Key point: The USSR needed a fast interceptor for its vast country and also to function as a spy plane that would counter America's SR-71. Moscow's answer was the very fast MiG-25 which lasted for many years.
In 1964, the Soviet Union’s awesome MiG-25 Foxbat jet fighter flew for the first time. Specifically designed to intercept the U.S. Air Force’s spy planes, the MiG-25 could routinely reach Mach 2.8—nearly three times the speed of sound.
(This article by David Axe originally appeared at War is Boring in 2014.)
Only the American SR-71 Blackbird was faster—and only slightly.
For nearly 25 years starting in the late 1960s, Foxbats sortied from Soviet bases any time an SR-71 rocketed along Soviet borders. But the longest-serving MiG-25s were the reconnaissance models—the MiG-25Rs.
These super-fast, high-flying spy planes were Russia’s answer to the SR-71. And whereas the Blackbirds finally left service in the late 1990s, the camera-equipped MiG-25Rs soldiered on until December 2013, when the single-seat jets finally became too old and too expensive to keep in the air.
America replaced the SR-71 with radar-evading spy drones. Russia seems to have abandoned the Foxbat without a direct replacement, severely impairing Moscow’s ability to keep tabs on its enemies.
Able to outrun normal air defenses during the most dangerous few minutes of a mission, the MiG-25R like the SR-71 was essentially invulnerable to the enemy.
Made largely of heat-resisting nickel steel alloy plus some titanium and fitted with two massive Tumansky turbojets together producing an incredible 45,000 pounds of thrust, the MiG-25 represented a huge advancement for the Soviets.
The Smerch-A radar on the MiG-25 interceptor could guide R-40 missiles up to 40 miles. In Soviet service, the fighter version proved a big complication for NATO war plans. Iraqi MiG-25s shot down an American F/A-18 during the 1991 Gulf War and a U.S. Predator drone in 2002.
But the recon variant arguably had the greatest effect. Most operators retired their Foxbat interceptors in the 1990s owing to their high cost and complexity and the short lifespans of their hand-built airframes and engines. But the Russia and a few other countries retained MiG-25Rs for spy flights. As late as January 2013, the Russian air force still possessed a couple dozen recon Foxbats at two bases.
The MiG-25RBT was a photo-recon model with cameras in its nose. The MiG-25RBF carried electronic receivers for detecting emissions from enemy radars. Russian MiG-25Rs spied on rebels in Chechnya and Ingushetia starting in the 1990s.
America replaced its SR-71s with RQ-170, RQ-4 and, soon, RQ-180 drones. But Russia’s aerospace industry never quite mastered robotic aircraft. With satellite locked in predictable orbits, the MiG-25Rs were Moscow’s best way of looking down on its enemies without warning. Su-24 and Tu-22 bombers could carry cameras, but were slower than the MiG-25s and more vulnerable to enemy defenses.
Russia’s MiG-25Rs slowly dwindled in number until just a handful were left flying at Monchegorsk air base in the country’s frigid northwest. The Kremlin needed to repair Monchegorsk’s runways starting late last year—and decided it was time to dispose of the old MiG-25Rs.
The last Foxbats left Russian service in December 2013. A small number reportedly remain active in Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Syria. “The withdrawal of the MiG-25 leaves notable gaps in Russia’s aerial reconnaissance-gathering capabilities,” Combat Aircraft reporters Stefan Buettner and Alexander Golz lamented.