|A Soviet Air Force MiG-23MLD|
|Role||Fighter aircraft (M series)|
Fighter-bomber (B series)
|National origin||Soviet Union|
|Manufacturer||Mikoyan-Gurevich / Mikoyan|
|First flight||10 June 1967|
|Status||In limited service|
|Primary users||Soviet Air Force (historical)|
Syrian Air Force
Indian Air force (historical)
Bulgarian Air Force (historical)
See Operators below
The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (Russian: Микоян и Гуревич МиГ-23; NATO reporting name: Flogger) is a variable-geometry fighter aircraft, designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau in the Soviet Union. It is a third-generation jet fighter, alongside similar Soviet aircraft such as the Su-17 "Fitter". It was the first Soviet fighter to field a look-down/shoot-down radar, the RP-23 Sapfir, and one of the first to be armed with beyond-visual-range missiles. Production started in 1969 and reached large numbers with over 5,000 aircraft built, making it the most produced variable-sweep wing aircraft in history. Today the MiG-23 remains in limited service with some export customers.
The basic design was also used as the basis for the Mikoyan MiG-27, a dedicated ground-attack variant. Among many minor changes, the MiG-27 replaced the MiG-23's nose-mounted radar system with an optical panel holding a laser designator and a TV camera.
The MiG-23's predecessor, the MiG-21, was fast and agile, but limited in its operational capabilities by its primitive radar, short range, and limited weapons load (restricted in some aircraft to a pair of short-range R-3/K-13 (AA-2 "Atoll") air-to-air missiles). Work began on a replacement for the MiG-21 in the early 1960s. The new aircraft was required to have better performance and range than the MiG-21, while carrying more capable avionics and weapons including beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles. A major design consideration was take-off and landing performance. The VVS demanded the new aircraft have a much shorter take-off run. Low-level speed and handling was also to be improved over the MiG-21. Manoeuvrability was not an urgent requirement. This led Mikoyan to consider two options: lift jets, to provide an additional lift component, and variable-geometry wings, which had been developed by TsAGI for both "clean-sheet" aircraft designs and adaptations of existing designs.
The first option, for an aircraft fitted with lift jets, resulted in the "23-01", also known as the MiG-23PD (Podyomnye Dvigatyeli – lift jet), was a tailed delta of similar layout to the smaller MiG-21 but with two lift jets in the fuselage. This first flew on 3 April 1967, but it soon became apparent that this configuration was unsatisfactory, as the lift jets became useless dead weight once airborne. Work on the second strand of development was carried out in parallel by a team led by A.A Andreyev, with MiG directed to build a variable-geometry prototype, the "23-11" in 1965.
The 23-11 featured variable-geometry wings which could be set to angles of 16, 45 and 72 degrees, and it was clearly more promising. The maiden flight of 23–11 took place on 10 June 1967, flown by the famous MiG test pilot Aleksandr Vasilyevich Fedotov (who set the absolute altitude record in 1977 in a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25). Six more flight prototypes and two static-test prototypes were prepared for further flight and system testing. All featured the Tumansky R-27-300 turbojet engine with a thrust of 77 kN (17,300 lbf). The order to start series production of the MiG-23 was given in December 1967. The first production "MiG-23S" (NATO reporting name 'Flogger-A') took to the air on 21 May 1969, with Fedotov at the controls.
The General Dynamics F-111 and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II were the main Western influences on the MiG-23. The Soviets, however, wanted a much lighter, single-engined fighter to maximize agility. Both the F-111 and the MiG-23 were designed as fighters, but the heavy weight and inherent stability of the F-111 turned it into a long-range interdictor and kept it out of the fighter role. The MiG-23's designers kept the MiG-23 light and agile enough to dogfight with enemy fighters.
The armament carried by the MiG-23 changed as new models underwent development. The initial production variant, the MiG-23S, was fitted with the S-21 fire control system borrowed from the MiG-21S/SM. Based on the RP-22SM Sapfir-21 radar with an ASP-PFD-21 lead computing gunsight, it could carry only four R-3/K-13 (AA-2 "Atoll") air-to-air missiles (typically two SARH R-3Rs and two IR R-3Ss) in addition to a Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23L autocannon. In the ground-attack role, the MiG-23S could carry two Kh-23 (AS-7 "Kerry") radio guidance air-to-surface missiles, two to four UB-16 rocket pods with S-5 rockets, S-24 rockets or up to 2,000 kg (4,400 lb) of various bomb types. The MiG-23 Edition 1971, equipped with the Sapfir-23L radar and TP-23 infrared search and track (IRST), could fire the new BVR R-23 (AA-7 "Apex") missile, although only the R-23R SARH variant. However, the Sapfir-23L was considered unreliable and lacked look-down/shoot-down capability.
The MiG-23M, the definitive first-generation variant of the fighter, was equipped with the improved Sapfir-23D look-down/shoot-down radar and could carry a pair of R-23 missiles (either the R-23R SARH or R-23T IR variants) and a pair of R-60 (AA-8 "Aphid") missiles. Starting with aircraft number 3201, the APU-60-2 double-rail launcher was introduced, allowing the MiG-23M to carry four R-60 missiles. The MiG-23 could carry up to 3,000 kg (6,600 lb) in bombs and rockets, and from aircraft number 3701 onward it could fire the Kh-23 and Kh-23M air-to-surface missiles. Lastly, all VVS MiG-23Ms had the ability to mount a single nuclear bomb via a special adapter under the fuselage, either the 10-kiloton RN-24 or the 30-kiloton RN-40.
In the second-generation MiG-23ML, a new SUV-2ML weapons system allowed the aircraft to carry both types of R-23 missiles simultaneously. The typical loadout was an R-23R on the starboard wing pylon and an R-23T on the port wing pylon. Besides other ordnance (including a single nuclear bomb), the MiG-23ML could also carry two UPK-23-250 23mm gun pods on the underwing pylons. Starting in 1981, the MiG-23MLA could carry the improved Vympel R-24R/T missiles. The final fighter variant, the MiG-23MLD, could also carry the improved R-24R/T missiles in addition to a pair of B8M1 20-round rocket pods firing S-8 rockets, the Kh-23/Kh-23M air-to-surface missile, or a single RN-24 or RN-40 nuclear bomb. The MiG-23MLD's maximum bomb load was 2,000 kg (4,400 lb), with a standard loadout comprising four FAB-500 500 kg general-purpose bombs (GP) or ZAB-500 napalm bombs. Other configurations included sixteen FAB-100 100 kg GP bombs carried on four ejector racks, four FAB-250 250 kg GP bombs, or two RBK-500 cluster bombs.
The MiG-23 cockpit was considered an improvement over previous Soviet fighters as it was more ergonomic in its layout. However the pilot still had a high workload, having to manipulate switches and monitor gauges, compared to more modern aircraft with HOTAS controls. The instrument panel did feature a white stripe to serve as a visual aid for centering the control column during an out-of-control situation. To prevent the pilot from exceeding a 17° angle of attack, the control column incorporated a "knuckle rapper" which would strike the pilot's knuckles as the limit was approached.
Cockpit visibility was also somewhat poor in the MiG-23, although the view straight ahead was superior compared to the MiG-21. In particular, visibility was poor looking to the rear, partially due to the ejection seat which wrapped around the pilot's head, requiring the pilot to lean forward to look to the side or behind. To assist with looking directly behind the pilot, the cockpit was fitted with a mirror or 'periscope' embedded in the middle rail of the canopy, similar to the one on the MiG-17. With an infinity focus, the periscope provided a clear view of behind the plane, but did not have a wide field of view.
The MiG-23's ejection seat, the KM-1, was built with extreme altitude and speed in mind: leg stirrups, shoulder harness, pelvic D-ring, and a 3-parachute system. Engaging the ejection seat could take a long time, as the pilots had to place their feet in the stirrups, let go of the control column, grab the two trigger handles, squeeze and lift them. The first parachute, the size of a large handkerchief, was deployed out of a telescoping rod which would pop out of the top back of the seat as it started to clear the windscreen windbreak area. It was supposed to help rotate the seat into the windblast and stabilize into a flight path that would take it above and behind the vertical stabilizer. As the first chute and rod separated from the seat, a larger drogue parachute deployed to slow down the seat, allowing the deployment of the main parachute. If engaged at low altitudes, the seat included a barometric element that allowed the drogue chute to separate more quickly. One problem with the KM-1 was that it was not a zero-zero ejection seat, and would only work at a minimum speed of 90 knots.
Starting with the MiG-23 Edition 1971, the MiG-23 replaced the head-down radar scope with a ASP-23D gunsight/head-up display onto which data from the radar was displayed. This was updated in the MiG-23MLA with the ASP-17ML gunsight/HUD. Because information from the radar had to fit on the combining glass of the HUD, the amount of space that could be scanned was limited to a relatively thin slice. This required that the fighter be flown very close to the target's altitude and well ahead of it to be picked up, necessitating good ground-controlled interception (GCI) instructions. Israeli pilots who flew captured versions of the MiG-23 found it relatively easy to use.
The MiG-23 was among the first Soviet aircraft to feature variable-geometry wings. These were hydraulically controlled by means of a small lever set beneath the throttle in the cockpit. There were three main sweep angles that were set by the pilot for different levels of flying. The first, with the wings fully spread at 16°, was used when cruising at below Mach .7 or when taking off and landing. Putting the wings at mid-spread of 45° was used for basic fighter maneuvering, as well as cruising at high speeds or making low-altitude intercepts. Moving the wings to fully swept at 72° was reserved for making high-altitude intercepts or high-speed dashes at low altitudes.
The wings were not fitted with ailerons but used spoilers to control rolling when the wings were at 16° and 45° angles. In addition to the spoilers, the wings were fitted with trailing edge flaps and leading edge slats to try to give the fighter a short take-off and landing performance. Although there was a gauge in the cockpit showing the position of the wings, when they were in motion, and the Mach limit for each position, there was none to indicate what was the optimum wing position for the prevailing flight condition.
Two tailerons controlled pitch and roll, in the latter case working in conjunction with wing control surfaces when the wings were not fully swept back. In addition to a large vertical stabilizer (which also stored the brake parachute for landings), the MiG-23 had a ventral fin to improve directional stability at high speeds. During take-off and landing, the fin hinged sideways when the landing gear was extended to prevent it striking the ground.
Starting with the Edition 1971 model, the MiG-23's wings (known as Edition 2) had their surface area increased by 20%, necessitating the positions be changed to 18°, 47° 40', and 74° 40' (though for convenience the cockpit indicators and manuals retained the original labeling). A dogtooth extension was added but the leading-edge slats were removed to simplify manufacturing. However this proved to exacerbate the MiG-23's stability issues at high AoA and made take-off and landings more difficult. The definitive Edition 3 wing design, introduced with the MiG-23M, retained the dimensions of the Edition 2 but added back in the leading-edge slats.
A strengthening of the wing pivot in the MiG-23MLD allowed the addition of a fourth wing sweep position of 33°, which was intended to reduce turn radius and allow for rapid deceleration during dogfights. However, with the wings at the 33° position, the MiG-23MLD was much more difficult to handle and suffered from poor acceleration. Moving the wings to this position was primarily reserved for experienced MiG-23 pilots, while combat manuals continued to emphasize the 45° position.
The MiG-23 original engine was a 27,500 lb (12,500 kg) thrust Tumansky R-29-300 with thrust to spare at the aircraft top speed of Mach 2.4. It also had a fast acceleration time, taking 3–4 seconds to go from idle to full power, and took less than a second to ignite the afterburner. The aircraft's placarded top speed was set by cockpit canopy structural strength. The engine intake had louvers which supplied the environmental control system with air to keep the avionics and pilot cool.
Similar to early examples of the F-4 Phantom's J-79 engine, the R-29 would generate smoke when operating without the afterburner. The engine outer cases ran very hot, which sometimes triggered false fire alarms. Moreover, the engine was only good for a couple of hundred sorties at most before requiring replacement. This was partly because Russian engines were designed to last about 150 hours before being replaced. It was also a way to generate income from export customers by selling them new engines in exchange for hard currency. Changing an engine was difficult because the aircraft had to be separated in the middle.
The engine was also a weak point on early models of the MiG-23 as it was not stressed for high yaw manoeuvre loads. If the fighter entered a spin, the engine shaft could bend. Compressor blades would rub sending debris into the turbine causing turbine blades to break off, destroying the engine. Introduction of the R-29B-300 addressed this design deficiency.
The prototype version of the MiG-23 carried three fuel tanks in the fuselage, with capacities of 1,920, 820 and 710 liters respectively. Additionally, each wing carried three integral fuel tanks of 62.5, 137.5 and 200 liters. The No. 2 fuel tank in the fuselage also functioned as the aircraft's carry-through wingbox and was welded together with thick plates of VNS-2 steel alloy. The MiG-23 Edition 1971 redesign allowed for a fourth tank carrying 470 liters to be fitted in the rear of the fuselage. This fuel capacity gave the MiG-23 better endurance than a "clean" F-4 (carrying no drop tanks); if traveling at the MiG-23's endurance speed of 230 knots an individual sortie could be stretched out to an hour, though if the afterburner was used that could fall down to around 45 minutes or less. Introduced with the MiG-23M were plumbed pylons under the movable wing panels which could be fitted with 800-liter drop tanks, though these could only be carried with the wings at full spread and had to be jettisoned otherwise, and a third 800-liter drop tank could be carried under the fuselage on the MiG-23ML.
Early models of the MiG-23 ran into problems with the plane's No. 2 fuel tank suffering structural failures, which were especially problematic as the tanks were integral to the structure rather than contained within a fuel bladder. This meant that as the structure developed hairline fractures fuel would seep out. This eventually forced severe g-force limits until a solution could be found. Prior to quality being improved in later models, one fix was to weld a plate on the inside surface and a stiffener on the outer skin.
Most potential enemies of the USSR and its client states have had opportunities to evaluate the MiG-23's performance. In the summer of 1977, after a political realignment by its government, Egypt provided a number of MiG-23MSs and MiG-23BNs to the United States; these were evaluated under a pair of exploitation programs codenamed HAVE PAD and HAVE BOXER respectively. These and other MiGs, including additional MiG-23s acquired from other sources, were used as part of a secret training program known as project Constant Peg to familiarize American pilots with Soviet aircraft. Additionally, a Cuban pilot flew a MiG-23BN to the U.S. in 1991, and a Libyan MiG-23 pilot also defected to Greece in 1981. In both cases, the aircraft were later repatriated.
Initially, American intelligence on the MiG-23 assumed that the fighter could turn well and had reasonable acceleration capability, but testing during HAVE PAD proved this assumption to be incorrect. While its turning capability was comparable to an original F-4E Phantom, newer American fighters like the F-15 Eagle or F-4E upgraded with slats could easily out-turn the MiG-23 in a dogfight. In fact, whenever the MiG-23 approached high angle of attack it became very unstable and liable to depart controlled flight. Conversely, the MiG-23's acceleration capability was tremendous, particularly at low altitudes (below 10,000 ft (3,000 m)) and crossing the sound barrier, where it could out-accelerate any American fighter. The fighter's small profile gave it the advantage of being hard to spot visually as well. Overall, HAVE PAD testing determined that the MiG-23 - while a poor dogfighter - made for a good interceptor capable of performing hit-and-run attacks. Despite its limitations, in the hands of a very capable pilot the MiG-23 represented a serious threat in air combat.
Test pilots who flew the MiG-23 as part of Constant Peg came to similar conclusions about the MiG-23 being an effective interceptor rather than a dogfighter, but were more critical of the planes they flew. Among their complaints was that the MiG-23's airframe was too easily overstressed; that it was unstable in yaw as it passed the sound barrier and again when approaching Mach 2; that its narrow landing gear, although designed to be used on unprepared surfaces, tended to slip and slide in adverse weather conditions; and because it sat low to the ground, it could more easily suck debris into its engine intakes. In general the MiG-23 was unpopular with the American pilots because it was so dangerous to fly.
Among the nicknames the Constant Peg pilots had for the MiG-23 was the "Looping Hog" because it flew like a pig and one of the few basic fighter maneuvers (BFM) it could pull off in a dogfight was a massive loop. If going fast enough, a MiG-23 could easily perform a loop 4 mi (6.4 km) high that other planes would struggle to follow, at the bottom of which it would cut back inside them and proceed to fly off until outside their visual range so it could come back in again. The only other BFM the MiG-23 could perform, according to Col (ret.) John "Sax" Saxman, was the "no circle fight": as the two aircraft approached and passed close by each other the MiG-23, instead of trying to turn one way or the other with the enemy aircraft (as in a one-circle or two-circle fight), would speed on ahead until it could come back into the fight from a different angle.
The MiG-23's deficits and qualities were also recognized by allied air forces who received the fighter from the Soviet Union, including the East German Air Force:
I spent a lot of time in Berlin watching GCI tapes to verify we were flying the right tactics, and it became clear to me that the East Germans knew exactly what the MiG-23's limitations were. They knew that since it was unmaneuverable, they had to attack from many different directions as fast as possible. It was sophisticated, and they were going to overwhelm us if we ever went up against them. I sat down with some analysts and linguists and listened to what the pilots were saying to their GCI controllers and I actually started to respect them for what they were doing with a very limited asset.
The pilots of Constant Peg sought to teach these and other aspects of the MiG-23 to the frontline Tactical Air Command squadrons (nicknamed Blue Air) against whom they trained:
We taught the guys that if you were defensive with a Flogger right behind you, then you were automatically offensive, because even the worst pilot in the world would be able to deny him the shot. You would turn, he would try and turn with you, but he would never be able to turn the same corner as you.— Col (ret.) Paco Geisler, 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron
One of the MiG-23s would retreat while the other guy would come in behind you. In the training environment the Blue Air pilots would do their intercepts at 350 to 400 knots, so when they all of a sudden get this Flogger coming at Mach 1.5, it really changes the geometry of things. It blows your mind because you are not used to seeing that kind of speed.— LtCol (USMC ret.) Lenny Bucko, 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron
The MiG-23's speed in particular was used as a teaching aid for a couple of situations during a potential war with the Soviet Union. The first was at low altitudes to demonstrate its ability to run down any NATO or American strike aircraft (barring the late-model F-111F Aardvark), which would be attempting to go low and fast to penetrate Soviet territory. The second was to simulate the MiG-25 Foxbat, a high, fast flyer (HHF) which would be going after high-value targets such as aerial refueling or airborne early warning and control aircraft like the E-3 Sentry.
The early MiG-23M series was also used to test the American Northrop F-5s captured by the North Vietnamese and sent to the former USSR for evaluation. The Soviets acknowledged the F-5 was a very agile aircraft, and at some speeds and altitudes better than the MiG-23M, one of the main reasons the MiG-23MLD and MiG-29 developments were started. These tests allowed the Russians to make modifications to several of their fourth-generation aircraft. The MiG-23, however, was not designed to combat F-5s, a weakness reflected by early MiG-23 variants.
Dutch pilot Leon van Maurer, who had more than 1,200 hours flying F-16s, flew against MiG-23MLs from air bases in Germany and the U.S. as part of NATO's aerial mock combat training with Soviet equipment. He concluded the MiG-23ML was superior in the vertical to early F-16 variants, just slightly inferior to the F-16A in the horizontal, and had superior BVR capability.[dubious ] The Soviet combat manual for MiG-23M pilots claims the MiG-23M to have a slight superiority over the F-4 and Kfir, and describes combat history involving Syrian MiG-23MFs versus Israeli F-15 and F-16s, which it labels "successful". This manual also recommends tactics to be used against these fighters.[dubious ]
Western and Russian aviation historians usually differ in respect to combat record for their military vehicles and doctrines part due to the bias in favor of their respective national industries and academies. They also usually accept claims going along with their respective political views since usually many conflicting and contradictory reports are written and accepted by their respective historians. Before recent years, with widespread use of hand-portable cameras, little pictorial evidence could be published about specific losses and victories of the different combat systems, with a limited number of losses and victories confirmed by both parties.
The MiG-23 was first officially commissioned into the Soviet Air Forces (VVS) on 4 January 1974, but even before its mass introduction there had been many teething problems with the brand-new fighter. Stability issues and limited maneuverability resulted in numerous flight restrictions placed on the fighter as efforts to rectify these concerns began in the mid-1970s. Despite numerous updates, these restrictions would only be partially lifted with the introduction of the MiG-23MLD. Still, the large number of MiG-23s deployed in Central Europe represented a sufficiently potent threat in a possible war with the West.
Although many MiG-23 pilots were disappointed to discover their fighter would lose in a turning engagement with the MiG-21, the MiG-23 gave the VVS capabilities which the MiG-21 simply lacked, particularly as a high-energy fighter with BVR missiles. However, throughout the 1970s and early 1980s Soviet pilots continued to train and operate the MiG-23 in the same inflexible manner as the MiG-21: a high-speed point defense interceptor closely guided by GCI. It was not until the widespread introduction of the MiG-23MLD that Soviet pilots began to utilize the MiG-23 as a true air-superiority fighter.
By the 1980s, the MiG-23's accident rate in the VVS averaged 12.5 losses per 100,000 flying hours. This was often worse in the air forces of the Warsaw Pact allies: 24.3 major mishaps per 100,000 flying hours in the Hungarian Air Force; 20.4 losses per 100,000 flying hours in the East German Air Force; 18 losses per 100,000 flying hours in the Bulgarian Air Force; and 11.3 losses per 100,000 flying hours in the Polish Air Force.
By 1990, over 1,500 MiG-23s of different models were in service with the VVS and the V-PVO. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the new Russian Air Force began to cut back its fighter force, and it was decided that the single-engine MiG-23s and MiG-27s were to be retired to operational storage. The last model to serve was the MiG-23P air-defense variant: it was retired on 1 May 1998.
When East and West Germany unified, no MiG-23s were transferred to the German Air Force, but twelve former East German MiG-23s were supplied to the United States. When Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Czechs received all the MiG-23s, which were retired in 1998. Hungary retired its MiG-23s in 1996, Poland in 1999, Romania in 2000, and Bulgaria in 2004.
The MiG-23 was the Soviet Air Force's "Top Gun"-equivalent aggressor aircraft from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. It proved a difficult opponent for early MiG-29 variants flown by inexperienced pilots. Exercises showed when well-flown, a MiG-23MLD could achieve favorable kill ratios against the MiG-29 in mock combat by using hit-and-run tactics and not engaging the MiG-29s in dogfights. Usually the aggressor MiG-23MLDs had a shark mouth painted on the nose just aft of the radome, and many were piloted by Soviet–Afghan War veterans. In the late 1980s, these aggressor MiG-23s were replaced by MiG-29s, also featuring shark mouths.
Soviet MiG-23s were used over Afghanistan, often being used to escort missions close to the borders of Pakistan and Iran, as the MiG-21 lacked the necessary range to do so. Some of them were claimed to have been shot down.
The earliest use of the MiG-23 in Afghanistan occurred in April 1982, when aircraft of the 152nd IAP escorted a large air raid against Rabat-e-Jali in Nimruz province. This developed into a disaster when the MiG-23s failed to provide adequate air cover and the strike force accidentally crossed into Iran, losing several helicopters to Iranian F-4 Phantoms.
Soviet and Afghan MiG-23s and Pakistani F-16s clashed a few times during the Soviet–Afghan War from 1987. Two MiG-23 were claimed shot down by Pakistani F-16s when crossing the border (they both were not confirmed) while one F-16 was shot down on 29 April 1987. Western sources consider it a friendly fire incident but the Soviet-backed Afghan government of the time and Pakistan claimed that Soviet aircraft downed the Pakistani F-16 – a claim that The New York Times and the Washington Post also reported. According to a Russian version of the event, the F-16 was shot down when Pakistani F-16s encountered Soviet MiG-23MLDs. Soviet MiG-23MLD pilots, while on a bombing raid along the Pakistani-Afghan border, reported being attacked by F-16s and then seeing one F-16 explode. It could have been downed by gunfire from a MiG whose pilot did not report the kill, because Soviet pilots were not allowed to attack Pakistani aircraft without permission.
In 1988, Soviet MiG-23MLDs using R-23s (NATO: AA-7 "Apex") downed two Iranian AH-1J Cobras that had intruded into Afghan airspace. In a similar incident a decade earlier, on 21 June 1978, a PVO MiG-23M flown by Pilot Captain V. Shkinder shot down two Iranian Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters that had trespassed into Soviet airspace, one helicopter being dispatched by two R-60 missiles and the other by cannon fire.
Air-to-air encounters, however, were not particularly frequent, with close air support accounting for most missions flown in Afghanistan while combat air patrol and air-to-air escort missions comprised 15% of the total. Sorties with dumb bombs and cluster munitions were flown against a wide range of targets, while more sophisticated weaponry was not often employed because of the difficult terrain and threat of MANPADs and AA. Attacks were made in pairs, with both MiGs diving at a 45 degree angle before releasing their bombs. After heavy losses in 1984–5, tactics were re-evaluated and a minimum altitude of 3,500 m (11,480 ft) was introduced. This was later increased to 4,500 m (14,760 ft). The accuracy of attacks was lowered and it became impossible to use unguided rockets at all. However, this was effective at reducing losses; there were none during 1986.
The two-seater MiG-23UB also saw service in Afghanistan, used for strike, reconnaissance and target designation. It was also used to familiarise MiG-27 pilots with flying in the hot and high conditions of Afghanistan when they were deployed there in 1988. Additionally, MiG-23UBs sometimes acted as a makeshift 'AWACS' aircraft, with an officer in the back seat observing and issuing commands to a strike group below him. The concept was dubbed "I am my own AWACS" by the Soviet pilots involved.
MiG-23s of the Soviet Air Force were transferred to the Soviet Navy on two occasions. In 1984 a full regiment of MiG-23s was deployed to Vietnam to escort naval patrols by Tupolev Tu-95 aircraft. This later became the 169th Guards Composite Air Regiment.[unreliable source?] They flew over 400 sorties from Cam Ranh airbase, staying there until 1989, when the aircraft were withdrawn and returned to the air force.
The second instance of MiG-23s serving with the Soviet Navy occurred from 1990 to 1994, when nine MiG-23UB trainers were attached to the 88th Separate Fighter Bomber Regiment of the Northern Fleet's aviation component to train pilots for their MiG-27s.
The first MiG-23s were supplied to Syria in April 1974. The process of making the MiG-23 operational was complex and difficult, because of the poor manufacturing quality and unreliability of the aircraft, and the lack of technical documentation. By the end of the year, up to 13 Syrian MiG-23s had already been written off. The first MiG-23s to see combat were export variants with many limitations. Compared to the MiG-21, the aircraft was mechanically complex and expensive and also less agile. The first interceptor variant to be exported, the MiG-23MS, was equipped with the same weapons system as the older MiG-21S, and its radar was particularly vulnerable to electronic countermeasures (ECM), at which the Israelis were especially proficient.
On 13 April 1974, after almost 100 days of artillery exchanges and skirmishes along the Golan Heights, Syrian helicopters delivered commandos to attack the Israeli observation post at Jebel Sheikh. This provoked heavy clashes in the air and on the ground for almost a week. On 19 April 1974, Captain al-Masry, flying a MiG-23MS on a weapons test mission, spotted a group of IAF F-4Es and shot two of them down after firing three missiles. He was about to attack another F-4 with cannon fire, but was shot down by friendly fire from a SAM battery. Due to this success, an additional 24 MiG-23MS interceptors, as well as a similar number of MiG-23BN strike variants, were delivered to Syria during the following year. In 1977, Syria bought between 28 and 30 MiG-23MFs, and the deliveries started in 1978.
The MiG-23MF, MiG-23MS and MiG-23BN were used in combat by Syria over Lebanon between 1981 and 1985. On 26 April 1981, Syria claimed that two Israeli A-4 Skyhawks attacking a camp in Sidon were shot down by two MiG-23MSs. However, Israel does not report any loss of aircraft from this incident and no loss of aircraft was reported on that date. Russian historian Vladimir Ilyin writes that the Syrians lost six MiG-23MFs, four MiG-23MSs and a few MiG-23BNs in June 1982. One more MiG-23 fighter was lost in July. The Israelis also claimed that they shot down two MiG-23s in 1985, which the Syrians deny. Overall, 11–13 Syrian MiG-23 fighter variants were lost in air combat from 1982 to 1985. Israel confirms only the loss of BQM-34 Firebee which was downed by Syrian MiG-23MF on 6 June 1982.
In the early 2000s, Israeli UAVs regularly flew reconnaissance missions over Lebanon, but sometimes inside Syrian airspace too. MiG-23s were often scrambled in response, and they have reportedly shot down several UAVs, starting in July 2001. Indeed, between 2001 and 2006, up to 10 Israeli UAVs were shot down over Syria each year.
A former Syrian Air Force MiG-23MS became iconic of the Siege of Abu al-Duhur Airbase: on 7 March 2012, Syrian rebels used a 9K115-2 Metis-M anti-tank guided missile to hit the derelict MiG. Later, in March 2013 they entered in the base, showing the worn out and damaged MiG. Finally, in May 2013, the Syrian Air Force bombed it to completely destroy the wreck.
Syrian MiG-23BNs bombed the city of Aleppo on 24 July 2012, becoming the first use of fixed-wing aircraft for bombing in the Syrian civil war.
On 13 August 2012, a Syrian MiG-23BN was reportedly shot down by the rebels of the Free Syrian Army near Deir ez-Zor, although the government claimed that it went down due to technical difficulties.
Since then, Syrian Air Force MiG-23s together with different Syrian Air Force fighter jets have regularly been spotted performing attack runs on Syrian insurgents, who have claimed different MiGs being shot down or destroyed on the ground on different occasions.
On 23 March 2014, one Syrian MiG-23 was shot down after being hit by an AIM-9 Sidewinder fired by a Turkish F-16 in the vicinity of the Syrian town of Kessab. The pilot ejected safely and was recovered by friendly forces. Turkish sources said the fighter violated Turkish airspace and it was downed after several radio warnings while approaching the border. Another Syrian MiG-23 returned to Syria after trespassing into Turkish airspace.
On 15 June 2017, one Jordanian Selex ES Falco UAV was shot down by a Syrian MiG-23MLD in the vicinity of the Syrian town of Derra. On 16 June, another Selex ES Falco was shot down by MiG-23ML both using R-24R missiles.
On 9 September 2020, a Syrian MiG-23 crashed in Deir ez-Zor Governorate without information on the fate of its pilot.
Iraq bought its first MiG-23s in 1973, in order to replace its Hawker Hunters and MiG-17Fs. Deliveries lasted from 1974 to 1978, and consisted of 18 MiG-23MS interceptors, between 36 and 40 MiG-23BN strike aircraft, and several MiG-23UB trainers. The introduction of these new aircraft proved particularly difficult for the Iraqi Air Force. Training in the Soviet Union included little flight time, and since the Soviets didn't provide any technical documentation or flight manuals, the Iraqis had to run flight testing on their own. Moreover, the handling qualities and the avionics outfit of the MiG-23 were heavily criticised, and the airframes' manufacturing quality was poor. Unsurprisingly, by 1978 at least 12 MiG-23s had been written off in accidents. An additional batch of MiG-23MS was bought in the late 1970s to compensate for the losses.
The MiG-23 took part in the Iran–Iraq War and was used in both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. On the first day of the war (22 September), both the MiG-23MS and the MiG-23BNs participated in attacks against Iranian airbases. The next day, an Iraqi MiG-23MS shot down an Iranian Northrop F-5E. However, this day also marked the first MiG-23 losses of the war: three MiG-23BNs were shot down by Iranian interceptors and air defences. Several more MiG-23s were shot down in the following months, mostly MiG-23BNs. The high losses were compounded by the embargo placed on Iraq by the Soviet Union in reaction to the war. By the end of 1980, Iraqi MiG-23MS pilots had claimed a total of three F-5Es shot down, all of them over the Iraqi airspace.
Despite the embargo, five MiG-23MFs that had been delivered prior to the outbreak of the war were rushed into service in the latter half of 1981. Attempting to replicate the success of the Mirage F1s that shot down two F-14 Tomcats on 15 November 1981, the pilots of Iraqi MiG-23 interceptor units started trying to sneak upon the Iranian Tomcats in a similar way a few days later. However, following these two losses, the Iranian pilots had adapted their tactics. While the F-14s flew combat air patrols at high altitude, pairs of F-5Es or F-4 Phantoms were positioned at low altitude in order to prevent Iraqi fighters from approaching the Tomcats unobserved. These new tactics worked out when two MiG-23MFs were shot down by the F-14s after having been visually detected by the F-5s, on 25 November. Several more Iraqi fighters were lost in similar circumstances during this period. MiG-23BN units continued suffering losses too, especially to F-14s and MIM-23B I-HAWK surface-to-air missiles. The Iraqi MiG-23BNs delivered in the 1970s only had a subpar radar warning receiver and no electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment, despite the Iraqi Air Force having paid for it. In 1982, the Soviets lifted their embargo, and aircraft deliveries restarted: 18 additional MiG-23MFs were delivered, together with 18 MiG-23BNs equipped with the ECM system requested since the 1970s.
In 1983-1984, the MiG-23MFs were used to intercept Iranian RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft flying over Iraq. Even though these aircraft were unarmed, they proved very hard to catch, and each of their flights was protected by a pair of F-14s; on 1 January 1984, Tomcats shot down a MiG-23MF while escorting an RF-4E. Later that month, an RF-4E was claimed shot down by a MiG-23MF, and another followed in June. Actually, both were only heavily damaged: after successful emergency landings, they were eventually repaired. That year also marked the arrival of the first MiG-23MLs; in total, at least 64 were ordered by Iraq. On 11 August, one of the new MiG-23MLs shot down the F-14 flown by IRIAF Colonel Hashem All-e-Agha with an R-60MK missile over the Persian Gulf. Iraqi MiG-23MLs downed another Tomcat on 2 September 1986, when Iranian Air Force Captain Ahmad Moradi Talebi was shot down while attempting to defect with his F-14A.
From 1984 onwards, due to the exhaustion of both its personnel and its aircraft, the Iranian air force stopped operating its fighters over the frontlines. Hence, the Iraqis started using their aircraft to attack targets further into Iran. MiG-23BNs participated in these attacks, as part of bigger strike packages including other bombers, a fighter escort (often including MiG-23MF/MLs), and SEAD aircraft. They also flew close air support missions. Thanks to the decreased presence of IRIAF interceptors and to the much-improved protection offered by escort, SEAD and electronic countermeasures aircraft, losses were much lower than during the first months of the war.
According to official post-war Iraqi Air Force documents, Iraq lost a total of 38 MiG-23BNs, three MiG-23MS, one MiG-23MF and one MiG-23ML. However, the stated losses for interceptor variants are much lower than the actual number of aircraft lost. For example, the number of pilots known to have been killed while flying MiG-23MS/MFs is twice as high as the official figure for all MiG-23 interceptor variants. In return, Iraqi MiG-23 pilots have claimed around 20 aerial victories, of which seven have been confirmed after cross-examination with data from Iranian sources.
Main article: Air engagements of the Gulf War
On 2 August 1990, the Iraqi Air Force supported the invasion of Kuwait with MiG-23BN and Su-22 aircraft as the main strike assets. A number of Iraqi aircraft and helicopters were shot down by Kuwaiti air defense MIM-23 Hawk SAM sites, among them a MiG-23BN.
Iraqi MiG-23s damaged two EF-111A Raven by R-23 (missile) during the Gulf War.
Iraqi documents captured after the invasion of Iraq revealed that they possessed 127 MiG-23s, including 38 MiG-23BNs and 21 MiG-23 trainers, at the start of Operation Desert Storm. During the Gulf War, the United States Air Force reported downing eight Iraqi MiG-23s with F-15s. Iraqi documents confirm the total destruction of 43 MiG-23s from all causes, with another 10 damaged and 12 others fleeing to Iran. This left Iraq with just 63 MiG-23s after the war, including 18 MiG-23BNs and 12 trainers.
The United States stated that the losses of the F-16Cs were caused by 2K12 Kub and S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missiles rather than enemy aircraft. Also, no Tornado loss is attributed to enemy aircraft as per the Royal Air Force and the Italian Air Force.
On 17 January 1993, a USAF F-16C destroyed an Iraqi MiG-23 with an AMRAAM missile. On 9 September 1999, a lone MiG-23 crossed the no-fly zone heading towards a flight of F-14s. One F-14 fired an AIM-54 Phoenix at the MiG but missed and the MiG headed back north. However, the aircraft then crashed while its pilot was attempting to land.
In 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the entire Iraqi Air Force remained grounded with several airframes found by US and allied forces around the Iraqi air bases in derelict condition after the invasion. The invasion marked the end of Iraqi service for the MiG-23.
Cuban MiG-23MLs and South African Mirage F1 pilots had several encounters during the Cuban intervention in Angola, one of which resulted in severe damage to a Mirage F1.
On 27 September 1987, during Operation Moduler, two MiG-23 pilots surprised a pair of Mirages and fired missiles: Alberto Ley Rivas engaged a Mirage flown by Captain Arthur Douglas Piercy with a pair of R-23Rs (some sources say a R-60), while the other Cuban pilot fired a single R-60 at a Mirage flown by Captain Carlo Gagiano. Although the missiles homed on the Mirages, only one R-23R exploded close enough to cause damage to the landing hydraulics of Captain Piercy's Mirage (and, according to some accounts, the aircraft's drag chute). The damage likely contributed to the Mirage veering off the runway on landing, after which the nose gear collapsed. The nose hit the ground so hard that Piercy's ejection seat fired. As a result of this ground level ejection, Piercy was paralyzed. The aircraft was written off, but a large portion of the airframe and components were used to repair another accident-damaged Mirage F1 and return it to service. In total, the Cubans claimed 6 air victories with the MiG-23 (1 destroyed, 1 damaged and 4 were unconfirmed).
Angolan MiG-23s outclassed SAAF Mirage F1CZ and F1AZ fighters in terms of power/acceleration, radar/avionics capabilities, and air-to-air weapons. The MiG-23's R-23 and R-60 missiles gave FAPA/DAA pilots the ability to engage SAAF aircraft from most aspects. The SAAF, hobbled by an international arms embargo, was forced to carry an obsolescent version of the French Matra R.550 Magic missile or early-generation V-3 Kukri missiles, which had limited range and performance relative to the R-60 and R-23. Despite these limitations, SAAF pilots were able to vector within the firing envelope and fire air-to-air missiles at MiG-23s (gun camera shots evidence this). The missiles either missed or exploded ineffectually behind in the tail plume rather than homing on the hot airframe.
UNITA rebels, opposing Cuban/MPLA forces, shot down a number of MiG-23s with American-supplied FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS missiles. South African ground forces shot down a MiG-23, which was prosecuting a raid on the Calueque Dam, by using the Ystervark (porcupine) 20 mm AA gun.
Libya received a total of 54 MiG-23MS and 15 MiG-23UBs between 1975 and 1978, as well as 35 to 38 MiG-23BNs. These aircraft entered service with the 1040th, 1050th, 1060th and 1070th Squadrons. The 1040th and 1050th Squadrons were staffed by Syrian Air Force personnel.
One Libyan MiG-23MS was shot down by an Egyptian MiG-21 fighter during and immediately after the Libyan–Egyptian War in 1977 while supporting a strike on the airfield at Mersa Matruh, forcing the remaining MiG to abort the mission. In one skirmish in 1979, two LARAF MiG-23MS engaged two EAF MiG-21MF which had been upgraded to carry Western air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-9P3 Sidewinder. The Libyan pilots made the mistake of trying to outmaneuver the more nimble Egyptian MiG-21s, and one MiG-23MS was shot down by Maj. Sal Mohammad with an AIM-9P3 Sidewinder missile, while the other used its superior speed to escape.
On 18 July 1980, the wreckage of an LARAF MiG-23MS was found on the northern side of the Sila massif, in the middle of the Italian region of Calabria. The deceased pilot, Captain Ezzedin Fadhel Khalil, was found still strapped to his ejection seat.
In August 1981, Libyan MiG-23MS fighters were involved in the standoff with the US Navy which led to the first Gulf of Sidra incident, although they were not involved in any actual combats on this occasion.
In the mid-1980s, newer versions of the MiG-23 entered service with the Libyan Air Force. Around 20 MiG-23MFs were received in 1984 to re-equip the 1060th Squadron. 48 MiG-23MLDs were also ordered in the same period. Two Squadrons, the 1023rd and 1024th, were created to operate these aircraft.
Libyan MiG-23s were employed during the Chadian–Libyan conflict performing different roles, starting in 1981. During the first years of their involvement, both the MiG-23MS and MiG-23BN variants were used, almost exclusively for ground attack. Later in the war, some combat air patrols were flown too, with the more advanced MiG-23MF and MiG-23MLD variants being used as well. On 5 January 1987, a Libyan MiG-23 was shot down and few months later, on 5 September 1987, Chadian forces performed a land raid against Maaten al-Sarra Air Base in Libya, destroying several Libyan aircraft on the ground, among them, three MiG-23s. On 8 October 1987, a MiG-23BN was shot down by ground fire, with its pilot being recovered by a helicopter.
MiG-23 interceptors were also used by Libya during the action in the Gulf of Sidra in 1986. Although they were flown aggressively, with their pilots sometimes trying to get into a firing position behind the American fighters (with little success), neither the MiG-23s nor their opponents opened fire against each other.
Two Libyan MiG-23MF fighters were shot down by U.S. Navy F-14As in the Second Gulf of Sidra incident in 1989.
In the 2011 Libyan civil war, Libyan Air Force MiG-23s were used to bomb rebel positions. On 15 March 2011, a rebel website reported that opposition forces started using a captured MiG-23 and a helicopter to sink 2 loyalist ships and bomb some tank positions.
On 19 March 2011, a MiG-23BN of the Free Libyan Air Force was shot down over Benghazi by its own air defenses, which mistook it for a loyalist aircraft. The pilot was killed after he ejected too late.
On 26 March 2011, five MiG-23s together with two Mi-35 helicopters were destroyed by the French Air Force while parked at Misrata airport, early reports misidentified the fixed wing aircraft as G-2 Galebs.
On 9 April, a rebel MiG-23 was intercepted over Benghazi by NATO aircraft and escorted back to its base for violating the UN no-fly zone.
A limited number of MiG-23's which survived the 2011 Libyan civil war and NATO bombings were involved in air strikes between the opposing Libyan House of Representatives and the rival General National Congress during the Second Libyan Civil War with both parties controlling a limited number of aircraft.
On 23 March 2015, a New General National Congress operated MiG-23UB was shot down while bombing Al Watiya airbase, controlled by the Libyan House of Representative probably with an Igla-S MANPADS. Both pilots were killed. At the beginning of 2016, Libyan House of Representatives forces controlled three airworthy MiG-23s among other aircraft, two MiG-23MLA and one MiG-23UB. They were all lost in three separate occasions with a first MiG-23MLA, serial 6472, lost near Benina airbase on 4 January, after an airstrike, the second MiG-23MLA, serial 6132, lost on 8 February while conducting air strikes against Islamic State near Derna and the MiG-23UB, serial 7834, lost on 12 February 2016 while operating west of Benghazi, claimed shot down by the Islamic State with the official government attributing the loss to anti aircraft artillery. In all the occasions the aircrews ejected while the cause of the first two crashes remained debated between hostile fire and mechanical causes.
On 28 February 2016, a MiG-23MLA serial 6453 was restored to flying status after several years, becoming the only MiG-23 in service with the Libyan Air Force as of March 2016, performing missions against enemy positions and vehicles since March 2016.
In the following weeks, both the Libyan National Army Air Force and the opposing Libyan Dawn Air Force, restored a number of MiG-23BN, MiG-23ML and MiG-23UB to flying status and they were recorded while flying over Libyan skies and striking enemy positions.
On 6 December 2019, a Libyan National Army (LNA) MiG-23MLD was shot down by forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA). In the ongoing Libyan Civil War both parties are pushing back to service stored airframes after repairs with foreign assistance. The jet, serial 26144, was restored using the wings of two different airframes and became flyable again in August 2019, after around 20 years of storage. The jet was hit over the Yarmouk frontline in southern Tripoli and crashed in Al Zawiya city and the pilot, Amer Jagem was detained after ejecting. A video emerged showing the aircraft diving for attack with soldiers on the ground firing a Strela-2M MANPADS in response. The LNA reported they lost a MiG-23 due to technical fault, denying it crashed due to enemy fire.
Egypt became one of the first export customers when it bought in 1974 eight MiG-23MS interceptors, eight MiG-23BN strikers and four MIG-23UB trainers, concentrating them into a single squadron based at Mersa Matruh. By 1975 all Egyptian MiG-23s had been withdrawn from active duty and placed in storage due to the Egyptian foreign policy shifting towards the West and thus losing USSR support.
Starting in 1978 China purchased from Egypt two MiG-23MS interceptors, two MiG-23BNs, two MiG-23UBs, ten MiG-21MFs, and ten KSR-2 (AS-5 Kelt) air-to-surface missiles in exchange for Shenyang J-6 jets, spare parts and technical support for the Egyptian fleet of Soviet-supplied MiG-17 and MiG-21s. The Chinese used the aircraft as the basis for their J-9 project, which never ventured beyond the research phase.
Some time later the remaining six MiG-23MS examples and six MiG-23BNs, as well as 16 MiG-21MFs, two Sukhoi Su-20 Fitters, two MiG-21Us, two Mil Mi-8 Hips and ten KSR-2s were purchased for the Foreign Technology Division, a special department of the USAF, responsible for evaluating adversary technologies. These were exchanged for weapons and spares support, including AIM-9J/P Sidewinder missiles, which were installed on remaining Egyptian MiG-21s.
MiG-23s supplied by the Soviet Union to Mengistu Haile Mariam's Derg were heavily used by the Ethiopian Air Force against the array of rebel guerillas fighting the government during the Ethiopian Civil War. According to a 1990 Human Rights Watch report, the attacks, often using napalm or phosphorus and cluster munitions, were not only aimed at the rebels, but against civilian populations (in both Eritrea and Ethiopia) and humanitarian convoys in a deliberate fashion.
Ethiopian MiG-23s were used in ground attack and strike missions during the border war with Eritrea from May 1998 to June 2000, even striking targets at the airport in the Eritrean capital city, Asmara on several occasions. Three Ethiopian MiG-23BNs were claimed shot down by Eritrean MiG-29s.
On 29 November 2020, an Ethiopian Air Force MiG-23 reportedly crashed during the Tigray conflict near Abiy Addi, 50 kilometers west of Mekelle. Unreliable images of the pilot were circulating after being captured by the Tigray People's Liberation Front who claimed they shot it down, showing the pilot with his Zsh-7 flying helmet (originally intended for Su-27 and MiG-29), a flight suit, a MiG-23 English manual and the crash site with charred metal parts.
Main article: Operation Safed Sagar
On 26 May, the Indian forces started air strikes during the Kargil War. Flying from the Indian airfields of Srinagar, Avantipur and Adampur, MiG-23BN, joined the other Indian strike aircraft, MiG-21s, MiG-27s, Jaguars and Mirage 2000 in striking the enemy positions.
Sudan received extensive military aid, including 12 MiG-23MS and one MiG-23UB from former enemy Libya starting in 1987. They quickly entered service fighting against the South Sudan People's Defence Forces (SPLA) in 1988 during the Second Sudanese Civil War. A number of these jets were lost either to ground fire or crashed. By 1990 Libya withdrew its military advisors from Sudan and the remaining four MiG-23 jets were placed in storage. Starting from 2010, Sudan started to refurbish its MiG-23 jets locally with the help of Russia, Byelorussian and Ethiopian technicians with pictures of freshly painted and refurbished jets circling online. One crash-landed and caught fire during flight testing in 2016.
Main article: List of MiG-23 operators
Main article: List of displayed Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23s
Data from Brassey's world aircraft & systems directory, 1996/97
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era