How Soviet MiG-25 Interceptors Took Out the U.S. Air Force’s Top Fighter in a 1991 Air Battle: Missile Exchange Over Iraq

During the 1990-91 Gulf War the F-15C/D Eagle fighter and MiG-25PD Foxbat interceptor were the most capable aircraft fielded by the air forces of the United States and Iraq in terms of their air to air combat capabilities. The former was undisputedly the top fighter fielded by any Western air force, and would remains so until the 2000s, while the latter was considered the third most capable in Soviet service and the most capable that it had ever exported thus far. The F-15 and MiG-25 were close rivals, with the Eagle having been developed largely in response to the Foxbat and the two clashing or coming close to clashing in Iraq, Syria, and over Algeria where MiG patrols were deployed to deter Israeli airstrikes. The final clash between the Eagle and Foxbat occurred on January 30, 1991, when the Iraqi Air Force intended to seek and destroy American F-15 units operating in the country’s airspace. Iraq deployed just a single squadron of around 25 MiG-25 interceptors, while the U.S. Air Force not only provided its Eagle units with much valued support from airborne early warning and control aircraft, but also fielded a full 18 F-15 squadrons between them deploying over 900 fighters. The bulk of the American F-15 fleet deployed to the Middle East, although its sheer numbers did not deter Iraqi efforts to neutralise the fighters. The advanced capabilities of the MiG-25, which in the very first air to air engagement of the war brought down a U.S. Navy F-18 Hornet fighter, meant no U.S. Air Force fighters other than the F-15 were used to tackle them. 

On January 30 a pair of MiG-25s from the Iraqi Air Force 96th Squadron attacked two American F-15Cs east of Khan Bani Sa’ad. This was the second attempt to use Foxbats to attack F-15s, with Iraqi ground control having earlier vectored two MiG-25s to engage Eagles operating in Iraqi airspace between its eastern border with Iran and the capital Baghdad where there turned out to be no targets – a result of atmospheric disturbances. With the F-15s supported by a range of electronic warfare assets, the Foxbats were only able to fire a single R-40 air to air missile which managed to hit and damage a single American F-15. The F-15s fired two AIM-7 Sparrow missiles in response both of which missed their targets, followed by a large salvo which also failed. The Foxbats then returned to Tammuz Airbase west of Baghdad, on the way to which they were engaged by two more F-15s which fired another salvo of AIM-7 missile which also failed to cause any damage. Not only were MiG-25s considerably more difficult to hit, with the aircraft having globally unrivalled speeds and altitudes far ahead of the Eagles, but their R-40 missiles were also longer ranged and carried much larger 100kg warheads than the F-15’s AIM-7. 

Tracking the retreat of the first pair of F-15s, Iraqi ground radars concluded that the Eagles hit by the R-40 had slowed while descending and probably crashed inside Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi Foxbat pilot who fired the R-40 was thus credited with a probable kill, which was upgraded to a confirmed kill after an F-15 wreckage in northern Saudi Arabia was reportedly identified. The U.S. Air Force denied the loss and claimed the damaged Eagle returned to base, although whether the airframe was ever made flightworthy again remained unknown. Whether the Eagle crashed or not, the two-on-two engagement represented a win for the Foxbats over the Eagles. This had potentially significant implications for U.S. Military and its allies, since the Foxbat which first flew in 1964 was far from the most capable Soviet fighter or interceptor in service and had been far surpassed by the capabilities of the MiG-31 and Su-27. If an export variant of the MiG-25 in the hands of a third world client, and operating without AEW&C or other support, could best the F-15 in air to air combat, the advantage the MiG-31 and Su-27 could enjoy may be overwhelming with these aircraft being technologically a full generation ahead of the Foxbat. The Soviet Union’s disintegration and the near collapse of its combat aviation sector over the following decade reduced such concerns, but the Su-27 which did fall into the U.S. Air Force’s hands in the 1990s proved to have tremendous advantages over the Eagle during testing. The performance of the Su-27’s predecessor the MiG-25 may well have been an early warning of the disadvantaged position the F-15 was in.