During the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi Air Force’s single MiG-25 interceptor unit caused more trouble for the U.S. Military than all its remaining fleet of over 500 combat jets combined.
By Jan. 28, 1991, some 82 of Iraq’s newest and most advanced combat aircraft — including four MiG-29s, 24 Mirage F1s, and 24 Sukhoi Su-24 twin-jet tactical bombers — had been evacuated to Iran.
The IrAF’s MiG-25 squadrons were not included in this evacuation. Having lost 20 of their original 35 aircraft — 18 destroyed in their HASs and two in air combat — the surviving 15 “Foxbats” remaining at Tammuz and Qadessiya were to be involved in the IrAF’s last attempt at engaging the American F-15Cs.
In fact, the planning of Operation Samurrá began around Jan. 18, bolstered by a successful nocturnal intercept the next night that, although it failed to shoot down any of the EF-111As that were attacked drove away from the airborne jammers and “unmasked” the F-15Es attacking al-Qa’im WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) facility. One of the Strike Eagles was subsequently lost to SA-2E SAMs fired by the 147th Air Defense Brigade.
The F-15’s final engagement with the MiG-25, and with any heavyweight aircraft to date, occurred on January 30 after much of the Iraqi fleet had been evacuated to Iran leaving the few remaining airfields prioritized for use by Foxbats.
MiG-25s were deployed to break the ‘wall’ of F-15s the U.S. Air Force had created to restrict Iraqi air activities, with two of the ambushing two F-15s the locations of which were reportedly ascertained by Iraqi intelligence after intercepting American communications. The MiGs were deployed from separate airbases, which allowed them to engage from different sides, and their initial salvo of R-40 missiles struck and seriously damaged an F-15.
American sources claimed the fighter returned to base after sustaining damage, while official Iraqi sources claimed the kill was at first unconfirmed, but subsequently confirmed after sources reportedly located the destroyed Eagle on the ground. While denying this Iraqi claim did much to help maintain the mythos of the F-15 as a fighter never shot down in air-to-air combat, the engagement of January 30 1991 showed that the fighter was far from unbeaten.
The F-15’s defeat was significant since it was the U.S. Air Force’s top fighter by a considerable margin, while the MiG-25 was the third most capable in Soviet service and a generation behind. Furthermore, the MiG-25 was a downgraded export variant for the non-communist third world operated by pilots considered less well trained than their American counterparts.
Here are the details about the incident explained by Douglas C. Dildy & Tom Cooper in their book F-15C Eagle vs MiG-23/25,
with the failure of the traditional “lead-around” tactic that same day — resulting in it the loss of two “Foxbats” to Tollini and Pitts (of the 58th TFS) — a new tactic was devised. In this case, when the opportunity presented itself, two MiG-25s would be vectored individually from different directions against a single, isolated target group -hopefully a two-ship of F-15C Eagles. If the latter stayed together and turned to engage or defend against, one attacking “Foxbat,” the other would be in a flanking position from which to attack, with increased chances for success.
Meanwhile, due to the recent Iran—Iraq War, initially, the Iraqi evacuation flight surprised and puzzled CENTAF leaders. Once it was realized that these did not represent “mass defections” but a concerted effort to preserve the IrAF, CENTAF planner established five “barrier CAPs” (“BARCAPs”) around Baghdad — two to the west and three to the east — manning them around-the-clock with four-ships of F-15Cs (with one pair “on station” and the other cycling to the tankers for fuel). Watching this operation develop with their surviving radar, the 1st ADS (SOC-Center, now operating from the Taji IOC) saw the opportunity to strike at one of these five relatively isolated F-15 formations — initially planning to launch the mission on Jan. 28, but it was “aborted for several reasons.”
Finally, just after noon on Jan. 30, an Iraqi electronic and signals intelligence unit (with the cover designation of “Measurement Unit 128”) monitoring AWACS/F-15C radio frequencies reported to the Alternate ADOC at al-Bakr AB that “Xerex 31” — a four-ship of 53rd TFS “Tigers” manning the “Cindy BARCAP” — was approaching “bingo fuel,” necessitating the cycling of one two-ship to the tanker. Leaving “Xerex 33” — Capt Tom “Vegas” Dietz and wingman 1Lt Bob “Gigs” Hehemann — in the 30-mile counter-clockwise orbit, Lt Col Randy “Bigs” Bigum and wingman 1Lt Lynn “Boo Boo” Broome headed south to refuel. Because “Cindy CAP” was wedged between the “Baghdad Super-MEZ” and the Iranian border, transiting to and from required threading the channel between them on the hour-and-a-half round-trip to the tanker.
Recognizing the opportunity to implement Operation Samurrá, two MiG-25s were ordered off — Capt Mahmoud Awad (No. 96 Sqn) took off from Qadessiya, and Capt Mohammed Jassim as-Sammarai (No. 97 Sqn) launched from Tammuz, both climbing to 13,000m (42,650ft). Initially, the two were vectored independently, Awad from overhead Samarra and as-Sammarai via Jisr Diyala (a southern suburb of Baghdad) against what proved to be a spurious radar target over Khan Bani Sa’ad (about 13.5 miles east of Taji). As the “Foxbat” pincer attack closed on the electronic phantom — a pulse radar anomaly most likely caused by a temperature inversion in the upper atmosphere — as-Sammarai fired an R-40RD missile and said he saw it detonate, but “never saw the target, no trace of smoke and no debris.”
The effect of this miscue was that the two “Foxbats” came together near Khan Bani Sa’ad and turned west, while their actual targets —”Xerex 33″ — were still 40 miles to the east. Additionally, by this time “Xerex 31” flight was on its return from the tanker, being some 80 miles south of Baghdad, and headed back to the “Cindy CAP.” The Eagles’ AWACS — “Bulldog” — had initially called out the “bandits,” but soon added, “Skip it, skip it. Bogus targets” when the “Foxbats” faded within the “Baghdad Super-MEZ.”
As the Iraqi GCI’s “radar picture” cleared, the two MiG-25s were vectored 090 degrees and ordered to engage “Xerex 33” flight, which was patrolling “Cindy CAP” at 35,000ft and about 300 knots to conserve fuel. As the two MiGs completed their turns, as-Sammarai became the leader, with Awad an eight-mile trail. Once the “Foxbats” turned “hot,” “Bulldog” called them out to Dietz and Hehemann, saying “Bandits, west, 70 miles. High. Fast.” Dietz ordered his formation to turn west and accelerate.
Hehemann later recalled, “I picked them up first with the high look on my radar, I had the leader at about 43,000ft doing 1,020 knots true airspeed — about 1.8 Mach. Vegas’ called for us to ‘push it up and told me — which was unusual for us — to engage the leader, since I was already locked to him, and he was going to engage the trailer. We complied with the rules of engagement and determined that they were definitely hostile and we were cleared to fire. I ‘pickled’ the first missile and it actually fell off the airplane — the rocket motor didn’t light. Soon after that, they fired a missile at us. We both had [RWR] indications that their radars were locked to us, so I followed that first missile up with a second [AIM-7], and it was guiding on the leader. So I maneuvered my airplane to the south, only to look up and determine that I didn’t have ‘Vegas’ in sight — so I calledBlind.’ I was surprised when he called, ‘One’s blind’ — that wasn’t the best place to start an engagement. In any case, the leader went into a turn immediately, a left turn through north [and outran the missile].”
At 43,000ft, the curvature of the earth meant that the horizon was about six degrees below level flight, allowing a limited depressed angle for a pulse radar to detect and track a target at a slightly lower altitude, permitting as-Sammarai to lock onto Hehemann. The MiG-25 pilot called out a visual contact and fired an R-40RD at 12 miles. According to Iraqi sources, “As the missile thundered towards them, the F-15s split, the missile going for the left Eagle, going off below it and causing damage to the left engine of the USAF fighter.” In reality, as-Sammarai’s early turn away from the Eagles had broken the radar lock and the missile went ballistic.
Heheman resumed his account. “‘Vegas,’ in fact, had crossed underneath me and was coming now to engage the trailer [Awad]. He ‘pickled’ a few missiles and there were some problems with those — the first one fell off [motor no fire], the second hung on the airplane and the third one fell off too. He was ‘spiked’ again by the trailer, so he decided it was time to defend himself — he had indications that there was an attack coming toward him, so he did a defensive maneuver to the north and eventually turned ‘cold.’ He directed us to ‘bug out’ to the east.”
Hehemann had reversed his turn to the right as as-Sammarai turned north to keep his radar tracking the “Foxbat” as it made the wide, high-speed turn back to the west. “Well, I was now coming into a WEZ on the leader, who I now had in sight, and I was inside his turn — he was now heading west. I fired a follow-up missile that guided him.
“About that time I was ‘spiked’ by the trailer. He was due west of me, ‘left nine o’clock close,’ so I was doing the math on how far these two guys were apart and how far I was behind the leader and determined that I was probably right in the ‘heart of the envelope’ of every missile the trailer was carrying on his airplane. So I dropped chaff and flares out of my airplane to try to defeat any ordnance the trailer had coming at me. By the time my computer told me that my missile [had] ‘timed out,’ the leader was still flying and he had accelerated back out to about 1,000 knots. I waited a few more seconds and then lit the ‘burners and came off to the east, never having found the trailer, but my ‘spike’ had dropped — apparently, he lost radar contact on me. I was in a ‘steep defend’ [descending defensive maneuver] down to about 20,000ft, and then ran east with ‘Vegas.’”
Meanwhile, watching on the radar as the “Foxbats” headed west towards Tammuz, Bigum decided that his two-ship could possibly cut them off, and he turned “Xerex 31” northwest. He had hoped to skirt the “Baghdad Super-MEZ” to the south, but a high-altitude crosswind of 140 knots blew the two Eagles across the Iraqi capital and into a 30-mile trail with the descending MiG-25s. Flying across the top of the “Baghdad super-MEZ,” the F-15Cs were “lit up” by numerous SA-2 and SA-3 RWR indications, but no SAMs were fired — probably to prevent shooting the “Foxbats” instead. Arriving almost overhead Tammuz, Awad and as-Sammarai chopped their throttles to idle, rolled over, and performed a “split-S,” slowing from 1,000 knots to 300 knots as they literally `dropped” into the landing pattern at Tammuz. The Eagles followed, descending to 20,000ft. The “Foxbat” decelerations allowed them to close to 20 miles as the MiG-25s circled northwest of the airfield to land to the southeast.
“Xerex 31” sorted their targets, with Bigum locked to the leader (Awad) and Broome to the trailer. The latter shot two AIM-7Ms, neither of which hit their target. Approaching within ten miles of the airfield, and descending through 8,000ft, Bigum fired one AIM-7M at Awad, but this MiG-25 landed before the missile arrived. Bigum quickly shifted his radar to as-Sammarai, who had slowed on “short final,” and fired another Sparrow. As the MiG-25 touched down and decelerated through 75 knots, the APG-63 lost its lock and the final missile impacted the runway about ten feet off the “Foxbat’s” left wingtip.
Breaking left, Bigum and Broome exited the airfield’s MEZ to the south before the SAMs could start firing. Back at Tammuz AB, the Iraqis thought that the “Foxbats” had been chased by F-15Es firing AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles at them. The IrAF credited as-Sammarai with a “possible victory,” later upgrading it to “confirmed” on the word of a Bedouin smuggler who reported in mid-summer 1991 to have discovered the wreckage of an F-15 “very close to the coordinates at which our radars lost track of the falling F-15 on January 30.”
The F-15s also benefitted in around 95 percent of their air-to-air engagements from support from E-3 airborne early warning aircraft, where Iraqi units had no similar assets. With wide-ranging assessments made after the Cold War’s end by sources with access to both the F-15 and its fourth-generation Soviet rival the Su-27 consistently concluding that the Soviet jet was considerably more capable in the air-to-air domain, the fact that the F-15 struggled and in its final engagement was defeated by the Soviets’ sole third-generation heavyweight and the Su-27’s direct predecessor strongly aligned with these assessments.
The U.S. Air Force nevertheless continues to rely very heavily on the F-15 with over 100 more airframes expected to be delivered before production ends, although a successor more viable than the F-22 is currently under development under the Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter program.