Attacking an Airbase Guarded By American F-14s: The Soviet MiG-25RB ‘Strike Foxbat’ Left Defenders Helpless – Part Two

Continued From Part One

Only four MiG-25RBs Foxbats were deployed to Iraq for the purposes of targeting Mehrabad, and were supported by 130 technicians and a considerable array of spare parts, spare engines and anti-radiation missiles. Although MiG-25 could reliably conduct operations at Mach 2.83 speeds or lower, making them the fastest combat jets in the world, the aircraft could reach Mach 3.2 speeds at high altitudes at the cost of causing damage to their engines. Replacement engines were thus a precaution when operations against a very well defended target guarded by F-14s made the need for extreme speed a possibility. The strikes were carried out from H-3 Air Base in western Iraq’s Anbar Province, which had suffered a major Iranian attack in the war’s first year and had taken considerable time to restore for full scale operations. The Foxbats would launch two at a time, leaving them outnumbered more than fifteen to one by enemy fighters while also facing Iranian ground based air defences. The Soviets were nevertheless confident that the advanced capabilities of the MiG-25BM would allow the aircraft to complete the mission successfully. 

Although the date of the first strike remans uncertain, it occurred in November 1987 less than a year before the end of the Iran-Iraq War, with two MiG-25BMs entering Iranian airspace at an altitude of 21,000 metres and at a speed of Mach 2.27. The Foxbats were quickly detected and a first wave of F-4Es were scrambled to intercept followed by a second wave of F-14s. The F-14s’ AWG-9 radars were the most powerful integrated onto any Western fighter in the world at the time. Although 21km was far below the MiG-25’s flight ceiling, it was still far too high for the MIM-23 batteries to seriously threaten them. The Foxbats jets activated an unknown electronic warfare countermeasure which reportedly instantly blinded the F-14s and prevented them from using their AIM-54 missiles, allowing the Soviet jets to fly within range of Mehrabad and destroy its primary surveillance radar and multiple secondary ones using advanced anti-radiation weaponry. The MiGs did not need to accelerate to full speed, and upon returning to base Soviet personnel reportedly celebrated the demonstration of their superiority over the Western Bloc’s largest and most dangerous fighter jet. 

The MiG-25BM’s victory confirmed that the aircraft could indeed be relied on to counter very high end Western defences, with at least 40 of the specialised jets in service in the Western Group of Soviet forces ready to spearhead any possible assault on NATO forces. Soviet MiG-25BMs diid not immediately withdraw from Iraq, however, and a second mission aimed at neutralising Mehrabad’s American supplied surface to air missile network was launched soon afterwards. The fact that the United States had not developed a viable surface to air missile system for high altitude long range interceptions of enemy aircraft, comparable to the Soviet S-75, S-200 and S-300 platforms, meant the Hawks were of limited value. Thus F-14s were again relied on to intercept the approach of combat jets from Iraqi airspace, although the Tomcats were again left unable to fire by the electronic warfare systems on the MiG-25BMs resulting in another successful strike on Mehrabad. The second attack notably saw F-14s and F-4Es attempt to tackle the Foxbats by engaging them at closer ranges, where they could use infra-red guided missiles or possibly even cannon, but the Soviet jet’s extreme speeds prevented this.

After the first two strikes on Mehrabad Air Base had proven the capabilities of the MiG-25 airframe, the specific electronic warfare systems on the BM variant, and the jet’s Kh-58 cruise missiles, a third mission against the facility was attempted. The Iranian Air Force would prove much better prepared for this attack, which was launched using predictable tactics and on a previously used flight path. The Iranians flew F-14 fighters on Combat Air Patrol near the Iraq border almost continuously and at great expense, allowing them not only detect MiG-25s as soon as they entered Iranian airspace, but also to launch attacks before the Foxbats accelerated to higher speeds at which they were far less vulnerable. Upon realising they were under attack, the Foxbats triggered their electronic warfare countermeasure which almost blinded the F-14s – although one of the two Iranian fighters managed to employ some kind of countermeasure and succeeded in launching an AIM-54 missile at the target at a relatively close range. It is unclear why no kill was achieved, but it is likely that electronic warfare countermeasures from the MiG-25, having failed to do blind the F-14, managed to neutralise the AIM-54’s own seeker radar before it reached its target. 

MiG-25BMs would reportedly return to conduct further limited strikes on Iranian targets in 1988 before the war ended that year, during which the F-14 again failed to make any kills. It is unclear whether or when the Iranian side first discovered that Soviet pilots had been flying minor sorties to support the Iraqi Air Force, but if they were aware of this it may have increased pressure on Tehran to end the war and agree to withdraw forces from Iraqi territory. Although the USSR had initially been a neutral party in the Iran-Iraq War, the possibility of the Iraqi government’s overthrow by Iranian forces led Moscow to prove more direct to Baghdad in the conflict’s closing stages. Soviet MiG-25BMs thus contributed to the war effort by destroying an Iranian air traffic control station and multiple radar and surface to air missile systems, as well as killing dozens of radar operators and technicians.

Iraq is not known to have ever itself fielded the MiG-25BM, although the fact that the Iraqi Air Force never needed to mount serious air defence suppression operations after 1988 has left much uncertainty regarding the extent of its indigenous strike capabilities. The MiG-25BM would be retired after the USSR’s disintegration, with units inherited by Belarus rather than Russia which could not afford to maintain such large combat jets. Iran itself has yet to acquire a fighter class more capable than the F-14 for long range air to air engagements, with the American supplied Tomcats remaining its only fighters with access to active radar guided air to air missiles. F-14s would be modernised considerably over subsequent years, and have recently been equipped with Fakour 90 missiles which are a superior and longer ranged successor to the AIM-54 developed indigenously. Their primary target today, however, are more likely to be F-15s from the United States or Israeli air fleets rather than any Russian built fighter or interceptor class.