Key point: The Foxbat was a very good plane, but it looked scarier than its actual capabilities were. Yet, Moscow was able to export this fast interceptor all over the world.
The MiG-25 (NATO reporting name: Foxbat) was one of the most awesome, yet most misunderstood, fighters of the Cold War. Envisioned as an interceptor designed to destroy U.S. supersonic bombers and high-flying spy planes, the Foxbat also put its high speed to good use as a reconnaissance aircraft and, to less good effect, as a fighter-bomber. The Foxbat also became a mainstay on the global export market, eventually serving in the air forces of over a dozen countries, and seeing combat in Lebanon, in the Syrian Civil War, over Egypt, in the Kargil War, in the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War and the Libyan Civil War.
But what if the Foxbat had failed?
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.
But notwithstanding its extraordinary performance, the Foxbat had major problems. It lacked maneuverability, especially at low altitudes. It was exceedingly heavy, as the USSR lacked the materials technology to produce airframes with the required tolerances and therefore used nickel-steel alloy for most of the plane. Its engines could reach Mach 3.2, but flying at this speed tended to permanently damage them, resulting in a lower practical speed of Mach 2.8. The earliest models lacked a look-down/shoot-down radar, a major handicap for an interceptor designed to hunt and kill American bombers
The downsides of the Foxbat became clear when a Soviet pilot defected to Japan with one in September 1976. The Japanese turned the aircraft over to the Americans, who disassembled and inspected it at length. The investigation confirmed that the Foxbat was an interceptor and not intended as an air superiority fighter, and that its capabilities were not as impressive as many had assumed.
Had the Soviet Union enjoyed better intelligence on the development of U.S. bombing doctrine, it might have decided to eschew the expense of building large numbers of MiG-25s, instead focusing on less expensive multi-role fighters. This would have set in play a series of dominoes that could have had a major impact on the history of world combat aviation.
The Soviet Union built over 1,000 Foxbats, some 80 to 90 percent of which served in the Soviet air forces in various roles. Had these planes not existed, the USSR would have had to look elsewhere for fighter, fighter-bomber, recon and interceptor roles. The first two could have been accomplished just as effectively by additional MiG-21s, MiG-23s and Su-17s. The Foxbat shared the interceptor role with the Tu-28, an enormous, long-ranged aircraft that wasn’t as fast as the MiG-25, but did the job well enough under the circumstances. The Foxbat’s main practical contribution came in its recon configuration, where high speed and high altitude performance made it virtually invulnerable to defense.
The big problem facing the Foxbat was that its mission disappeared almost as soon as it entered service. Concerned mostly about Soviet SAM systems, the United States abandoned its B-70 Valkyrie strategic bomber project, and retired its supersonic B-58 Hustler bombers at an early age. Instead of fast and high, U.S. bombers would now enter the Soviet Union low and slow, an approach that the Foxbat was almost uniquely ill-suited to counter. But as it turned out the USSR never needed to defeat a massive incursion of U.S. bombers, so the merits and demerits of the Foxbat in this mission were never tested.
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The Foxbat rarely served in a combat capacity while in Soviet service, but it did fly in several conflicts in the Cold War and post-Cold War period. MiG-25s performed relatively well in air superiority missions during the Iran-Iraq War, although they suffered at the hands of Iranian F-14s. In the Persian Gulf War a MiG-25 killed the last U.S. fighter shot down in air-to-air combat, an U.S. Navy F/A-18. Another Foxbat killed a U.S. Predator drone in 2002, on a mission that took advantage of the plane’s unique high-speed characteristics. In its recon role the Foxbat turned in excellent service for the Indian Air Force in its millennial conflicts with Pakistan. But although it made real contributions, as a tactical aircraft the MiG-25 was something less than transformational.
But the Foxbat had an impact beyond the Soviet Union, beyond its combat contributions, and even beyond its awesome capabilities. Concern about the potentially transformational nature of the Foxbat spurred fighter development in the United States. Intelligence about the Foxbat suggested that it easily outclassed existing Western fighters, but acknowledged few of its shortcomings. Consequently, the US re-evaluated its F-X program (designed to replace the F-4 and the Century Series fighters) and revised plans for what would become the F-15 Eagle. The Eagle would eventually become the world’s most formidable air superiority fighter, in large part because it was designed to fight a Soviet plane that only really existed in the minds of Western intelligence. Had the Foxbat never seen the light of day, the F-15 would likely have been built to a more modest, less effective, and probably less enduring design.
Finally, the Foxbat led to the development of the MiG-31 Foxhound, by all account a considerably more effective interceptor. With better radars and better materials, the Foxhound continues to fly in the Russian Aerospace Forces. Had the Foxbat never flown, the Foxhound likely would have been replaced by some variant of the Su-27, an extremely capable fighter but somewhat less effective interceptor.
Today, only the Algerian Air Force operates the MiG-25 in any numbers. Foxbats have been pressed into service in Libya and Syria in the past few years, but represent more of a curiosity than a genuine capability. This stands in contrast with the MiG-21 and MiG-23, both of which remain in extensive service around the world.
However, the true inheritor of the Foxbat are the MiG-31 Foxhound, which continues, in Russian service, to perform its original patrol and interception missions, and the F-15 Eagle, which has played as dominant of a role since its development as any fighter in the history of flight. The F-15 was built around a mistake, but it turned out to be a very fortunate mistake indeed.
The views expressed here are his personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the Army War College, or any other department or agency of the U.S. government. This article first appeared in 2018.