The MiG-25 (NATO reporting name: Foxbat) was one of the most awesome fighters of the Cold War. The MiG-25 was a magnificent aircraft in many ways, capable of flying in excess of Mach 3 and at altitudes, few aircraft could reach. The formidable performance parameters of the Foxbat were soon apparent, and as early as 1965 prototype models were claiming world records in speed, climb, and altitude.
The MiG-25’s flights in Soviet hands in the early 1970s over the then Israeli-held Sinai Peninsula showed existing U.S. made anti-aircraft systems and fighters to be wholly ineffective against the new platform.
While the interceptor was the most capable and survivable combat aircraft of its time, the U.S. overestimated its capabilities and had though its large wings indicated high levels of maneuverability on par with that of fourth-generation fighters. Maneuverability was in fact the MiG-25’s foremost weakness, and the large wings were necessary to support its extreme weight and heavy 100kg warhead R-40 missiles.
The United States Air Force inducted the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle heavy air superiority fighters into service in 1974 and 1976 respectively, and the two platforms would form the elite of the country’s aerial warfare capabilities until 2005.
In response to the MiG-25, the U.S. raised the standards of its fourth-generation fighter programs to handle the new threat. The F-14 was designed to carry up to six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, and these 190km range Mach 5 platforms would prove the most capable missiles in the world for long-range interception until the Soviet induction of the R-33 in 1981.
The F-15 notably lacked such long-range strike capabilities in its early days, restricted to operating relatively slow and short-ranged missiles such as the AIM-9 and AIM-7 and unable to carry the F-14’s heavier AIM-54.
The F-15 was however designed as and remains to this day by far the fastest combat aircraft in the U.S. fleet reaching speeds of over Mach 2.5 – allowing it to better contend with the MiG-25. Pilots were also given specific training on how to counter the Foxbat.
F-15 pilot Lt. Rob Graeter explained regarding preparations to deal with the high speed MiG-25:
“We had trained for the high-fast-flyer threat and knew that to handle that guy we’d have to dump all of our fuel tanks. We would fly a profile that involved getting to 40,000 ft, then unload the jet (pushing forward on the stick to induce 0g) in full afterburner to get it to accelerate. Once up to Mach 1.7 or so, we’d gingerly pull the nose back up to 20-30 degrees, center up the dot on the AIM-7 (align the nose with the computer-generated steering dot), and salvo all four missiles.”
While this approach was not always successful, and the MiG-25 proved the most survivable platform against the F-15 both in Israeli-Syrian conflicts in the 1980s and in Iraqi hands during the Gulf War, it was nevertheless a far more reliable way of targeting the Foxbats than anything that had preceded it – as the Soviet-made interceptors had been all but invulnerable against the U.S. made third-generation platforms which preceded the Tomcat and Eagle.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian F-14 fleet was forced to develop its own tactics to intercept the MiG-25 – a role which the country’s U.S. made air defences and third-generation F-4 fighters failed at entirely.
Iranian Tomcats were forced to climb to 40,000ft and accelerate to supersonic speeds, as the Iraqi MiG-25s operated at altitudes between 60,000 to 70,000ft, usually between Mach 1.9 and 2.4 making them extremely difficult to target even for the highly capable U.S. built air superiority platforms.
Much like the F-15 in U.S. hands, the F-14 proved somewhat effective in downing the MiG-25 where other lighter or older U.S. made fighters such as the F-4 and F-5 proved wholly incapable.
U.S. F-14 and F-15 fighters notably trained to intercept high-speed adversaries against the American SR-71 Blackbird, a noncombat reconnaissance platform and the only aircraft every built able to exceed the speed of the MiG-25.
Targeting the platform was similarly complicated compared to targeting the MiG-25, and though it was challenging both U.S. air superiority fighters managed to obtain simulated kills against the SR-71.
According to SR-71 pilot Col. Richard H. Graham Blackbird pilots “had flown numerous ‘Tomcat Chase’ and ‘Eagle Bait’ sorties against our best fighters — the Navy’s F-14s and the Air Force’s F-15s.
We flew the SR-71 to provide the fighters practice at finding, tracking, locking on, intercepting, and simulated firing of their sophisticated F-14 Phoenix missiles and the F-15’s Sparrow missiles at a high altitude, high-speed target. The Tomcat Chase missions were flown over the Pacific Ocean and Eagle Bait missions in the Nellis AFB training area, north of Las Vegas, Nevada.”
Col. Graham elaborated on the lessons learned by F-14 and F-15 operators attempting to intercept the Blackbird, and the difficulties these advanced air superiority platforms had in targeting such high speeds aircraft. He stated:
“At the start of Eagle Bait missions, the F-15s discovered that their fire control system speed gate (the computed closing velocity between two aircraft) was not large enough to accommodate their extreme closing velocity against the SR-71.
Software changes to their computers solved that problem. If the fighters decided not to climb and remained at twenty-five thousand feet, for example, their missiles found it very extremely difficult to climb up fifty-five thousand feet (against gravity) to achieve a kill against the SR-71.
Another factor in our favor was the small guidance fins on their missiles. They are optimized in size for guiding a missile to its target in the thicker air from the ground up and around forty thousand feet. At eighty thousand feet the air is so thin that full deflection of the missile’s guidance fins can barely turn it.”
Ultimately with the commissioning of the MiG-31 Foxhound, a far more advanced Soviet interceptor that entered service in 1981 to replace the MiG-25 Foxbat, U.S. air superiority fighters needed more than ever to be prepared to face high-speed targets.
While the MiG-31 never engaged U.S. fighters in the air, operated only by Russia and Kazakhstan (though there are several unverified reports of sales to China), it remains a formidable threat to U.S. fighters today – with an unmatched engagement range of well over 300km using its R-37 missiles. While the elite of the U.S. military was hard-pressed to intercept the MiG-25, intensive preparations to engage such targets with far more modern capabilities such as the Foxhound are today essential.