ML was coming into service in the tactical fighter role with the VVS, a specialized interceptor variant was also manufactured for the PVO. The MiG-23P was manufactured between 1978 and 1983 and at its zenith it equipped over 25 air defence regiments. Externally the MiG-23P was almost identical to the ML. The only conspicuous distinguishing features were to be found on the intakes. Reinforcing stiffener plates were installed, to which some PVO-specific datalink and radio-locator dipole antenna were also affixed. Internally the MiG-23P was fitted with anew S-23MLA weapons system and enhanced ‘Sapfir-23P’ radar, along with a new ‘SAU-23PM’ autopilot.
After the dissolution of the USSR in 1992, MiG-23Ps continued to serve with the PVO well into the late 1990s. They were finally withdrawn when the PVO and VVS were merged, and the Russian Defence Ministry decided to retire all single-engined combat aircraft.
The MiG-23MLA was effectively a hybrid of the ML and P and served with the VVS. The MLA incorporated many of the upgraded features of the interceptor P. The ‘Sapfir-23P’ radar was once again updated, this time to ‘Sapfir-23MLA’ standard. This radar was also known as the ‘Ametist’, which accounts for the ‘A’ in the MLA suffix. The avionics enhancements enabled the MLA to carry the new R-24R and -24T missiles along with the R-73. The MLA remained on the production line from 1978 to 1983. Bulgaria and Syria are known MLA export customers. Some ML customers actually received the MLA, however factory documents often failed to distinguish between the two models.
The MiG-23 in East German service – An Eyewitness Account
Thomas Koliwer joined the Air Force of the GDR (NVA LSK/LV) as an evaluator (‘Auswerter’), transposing data received from P-18 airfield radar installations for the use of the Flight Controller. In November 1980 he joined Jagdfliegergeschwader (Fighter Aviation Regiment) JG-9 ‘Heinrich Rau’ at the historically significant Peenemünde Air Base on the Pomeranian Baltic Sea coast. These are his experiences of experiences as a member of the GDR’s sole MiG-23 regiment.
“Our welcome included an introduction to the MiG-23, which had just reequipped the 2ndSquadron. I had always been interested in aviation, but this was news to me. Clearly the policy of keeping such things secret from the population was working. Shortly after this the first publicity photos of the new MiG-23s appeared in the media.
Conversations with pilots revealed an ambivalent attitude toward the MiG-23MF. On the one hand attributes such as its slow landing speed were lauded, as were the RSBN tactical navigation and PRMG instrument landing systems. Indeed Peenemünde was selected as the MiG-23 base only partially due to it its strategic location. Another factor was that the RSBN and PRMG systems were already available thanks to the departing MiG-21bis inventory. With the MiG-21 two versions of the automatic flight control system were necessary (Lasur and SAU), but only one would fit into the airframe, whereas both were fitted to the 23. For the first time the Lasur system was connected to the autopilot, which meant the aircraft could actually be flown remotely. This capability was unknown to most and was seldom used. However, normal automated interceptions using Lasur, without GCI spoken commands were regular occurrences.
A particular highlight was the TP-26 IRST system. With it, targets, even those headed in the opposite direction, could be locked onto without using the radar. I can well remember the time two of our interceptors while hidden in cloud managed to creep up on a Danish F-16 and briefly switch on their radars to lock onto him. The poor chap in the F-16 most probably needed a fresh pair of underpants after that encounter…
At this time such dangerous ‘war games’ were quite the norm. In the summer, especially during NATO exercises, our QRA (‘DHS’ in GDR parlance) would be taking off fully armed up to four times daily. Luckily nobody ever lost his nerve.
The radar itself was actually one of the weaknesses of the MF. There were always a certain number of aircraft out of commission with unserviceable radars.
We were responsible for a few provocations, although less than the other side. I recall one particular mission, which was prepared and executed in strictest secrecy. Most probably undertaken as test of NATO reaction times, Major General Baarss took a MiG-23UB out over the Baltic and flew westwards, almost reaching the North Sea before turning around. There was also a circuit, which included the Danish island of Bornholm. This resulted in a few encounters with Saab Drakens or in later years F-16s.
One particular episode with the MF would not have escaped the attention of anyone, military or civilian, stationed at Peenemünde. In 1981 Major Buchaniek accidentally broke the sound barrier on a low level flight right over the station. Window panes, roofs, and even pipes at the Peenemünde power station were damaged or destroyed. The bang was monstrous; I experienced it in the barracks on my day off. Major B had very few friends after this incident, especially among the many officers who tended to their beloved garden allotments. The expensive leaded glass panes of many sheds and summer huts were broken during the incident.
At the end of 1981, when it became apparent that the remaining JG-9 squadrons (which were still equipped with the MiG-21MF) would be transitioning in early 1982 to the MiG-23ML, the reaction of the pilots was less than enthusiastic. One Major told me he was sick of the 23 and much preferred the MiG-21bis. There was pessimistic speculation about the reliability of the systems. One joke did the rounds that the ML had a 100km cable drum aboard so that the onboard systems could be checked constantly. In actuality things were much improved.
By the way, there is a myth that the elevated stance of the ML on the ground (in contrast with those of the MF and UB) has something to do with the lighter weight of the aircraft. The main reason is actually a longer main hydraulic cylinder fitted to the main landing gear – otherwise the MLG of all versions are identical. The change was necessary because the low sitting MF regularly created problems when taxying, and especially when taking off from non-concrete taxyways and runways. At Peenemünde only the landing threshold was asphalt-covered; take-offs took place much further down the runway. I once saw what happened when an MF did not move forward before engaging the afterburner. The result was large flying pieces of tarmac. The landing threshold was totally destroyed.
There was also an incident when just after take-off the brake parachute deployed (author’s note: US pilots with the 4477thTES also mentioned this particular little Flogger foible). Luckily the afterburner was still engaged and the chute was soon burnt up. From the tower we saw only a short conflagration (it was dark), which scared the living daylights out of us. The pilot didn’t even notice. The Flight Controller immediately instructed all the aircraft waiting to take off to taxy back down the runway, which was not a good idea as the flaming remnants of the chute were still strewn around and could have been sucked up into the engines. The end result was FOD inspection for all aircraft, night shift for the KRS (maintenance and repair crew), and all flying abandoned.
When the MF entered service, due to the PRMG ILS, minimum weather conditions were set at 100/1 (100m cloud base/1 km visibility). However, the PRMG shortwave transmitter was not located on the runway extension (as with civil ILS), rather it had been positioned to the left of the approach direction next to the runway theshold. I witnessed once how the weather closed in with a vengeance after the met flight had taken off (90 minutes before flight operations), with minimum conditions now in effect. The highly experienced UB crew performed an automatic approach. However when they descended below the cloud base, thanks to the offset shortwave transmitter, they found themselves way to the left of the runway. They somehow made a spectacular swerve to the right and touched down on the threshold almost immediately. This superlative display of professional airmanship was matched only by official consternation at the chain of events that brought it about; the weather minimum was raised to 150/1. Pilots highly praised the landing characteristics of the 23, particularly its moderate approach speed in comparison with the MiG-21.
The RSBN tactical navigation system (a more precise analog of TACAN) possessed among other things a ‘return’ setting. The pilot only needed to make an approximate approach towards the airfield, press the ‘return’ button, and allow the aircraft automatically to realign itself onto the shortest approach course and make the landing. After that, only the throttle required pilot input. This was much appreciated, especially when after a practice interception fuel was running low. On one particular return from a practice interception Major General Baarss, who completed most of his combat pilot qualification flights from Peenemünde, declared a fuel emergency. With only 500 litres left in the tanks he was below the reserve required to divert another airfield. At 600 litres a warning light would have alerted him in the cockpit. ATC cleared the landing approach and instructed Baarss to press his RSBN ‘return’ button. The emergency landing was made successfully on ‘fumes’. It was normally mandated that such an incident be reported to High Command for an official investigation (‘meldepflichtiges Flugvorkomnis – K1’). Somehow such regulations were waived for a General. Shortly after this episode Baarss became Commander of Frontal Aviation (‘JaBo’) and then mostly flew the MiG-23BN strike variant.
Finally, some observations on variable geometry flight: 23 take-offs and landings were always made with 16° sweep, combat manoeuvres with 45°, and supersonic flight with 72°. Other degrees of sweep between 16° and 72° were also possible and applied. For instance, the 23 was much more agile in aerial combat at 30° sweep. Unfortunately the administrative operational regime in the GDR was very rigid, with the result that pilots were unable to exploit the 23 to the best of its capabilities. Well, at the very least they should not get caught doing so; wing sweep data were not included in the flight recorder…
Pilots were paranoid about setting the sweep to 16° for landing. Any greater sweep, and neither the slats nor flaps would extend, resulting in a dangerously high approach speed. None of those who tried this and lived to tell the tale could explain how it had happened. The radio message ‘Krylo 16’ (Russian for ‘surfaces 16’) would be confirmed numerous times on approach by both pilot and landing controller. Furthermore, a red warning light would illuminate when the landing gear was extended should the sweep not be set at 16°.”
The ultimate Flogger – MiG-2MLD
The MiG-23MLD (Flogger-K) was the result of ongoing efforts at the Moscow factory to further improve the combat capabilities of the aircraft. The original plan was for all MLDs to be upgraded from existing airframes. Between 1982 and 1985 around 500 ML, MLA and P variants were upgraded to the improved MLD standard. The main external differences of the MLD included the new Type 4 wings. A ‘dog tooth’ indentation was introduced at the point where the wing glove met the fuselage. This allowed the standard ‘combat’ sweep of the wings to be reduced from 45° to 36°. Vortex generator plates were scabbed onto the base of the pitot tube at the join with the nose cone, which optimized high AOA combat manoeuvres.
Avionics upgrades included the new SOS-3-4 automatic AOA and wing sweep limitation system which, with the new wings, now enabled load factors up to 8.5G. All MLDs were able to carry not only the R-24R and -24T missiles, but also R-73A AA missiles. The IRST unit was also updated.
In the second half of the 1980s, the Afghan ‘experience’ (more of which later) was the catalyst for further capability upgrades, including the more sophisticated SPO-15L passive radar warning and homing system, and the two prominent BVP-50-60 chaff/flare dispensers fitted to the top of the rear fuselage. Also new was the highly secure ‘Parol’ IFF system. All these improvements turned the MiG-23 into the aircraft its original designers had envisaged back in the 1960s;a highly agile dogfighter with phenomenal acceleration.
Two MLD export versions actually did enter limited production in 1982-4. The Type 23-19B (MLDE) was developed for Syria. It featured downgraded avionics and neither the wing-root dogtooth indentations, nor the pitot vortex generators, and thus resembled a standard ML. Fifty were built for the Hafez el-Assad regime. The second export variant was the Type 23-22A, sixteen of which were built for the Bulgarians. Once again, this version lacked the external features of the Soviet MLD, however the avionics were up to VVS standard. It should also be noted that in the 1990s the Bulgarians also took delivery of second-hand fully equipped VVS MLDs as part of a bilateral trade debt offset deal with Russia after the collapse of the USSR.
Syrian MLDEs were active during the mid-1980s in skirmishes with Israeli fighters over Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley. In 1989 a Syrian MLDE Pilot defected to Israel with his charge, which enabled the IDF to test the Flogger against its own aircraft. The previous assessment of the MiG-23 as easy prey for any Western fighter more modern than the F-4 Phantom, was very much revised. IDF test pilots praised its user-friendly avionics, high AOA performance, and spectacular acceleration. The combination of the radar and warning systems of the MLDE were also much lauded for their range and reliable simplicity. It appeared that the human factor (Syrian pilot training and tactics) had totally compromised the fighter’s capabilities, along with the reduced BVR capacity of the export version and highly sophisticated Israeli jamming of Syrian air defence radars.
‘Lightweight’ MiG-23s (ML, MLA and MLD) were deployed by the Soviet High Command to Afghanistan between 1984 and 1988, originally in order to provide in-theater air cover for the 40thArmy’s ground forces and deter ‘foreign interference’ by neighboring Iran, Pakistan, China and their allies. As the conflict intensified the 23s were also increasingly used in the ground attack/close air support role. The first MiG-23 combat tours were undertaken by personnel from Soviet Central Asian fighter regiments at Ak-Tepe (Turkmen SSR) and Taldy-Kurgan (Kazakh SSR), however the later larger deployments were drawn from European military districts of the USSR (mostly in the Belorussian and Ukrainian SSRs).
Nicknamed ‘Grif’ (griffon) by in-theater VVS personnel, the MiG-23MLD was the most numerous Flogger variant utilized in Afghanistan. The MLDs were well suited to the harsh local conditions; they were maneuverable with very high rate-of-climb capabilities. ‘Afgantsi’ MLDs underwent some ‘hot and high’ modifications prior to deployment; the engine start-up system was optimized for the hot climate.
In addition to its CAP role, the MLDs were also widely used for strike (mostly high altitude ‘dumb’ bombing to avoid Mujahideen Stinger SAMs), reconnaissance and target designation missions.
The MiG-23MLD was a popular mount with pilots. During the fraught final years of the conflict prior to Soviet withdrawal in January 1989, the hard-worked 120th IAP suffered no combat losses and only three operational losses. Reportedly only one aircraft being escorted by MLDs was ever lost. This was a Su-25 piloted by the decorated Lt. Col. (and future Vice President of the Russian Federation) Aleksandr Rutskoi who, after a strike mission near the Pakistani border, remained in the combat zone operating as a forward air controller without briefing the MLD crews beforehand. Rutskoi’s Su-25 was hit by a Pakistani F-16, however he ejected safely over Afghan territory and was picked up by a Soviet SAR team.
Two squadrons of the 120th IAP were the last MiG-23 units deployed to Afghanistan in August 1988. Major V. Khlistun was one of the last two VVS combat pilots to depart the country on February 1, 1989. The exit was not without drama, as Khlistun’s ‘White 32’ had to return to a deserted Bagram with a fuel pump problem the day before, wrecks on the base being cannibalized for spares prior to the final successful departure.
‘White 32’ was the first of a number of 120th IAP MLDs to be decorated with the artwork of in-house ‘artist in residence’, V.P. Maximenko; a tradition which continues to this day with the MiG-29s of the 120th IAPs successor unit, the 320thAviation Base at Domna.
In 2015 it’s still possible to find MiG-23 fighters still flying in various parts of the world: MLs in Angola, Cuba, Libya, Algeria and North Korea; MLDEs in Syria. On the former territory of the vast USSR only one country continues to fly the Flogger. Kazakhstan has a couple of MiG-23UBs serving with the 604thAir Base at Taldykorgan in the south east of the country, near the mountainous border with China. They are kept operational to train pilots on the unit’s surviving MiG-27Ds, themselves very much rarities.
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