Although not exactly the same airframe, the distinction between the MiG-27 and MiG-23 is minimal. The MiG-27 is slightly modified for a ground-attack role, but the airframes and flight characteristics are quite similar.
In a lovely interview with Hush-Kit, a former Indian MiG-27 pilot gave an interview about his experience with the airframe. Answering the question “What are the worst things about the MiG-27?” pilot Anshuman Mainkar said,
“At a time [the MiG-27 was] counted as one of the most powerful single-engined fighters in the world, it has a few teething issues with the power-plant, but that also had to do with age, engine rating, and maintenance issues. In my opinion, it is the only fighter that has ‘engine explosion’ as a standard aircraft emergency. But a real issue was the air-conditioning, which only kicked in climbing past 6000’. At low-levels it’s hot / hotter / hottest temperature settings (as fondly known in the IAF) did not offer much respite.”
Not such a great review, but one of the defining characteristics of the MiG-23 platform: unreliable and dangerous.
The MiG-23 was intended to replace the capable MiG-21, which though fast and fairly capable among its contemporaries, was hindered by primitive radar and a modest weapons capacity.
One of the MiG-23’s major design considerations was handling at low speeds, and short take-off distance.
Swept Wings, Big Guns
The MiG-23 utilized a variable geometry wing design, the first Soviet airframe with the capability. A swept-wing design is an exercise in practicality in which wings could be swept back, to a 72-degree angle for high altitude, high speed, unfurled at 16 degrees for lower speed cruising, or midway between the two at a 45-degree angle for combat maneuvering.
Originally seen as a sort of cure-all for different flight speeds, variable-sweep wing geometry was actually not all it was cracked up to be. Although the adjustable sweep solved the short take-off problem, adjustable wings have to be structurally reinforced, making them heavier than typical fixed-sweep wings.
One of the other design requirements — a larger weapon capacity than its predecessor — was fulfilled by a 23 millimeter auto cannon on the plane’s underbelly. Our friend Anshuman Mainkar had the following to say about the airframe when engaging the 23-millimeter cannon.
“The aircraft seemingly came to a stand-still, engrossed with its target – tracers creating an illusion of morse communication. Smoke and the smell of cordite entered the cockpit, and in a flash it was all over…the airframe shuddered during the trigger pull, and surge was a possibility, hence the exit had to be smooth and deliberate.”
Not exactly a confidence-instiller.
The MiG-23 was not widely exported, as its shortcomings were hard to mask. The last MiG-23s are operated mostly by Middle Eastern or African countries or held in reserve. Probably fitting for a jet with exploding engines.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.