The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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MiG-23s Fade Away Loudly
by James Dunnigan
November 5, 2009
A Libyan MiG-23 fighter crashed on October 7th, during a demonstration flight. Both pilots were killed. During the Cold War, Libya bought over 150 MiG-23s from Russia, and most are currently in storage. The rest will probably join them, as Libya receives newer, and safer, jets. There are still several hundred MiG-23s in use worldwide. But several thousand have been retired since the end of the Cold War in 1991. The remaining operators are dumping their MiG-23s as quickly as possible.
For example, the Indian Air Force is retiring the last of its Russian MiG-23BNs, ending an unimpressive career. India bought 72 of the 18 ton, single engine, swing wing fighter-bombers in the early 1980s, but never used them in combat.
The MiG-23 was the Russian answer to the 1960s era U.S. F-4, but with only one engine, and swing wings (like the U.S. F-14 and F-111). It was the (then new and revolutionary) F-111 that inspired the swing wing design of the MiG-23 that really screwed up the MiG-23. The technology didn't work well with the F-111, and the rather more crude version in the MiG-23, worked less well. Thus the successor to the MiG-21 put the Russians even further behind the West in aircraft performance. When the successor of the F-4, the F-16 and F-15, showed up in the 1970s, and the F-18 in the 1980s, the Russians found themselves way behind. By the end of the Cold War, the Russians had recovered somewhat with the introduction of the MiG-29 and Su-27. But by then, 5,000 MiG-23s had been manufactured, and most were still in service, at great expense, and will little prospect of accomplishing much in combat.
The MiG-23 had a top speed of 2500 kilometers per hour, combat range of 1,150 kilometers and max bomb load of three tons. The MiG-23BN was optimized for ground-attack missions. It had a laser designator and a bomb sight. The only air-to-air missiles it carried were heat seekers. Half the Indian 72 MiG-23 BNs bought were lost in accidents. An air-superiority version, the MiG-23MF, was retired from Indian service two years ago.
A more advanced ground attack version of the MiG-23, called the MiG-27, was built under license in India. This 20 ton aircraft had a four ton bomb load and a 30mm cannon optimized for ground attack. India built nearly 200 of these, and they are still in use. This model saw some combat in Kashmir in 1999.
The MiG-23/27 was not a successful design. The Russian swing-wing mechanism was not as effective as the American one, and the aircraft was difficult to maintain. The F-4 was more maneuverable and carried a larger bomb load.