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Early MiG-23M/MS Floggers in Action
By Tom Cooper
Sep 26, 2003, 09:35

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Few fighters, especially jet-powered, were ever built in such huge numbers and at such pace like Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23, and hardly any other type characterized the Soviet approach to the concept of tactical fighter so much like this type, designated „Flogger“ by the ASCC. Equally, however, only a concept of few other types was so badly misunderstood like that of the MiG-23.

Faced with the development of technologically superior Western fighters during the 1960s, the Soviets were not searching a more maneuverable solution while designing the Flogger, but a powerful and fast fighter, which would have the ability to accept or decline an engagement due to its higher speed, while at the same time remain simple to be built in large numbers, as well as to be maintained and operated under austere conditions. Consequently, the MiG-23 was to be faster in level flight and acceleration, and also have a much better range than the MiG-21, but not be more maneuverable.

Most of these requirements could be meet by the choice of a very streamlined fuselage, coupled with the wing capable of a sweep according to the flight regime, and which chord would increase as the wing is moving back, thus reducing the thickness to chord ratio. Such wing generates more lift at low speeds, while producing less drag at high speeds. Additionally, as the trailing edge of the MiG-23’s wing retracts into the fuselage at high speeds, the wing-load is increasing, the drag is reducing, and the low-level high-speed ride is more comfortable. Therefore, the MiG-23, which wings could only be swept at three positions (16°, 45° and 72°) in order to keep their construction simple and cheap, became capable of operating at very high speeds at low levels over increased ranges. It offered a stabile weapons platform at reasonable weapons loads, but the maneuverability - which could have been achieved by a much more complex and expensive construction - was clearly sacrificed, and is usually described as being somewhere between that of the F-104 and a non-slated F-4.

All the mentioned capabilities of the design - including its productability - resulted in different versions of the MiG-23 becoming the most important tactical fighters in many air forces which were Soviet clients during the 1970s and most of 1980s. This lead to a very intensive use of the MiG-23s in many smaller - so-called „local“ - wars, during several of which the Flogger confronted most modern western counterparts. Nevertheless, almost nothing is known about the operational experiences of different air forces with the MiG-23s, except some small details about the clashes between the Israelis and the Syrians over Lebanon, between 1981 and 1985, all of which are from Israeli sources. These reports indicate, that the MiG-23 in the Syrian service have suffered extensive losses for no gains, and that the Soviets were completely wrong with their requirements for the design of the type, as the it - and even more so its weapons system - was obviously no match for their western counterparts.

Under a closer look, however, this is not completely truth. To contrary: only the development of much more powerful, complex and far more expensive fighters in the West - none of which would ever be built or purchased in numbers and at a pace similar to the MiG-23 - as well as the Soviet reluctance and inability to supply their allies with best available versions of the type when these were needed, caused the type to be considereds as an „underdog“.

Syrian Problems

Long before the Soviets would ever have a chance to put their MiG-23s to any operational use, the type experienced its premiere in the Middle East. The first country to request deliveries of MiG-23s to its air force was Egypt, already in 1970. However, at the time, the Flogger was not even in production, and this request was swiftly refused by the Soviets, which fielded the MiG-23M only in 1972. After additional requests from Egypt and Iraq, in early 1973, the first downgraded export version, MiG-23MS, equipped with the weapons system of the MiG-21MF and the R-27F2M-200 turbojet engines, was developed. Interestingly, however, this was first supplied to Syria, to which two MiG-23MS and two MiG-23UB two-seaters were shipped in crates on 14 October 1973 aboard two An-12B transports, which landed at al-Mazzah AB. But, before these four aircraft could be assembled, flight-tested and their crews were combat ready, the war with Israel was - formally - over.

Although there was a sense of urgency in bringing these new aircraft to service, Syrians found the plane much more demanding to fly and operate than advertised by the Soviets, and a conversion to the type lasted longer than anticipated. During the early 1974, several Syrian MiG-23MS were lost in different accidents, and by April, the 1st Sqn SyAAF, based at Dmeyr AB, was still not completely combat-ready, as only eight MiG-23MS remained operational. By accident, however, one of the planes and pilots from this unit was soon to be involved in the fighting, and score the first kills for the type.

Just like the deployment of the MiG-23MS with the SyAAF was not completed by early 1974, so also the fighting after the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War, 1973, was still going on along the front on Golan, especially around the Mt. Jebel Sheikh (better known as Mt. Hermon), in what the Syrians were now calling the War of Attrition. On 13th April 1974, after almost 100 days of continuous artillery exchanges and skirmishes along the front on Golan, in the anticipation of eventual „Super Offensive“ against Israel, apparently planned to be undertaken by Syria, Iraq and Libya, the Syrian helicopters delivered commandos into attack on the Israeli observation post at Mt. Jebel Sheikh. This provoked a week-long series of heavy clashes in the air and on the ground, in which both sides have lost a number of fighters in air combats and to anti-aircraft fire from the ground. The situation was finally so tense, that a new war was seemingly imminent, especially after on 18 April 1974, the IDF/AF started to fly a series of strikes against Syrian SAM-sites in the area around Mt. Jebel Sheikh.

These strikes were continued the whole next day and in the early afternoon, when Capt. al-Masry (now Lt.Gen. retired) was underway with his MiG-23MS on a weapons test flight to the north-west of Damascus. He continued his story about what happened next:

"At the time, MiG-23 was the most modern plane in our arsenal, but we had only eight of the type. On that day I was flying on a lone mission when I saw seven to eight enemy Phantoms ahead of me - in one formation. I never saw eight enemy planes in one formation before and never encountered so many Israelis at once before. I tried to contact the ground command by radio, but there was very heavy jamming. I tried the secondary frequency, but it was also jammed. So I switched to the open frequency and sent a help request explaining the whole situation. Then I engaged the enemy. I did not have really much of a choice: they would have attacked me any way, so I engaged them first."

Flying at low level, he accelerated to offset from the enemy formation, turned as tightly as his plane permitted and rolled right behind the Israeli formation:
"I fired three missiles, two of which hit two enemy planes and I watched them go down in flames."

The rest of the Israeli formation spread immediately into different directions, and the Syrian turned behind the closest one trying to engage with guns. The Phantom in front of him executed a break to the left, but, while maneuvering behind the target, al-Masry’s plane shuddered from a direct hit:
"While I was maneuvering, trying to get a lock on one of the remaining Phantoms, I was hit by a missile. It was a terrible situation: the plane was on fire and I did not know what to do. I said my last prayers and suddenly the plane broke in two pieces."

Reconstruction of the MiG-23MS flown by Maj. El al-Masry, on 19 April 1974. The plane was used to shot down two IDF/AF F-4E Phantoms, but did not survive the mission. (All pictures and artworks by Tom Cooper, unless otherwise stated)

Capt. al-Masry couldn’t maneuver any more when another missile struck his MiG (subsequent analysis of his engagement concluded that his MiG-23MS was shot down by two SA-6s fired from a Syrian SAM-site nearby) causing it to break into two large sections and plunge to the ground. Until today, he can not clearly remember how he survived this mission:
"I fell to the ground together with the crashing aircraft, but was rescued immediately. I was hurt very bad on the shoulder and chest, and awakened from coma only one month later."

For his success in that battle, and downing of two F-4E Phantoms (until today, the IDF/AF confirmed the loss of only one Phantom on that day; the pilot, Capt. Yigal Stavi, was killed; WSO, Benny Kiriyati, captured by the Syrians; another Phantom seems to have been lost as well, but the crew was recovered), al-Masry was subsequently promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel and decorated with the "Hero of the Republic“ Medal by General Mustafa Tlas (now Syrian Minister of Defence). However, he was never to fly again: his injuries precluded him from passing rigorous tests when he tried to qualify several years later.

Contrary to al-Masry, the career of the MiG-23 with the SyAAF subsequently continued at a high pace, and during 1974, additional 24 MiG-23MS, as well as a similar number of MiG-23BNs, a new strike version, were delivered to al-Mazzah AB, near Damascus, enabling four squadrons to be equipped with the type.

The Slugging-Match over Lebanon

After the last chapter of the Yom Kippour/Ramadan War was definitely closed by the cease-fire on the Golan front, in April 1974, there followed a longer lull in the constant war between Israel and Syria until 1979 and 1980, when a new series of skirmishes developed, as the SyAAF tried to interfere with frequent Israeli recce and bombing missions against PLO-positions in Lebanon. The SyAAF was relatively slow to introduce the MiG-23MS during the fighting over Lebanon, instead dispatching MiG-21s. When the losses of these started to mount, however, the situation changed, and soon enough the Syrian GCI was on a search for a suitable target with which it could re-introduce the MiG-23MS to combat.

The first such event occurred on the afternoon of 26th April 1981, when an Israeli formation bombed the PLO-positions in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. Two MiG-23MS, which were on low orbit over northern Lebanon, were vectored to intercept, and they were successful in shooting two A-4 Skyhawks down. Following this and several more clashes the situation over Lebanon became particularly tense, but for the time being, the Israelis were busy with preparing their operation against the Iraqi reactor in Tuweitha, flown in June 1981, and the next opportunity for the Syrian MiG-23MS’ to engage Israeli fighters appeared only after the start of the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, the operation „Peace for Galilea“, initiated on 6 June 1982.

Initially, the Israelis tried to evade any engagements with Syrians, and the IDF/AF concentrated on supporting the ground troops on their drive towards Beirut. However, the SyAAF was clearly not to sit still and monitor as the Israeli armored formations were clearly threatening to bypass flanks of Syrian positions in the Bekaa Valley, or the IDF/AF reconnaissance operations get a clear picture of the Syrian SAM-positions. Therefore, very soon after the start of the Israeli operations, first Syrian interceptors appeared in the Lebanese skies. Nevertheless, while MiG-23MFs have successfully shot down an Israeli BQM-34 recce drone and evaded a section of four Israeli F-15s which fired numerous Sparrows against them on 6 June, and also claimed to have shot down one F-16 on the following day, the MiG-23MS were kept back and did not take part in any fighting initially.

Three days into the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the situation changed completely, as a frontal clash with Syrian troops deployed in the Bekaa Valley and around Beirut became unavoidable. In order to establish air superiority over the battlefield, on the afternoon of 9 June 1982, starting at 14:14hrs, the IDF/AF executed the well known operation against the SAM-sites in the eastern Lebanon, deploying 26 F-4Es to attack Syrian radars with AGM-78 Standard ARM/Purple Fist and AGM-45 Shrike anti-radar missiles. A total of 19 radars was claimed as destroyed or neutralized in the first wave and one of the obvious consequences was, that in the following battles, caused by the appearance of the second Israeli wave, including a total of 92 A-4 Skyhawks, F-4E Phantoms, and Kfirs, escorted by F-15s and F-16s, both the Syrian SAM-stations and no less but 54 Syrian MiG-21 and MiG-23 interceptors sent to stop them were left „blind“. With their radars positioned inside Lebanon out, the Syrians were compelled to guide their fighters using long-range systems positioned inside Syria, and disturbed by the mountain ridges in between. These, however, were jammed by the Israelis, just like the communications between Syrian pilots and their GCI-stations, while - guided by Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes - Israeli interceptors waited in ambush at low level between Lebanese hills. In the ensuing battle, several Syrian MiG-21-squadrons were mauled. Syrian MiG-23MS-pilots played only a secondary role, and have claimed only one Israeli F-4E Phantom as shot down by R-3S’ missiles fired by two Floggers, while two of them were also shot down, with the loss of one pilot, Lt. Sofi. To contrary, Syrian MiG-23MF-pilots claimed a total of three kills, in exchange for three losses, with all pilots ejecting safely.

The following air-to-air battles fought over Lebanon between 9 and 11 June 1982 were some of the largest ever involving jet fighters, as subsequently the SyAAF started to fly air-to-ground missions as well. Initially a squadron-sized attack force, escorted by at least a squadron of interceptors, was dispatched, with the interceptor pilots being ordered to do their utmost to keep Israeli interceptors at bay. Col. K. H.*, a decorated MiG-23 pilot which flew 13 combat missions over Lebanon in June 1982, explained the situation:

"We were continuously pushed into pursuing the enemy by the ground control, although we were not in the best situations. The enemy used this to advantage and set up numerous ambushes were some fighters would drag us into the shooting zone of the others. When closed to 10-15 kilometers to the enemy, our radars would get black and we would lose all means of detecting them. Heavy jamming wasn’t concentrated on our radars alone, but also on our communications with ground control. Still, there were ways to trick that situation. One was for many formations to ingress simultaneously, or in waves one closely behind the other. This way the later waves would still have the ability to use their radar and fire at the enemy while they were busy engaging the first wave. This tactics, however, proved very expensive, and always lead to losses on our side.

"Many of our pilots were not experienced; they always obeyed to any order by the GCI, and this lead many of them into the death. I followed the advice from an older pilot not to always do what I’m told to do, and this saved me. I used a tactics which depended on making the enemy angry. I would close at high speed, but before entering the range of their Sparrows, I’d turn away and then do that again and again, until they would start to fire their missiles even outside the maximum range. I once evaded four Sparrows this way. Only then would I try to close into the range of my missiles, usually causing them to turn away and try to avoid. That way my mission was done and my bombers were safe to attack.

On 10th of June, SyAAF MiG-23MS’ are not known to have flown any combat sorties over Lebanon. Apparently, this was also the case with MiG-23MFs as well. After the first two days of massive air-to-air battles, it became clear to Syrians, that well placed Israeli fighters have managed several times to torn the escort of Syrians bomber-formations apart. In some cases, the situation was so bad, that the best some of Syrian pilots could do was to drag Israelis into SAM-traps, as Col. H., explained:
"During my last missions, I developed my tactics a little more. I managed twice to lure enemy F-15s into SAM-ambushes. First time they were not hit, but the second time an Eagle got hit and I was told it was shot down. I got many praises for that."

On 11th June, the SyAAF changed its tactics one more time, starting to dispatch two huge formations - each consisting of a squadron-worth of fighter-bombers with escort of another squadron of interceptors. Several times, also MiG-25s were deployed at high speeds and levels, decoying the Israelis away from the strikers following at low levels. This changed the situation at least in so far, that now the Syrian interceptors would make the Israeli fighters busy, and, even if the first attack wave would have to abort the mission, or suffer losses to Israelis, the second wave following closely behind would usually be able to take advantage of the complete chaos over them.

Apparently, this tactics enabled at least two larger Su-22-formations to break through and hit an Israeli MIM-23 Hawk SAM-site, as well as to cause extensive damage to one of armored brigades battling the Syrian 3rd Armored Division near the Beirut-Damascus road. Furthermore, during the melée in which F-15s and F-16s of the IDF/AF and Israeli SAMs claimed between five and seven Su-22s shot down, two MiG-23MS-pilots apparently used the chaos to break away and surprise an ingressing Israeli formation. Capt. Abdul Wahhab al-Kherat and one of the pilots from the al-Zoa’by family, claimed one F-4E each as shot down using R-3S missiles. According to Syrian sources, both pilots were subsequently shot down by Israeli F-15s, but they ejected safely and walked back to Syrian positions.

Another former SyAAF pilot, Capt. D., later explained:
"Without dispute, we did many mistakes in 1982, and many of our younger and less experienced pilots paid for these with their lives. But the Israelis were never in full control of the skies over Lebanon, and many Syrian pilots managed to dictate the rules of the battle. Heavy jamming and good planning applied by the other side caused us many problems, but the SyAAF was neither completely destroyed, nor neutralized, and it remained active right until the cease-fire at noon of 11th June."

In total, during the fighting over Lebanon, between April 1981 and June 1982, the SyAAF MiG-23MS claimed two kills and suffered a loss of four planes and one pilot (according to Syrian sources, the SyAAF lost a total of 85 planes between 6th and 11th June, 1982, together with 27 pilots killed and eight injured, and in exchange for 21 Israeli aircraft and helicopters; Israeli sources, to contrary, deny any losses in air combats, while their published air-to-air claims vary between 82:0 and 85:0).

EAF MiG-23MS of the 251 Air Brigade seen on landing in Marsa Matruh, 1974: sadly, the serial was removed by censor. The MiG-23 saw a very short career with the EAF, but is knowo to have been flown by some of the best Egyptian pilots, several of which had kills against the Israelis, mainly scored during the October War, in 1973.

Egyptian and Libyan Problems

Long before the Syrian MiG-23MS were to engage Israeli fighters in huge air battles fought on the hot Lebanese skies, three other Arab air forces were in the process of purchasing numerous MiG-23s as well. The first was Egypt, which in early 1974 purchased a total of eight MiG-23MS interceptors, eight MiG-23BN strikers and four MiG-23U trainers, concentrating them with a single regiment - the 251st - based at Mersa Matruh AB. The career of the type with the EAF was not very long, however, as already during the same year the friendship between Cairo and Moscow definitely collapsed and Egypt was now increasingly turning to the West - especially France.

Egyptian pilot during pre-flight inspection of his mount.

Having completed the inspection, the pilot takes over from his crew-chief. Note the position of national markings on the undersides of the wings, but also a row of HAS' in the rear.

Consequently, already in late 1975, all Egyptian MiG-23s were withdrawn from active duty and placed in storage, pending delivery of additional Mirages from France. During the following years, Egypt established good contacts to China, followed closely by the USA, and both countries were soon showing interest for Egyptian MiG-23s. After some negotiations, in 1978, China purchased two MiG-23MS, two MiG-23BN, two MiG-23Us, ten MiG-21MFs, and ten AS-5 Kelt ASMs in exchange for spare parts and technical support of the large Egyptian fleet of Soviet-supplied MiG-17s and MiG-21s. Shortly after a similar agreement with the USA followed as well, this time for the remaining six MiG-23MS and six MiG-23BN, as well as 16 MiG-21MFs, two Su-20s, two MiG-21Us, two Mi-8s and ten AS-5 ASMs, all of which were purchased for the Foreign Technology Division, a special department of the USAF Materiel Command, responsible for evaluation of „enemy“ technologies, in exchange for US-made weapons and spares support, including AIM-9J/P Sidewinder missiles, which were installed on remaining Egyptian MiG-21s.

During the "Victory Day" parade, in October 1974, the EAF proudly displayed also these four MiG-23MS, two of which have their radomes painted in white (the usual color was dark grey).

Meanwhile, Libya, which established connections to Moscow via Egypt during the early 1970s, has got a total of 54 MiG-23MS and Us between late 1974 and early 1976, followed by a similar number of MiG-23BNs. While a particularly large number of these aircraft was immediately put into storage, at least 20 MiG-23MS an MiG-23UBs entered the service with the 1023rd Sqn, initially based at Tarrabalus air base (the military side of the airfield in Tripolis), which was, in late 1970s, together with MiG-23BNs of the 1124th Sqn, moved to Umm Atitiqah AB, when this became operational. Libyan MiG-23s played only a minor role during the short war with Egypt, in July 1977, but one of them was shot down by Egyptian MiG-21s while supporting a Libyan strike which was underway to attack the airfield at Mersa-Matruh, and forced to abort the mission. The situation was repeated in early 1979 when another short clash with Egyptian fighters followed over as-Solum. During a brief encounter, two Libyan MiG-23MS-pilots made a mistake of engaging two EAF MiG-21MFs - equipped with AIM-9J-1 Sidewinders newly delivered from the USA - in a turning fight. The Egyptian Major Sal Mohammed managed to shot down one MiG-23 down, while the other Libyan used the superior acceleration of this aircraft to come away.

A fully-armed Libyan MiG-23MS turning away after being intercepted by USN fighters, in August 1981. Note the green Libyan markings, introduced after the brief war with Egypt, in 1977. (USN photo)

Despite such setbacks, and despite the purchase of some 80 MiG-25PDs, the MiG-23MS remained the primary tactical interceptor of the LARAF also during the early 1980s, and was involved in additional international incidents. On 18 July 1980, a wreckage of a LARAF MiG-23MS was found on the northern side of the 1.929 meter high Mount Sila, in the middle of the Italian province of Calabria. The body of the pilot was still tied on his ejection seat, and on his helmet, the his name was written: Ezedin Koal. The investigation found out, that Koal was dead for at least 15 to 20 days, and because of this, the crash of that MiG was brought into connection with the mysterious crash of an DC-9, on 27 June 1980, near the Italian island of Ustica. Theories about the involvement of Koal’s MiG-23MS in that incident are very different: according to some, Koal crashed while trying to defect but suffering the loss of orientation in the night; others say, Koal shoot the DC-9 outright down or that the DC-9 was shot down by air-to-air missiles fired by NATO fighters which pursued him; while the third main theory says that the MiG-23 most probably collided with the airliner while flying tightly underneath in order to evade pursuing NATO fighters. In short, it remains completely unknown what that MiG-23MS was looking for so far away from Libya and north of Sicily!

Probably the best-known photograph of a MiG-23MS at all is showing this Libyan example, serialled "9615". It was taken on 18 August 1981, when the aircraft was intercepted by either the F-4S Phantoms from the USS Forrestal (CV-59) or F-14A Tomcats from USS Nimitz (CVN-68). (US Navy photo)

LARAF MiG-23MS seen during the mid-1980s at Faya Largeau AB, in northern central Chad.

Equally mysterious remains an apparent defection of another Libyan pilot, which flew his MiG-23MS or BN to Egypt, sometimes in early 1980s. Reportedly, it was this aircraft on which USAF Gen. Robert Bond was killed in an accident, which occurred in Nevada, in 1984. To contrary, it is sure that Libyan MiG-23MS were involved in another international incident which occurred on 16 September 1980, when no less but 15 Libyan fighters intercepted a RC-135U (64114847) of the 55th SRW USAF over the Gulf of Syrte. Exact details about this incident remain sketchy, but it seems that at one moment Libyan fighters either threatened with opening fire or indeed opened fire and damaged the recce plane before being „escorted“ away by USN fighters. Anyway, the incident signaled the start for numerous other incidents between Libyan and US forces which happened during the next nine years and ended with the downing of two LARAF MiG-23MFs by F-14A Tomcats of the USN, on 4 January 1989.

The first MiG-23MS delivered to Libya seen only moments after the landing. Note the positon of the Libyan markings - which is different than that on Egyptian and Syrian examples, even if the markings look very similar.

A row of LARAF MiG-23UBs, seen impounded in the Ukraine (where they were sent for refurbishment, in the late 1980s), three years back. (photo by Ivan Motlik)

Blooding Soviet MiG-23s

The next to use MiG-23s in combat was the Soviet Air Defence Force (V-PVO). During the 1970s numerous incidents occurred on the Soviet-Iranian and Afghan-Iranian border, forcing the Soviets to station a regiment of MiG-23Ms at the Ak-Tepe AB, near the border to Afghanistan, in what was then the Turkmenistan Military District. One of the most serious happened on early morning of 21 June 1978, at 06:21 AM, when the Soviet radar site based near the village of Bagir, not far from Ashhabad, detected four slow moving contacts which came from Iran and penetrated 15 to 20 kilometers deep into the Soviet airspace near Dushak, in Turkmenistan.

Five minutes later, these targets were detected by the radar site of the Ak-Tepe Air Base, and deputy commander of the 152 IAP, Lt.Col. J. A. Miloslavsky, ordered one MiG-23M, flown by Capt. A. V. Dem’janov, to scramble and intercept. Once over the area, Dem’janov found only one helicopter, but misidentified it as friendly. In addition, he got a command from the command post, „not to turn weapons on and not to come too close to the target“. Because Dem’janov’s answers to calls from the GCI station sounded uncertainly, he was finally ordered back to Ak-Tepe AB and instead, at 06:52 AM, Lt.Col. Miloslavsky dispatched another MiG-23M, flown by Capt. Valery I. Shkinder.

Shkinder approached four contacts, identified them properly as CH-47C Chinook helicopters of the Imperial Iranian Air Force and got an order to attack. At the time, Iranian Chinooks were flying in two pairs to the northwest along the Garagum Canal, but when their crews detected the interceptor over them, they made a turn to the southwest and flew towards the Kopet mountains and the Iranian border.

Diving behind the two rear Chinooks, Capt. Shkinder fired two R-60 (AA-8 Aphid) IR-homing air-to-air missiles. Both missiles found their mark and exploded the rearmost helicopter, the wreckage of which crashed near the village of Gjaurs, killing all eight crewmembers. Capt. Shkinder reported to his base about the destruction of the first target and announced his attack on the second helicopter. Turning around, he positioned his MiG-23M behind the damaged helicopter and opened fire with GSh-23L 23-mm-guns, spending a total of 72 rounds in two passes and hitting the starboard engine of the CH-47C „5-4092“. The Iranian pilot was lucky enough to manage a landing near the Soviet border post at Gjaurs. All four crewmembers survived, but were subsequently captured by Soviet borderguards. The remaining two Chinooks came away, crossing back into Iranian airspace.

Despite a severe loss of life for the IIAF, the incident was played down by both sides, and the Soviets subsequently permitted the damaged Chinook to be repaired by Iranians and flown back to Iran, together with all four crewmembers: Capt. Valery Shkinder was also not decorated for his feat, with the proposal for him getting a Combat Red Flag Award with Kremlin rejecting the proposal „due to a very complex international situation“. Until today, the full background of these incidents remains unclear, just like in the case of Libyan MiG-23MS operations in summer and autumn of 1980.

Positive Iraqi Stance

When the first four MiG-23s were delivered to Syria, in October 1974, they were soon noticed by Iraqi pilots which worked with the SyAF at the time, and the IrAF was fast to order 24 each of the interceptor and the attack variant. Indeed, in early 1974, a total of 18 MiG-23MS, 18 MiG-23BNs and four MiG-23UBs were delivered to IrAF, which formed the 23rd and 26th Sqns equipped with fighters, and the 77th Sqn with MiG-23BNs. Perhaps because of their high expectations from the type, the Iraqis were initially terribly disappointed with both the MS and BN versions. They actually expected the MiG-23 to be the ideal counterpart to the F-14A, ordered by Iran. The difference, however, was considerable, and the Tomcat was far superior to the MiG in all aspects including the avionics and weapon systems, range, payload and maneuverability. Additionally, for the Iraqis, the MiG-23 initially appeared almost as complex to maintain and fly as the F-14!

One of the main reasons for Iraqi disappointment was the avionics suite of the MiG-23s delivered to them, which was actually based on that of the MiG-21MF, and included only a simple VOR/ILS navigation suite, UHF radios and SRO-3 IFF transponders compatible with similar aircraft delivered to Egypt and Syria (something very important for Iraqis, which during the war with Israel, in 1973, have lost more aircraft to Syrian SAMs than to Israelis!), but no RWRs. Consequently, the IrAF Air Defence Command initially used no MiG-23MS as interceptors but relegated them - together with all MiG-23BNs - to the Support Command (IrAF/ASC).

Interestingly, for the IrAF/ASC, the MiG-23BN was - despite the weaknesses with the avionics - such an important asset that, when the IrAF was engaged in fighting Kurds supported by units of the regular Imperial Iranian Army, in northern Iraq, in 1974 and 1975, it refused to use MiG-23BNs until Moscow promised the delivery of 15 additional examples!

These additional aircraft were indeed badly needed, as between April and November 1974, the IrAF lost at least four MiG-23BNs to Iranian SAMs and two in operational accidents. As Iraqi pilots were well satisfied with the payload of the type, the IrAF immediately ordered 60 additional MiG-23BNs and ten MiG-23UBs, and these were supplied by the USSR between 1976 and 1977. Yet, the fast incursion of such large numbers of new and more complex aircraft over a relatively short period of time caused considerable problems for the Air Support Command, and, although by 1976 it numbered no less but 15 squadrons - which were responsible for supporting land operations of the army - it lacked trained and experienced crews, while many of newly purchased aircraft were mothballed and kept in reserve. Out of four squadrons equipped with MiG-23s, for example, only two were considered fully operational.

Floggers against Persians

Despite all the mentioned negative aspects, with the time the Iraqis became more confident of the MiG-23s and by 1980 the type - besides the MiG-21 and Su-20 - became the most important asset of the IrAF. Large numbers - especially of MiG-23BNs - were thus used right from the start of the war against Iran. The first involvement of Iraqi MiG-23s against Iran - during the prolonged phase of skirmishes in the summer of 1980 - was not successfull, however. On 13th September two MiG-23MSs were intercepted by Iranian Phantoms while supporting recce operations of MiG-21Rs over the Chogar area, and one MiG was shot down.

Almost 50% of missions flown during the opening Iraqi strike on 22 September 1980, were flown by MiG-23BNs of the 77th and 78th Squadrons IrAF, including the best known one - against the Mehrabad airfield and air base, near Tehran. Two trios of MiG-23BNs were initially tasked with striking Mehrabad, but only three reached it after flying no less but 520kms deep into Iran. Apparently, Iraqi pilots were surprised with the fact that they managed to reach their target undisturbed, and they activated their weapons too late: therefore, the results of an attack against an airfield filled with large number of military and civilian aircraft were limited. A string of bombs dropped by the leading MiG-23BN fell on the tarmac in front of the Iranian Aircraft Industries facility, blowing the nose section of an F-4E away like bottle stem. The two escorts then fired unguided rockets caliber 68mm and hit an Iran Air Boeing 707-321B (EP-IRJ) and damaged a C-130E of the IRIAF beyond repair. The attack killed one and injured nine Iranians. While clearing the target area, however, the formation was intercepted by two F-4Es scrambled from Mehrabad and at least one MiG - possibly two - was shot down. The pilot - reportedly an Egyptian - was captured shortly after by Iranians; only the leader of the trio, Major N., survived to tell the story.

During the early phase of the I Persian Gulf war, the IrAF used the MiG-23BN foremost as interdictor, sending small formations of between two and four planes to strike targets deep inside Iran. Using blind-spots in the Iranian radar net, most of these came away unscatched. However, time and again, some were intercepted by Iranian Tomcats and Phantoms, and the results of following air combats were usually catastrophic. There were several reasons for this: before the Islamic Revolution, in February 1979, several Iranian pilots were sent to the USA, where they evaluated MiG-21s and MiG-23s used by the USAF; the Israelis - which cooperated with the Imperial Iran very intensively during the 1970s - supplied also much of their own know-how about the type to the IIAF, and, the equipment of the Iraqi MiG-23s was really poor: their planes lacked any kind of RWRs, and would usually not recognize attacks by medium- and long-range, radar guided, air-to-air missiles before too late.
On 24 September 1980, for example, all three MiG-23BNs which flew an effective strike against the installations on the Khark Island, were lost to Iranian Tomcats. Similar losses were suffered also in additional air battles on 3rd, 13th, 18th, and 19th October, during which a total of no less but eleven MiG-23BNs were confirmed shot down by Iranian F-14s, most of them over the northern Persian Gulf, between Abadan and Bushehr.

Iraqi units equipped with MiG-23MS haven’t had it easier either: after the skirmishes in August and September 1980 and early Iranian strikes deep into Iraq clearly showed that the MiG-21s lacked the range to counter fast and low flying Iranian Phantoms and Tigers, the IrAF put the 81st Squadron, stationed at Salman Pak, under command of the ADC, and on early morning of 25 September, six fighters from this unit were scrambled to intercept a large Iranian strike package which attacked targets in the Baghdad area. Hardly 30 seconds after getting airborne, however, the formation was intercepted by two F-14As and two MiGs were shot down almost immediately. The remaining four immediately turned away and had to divert to another airfield. Similar losses were suffered in at least two or three other engagements by the end of 1980, and by late January 1981, the IrAF was left with less than 40 operational MiG-23s of all versions, deployed in six units. On the positive side Iraqi MiG-23-pilots could claim only five or six Iranian fighters, including one F-4D, two F-4Es and four F-5Es - two of which were claimed by Capt. Ahmed Sabbah on the first day of the war.

Changing tactics

After studying their experiences and the situation, and especially after the arrival of first French instructors in the winter and spring of 1981, the IrAF changed the way it used its early MiG-23s. Instead of larger formations, now only pairs of MiG-23BNs or MiG-23MS’ would be sent no more than 50km behind the front. Always operating under a very close control by the GCI, they would ingress at low levels (always under 1.500ft/500 meters), climbing only shortly before the release of the weapons. Simultaneously, MiG-23MS interceptors were also forbidden to operate outside the area covered by the ground control, and were to execute only „slash-attacks“, closing in total EMCON at high speed from the rear upon their targets in order to fire air-to-air missiles from maximal distance. Additionally, pilots were instructed not to maneuver against enemy fighters, but to use the superior acceleration of their aircraft for evasion, and also to evade Iranian F-14s at „all costs“.

The new tactics brought some success, especially in April and May 1981, when the IrAF started using pairs of MiG-23BNs as baits against Iranian interceptors. MiG-23s would attack positions of the Iranian Army, bomb and strafe, and then remain somewhere near the target only long enough for IRIAF interceptors to be scrambled. When Iranians would give a pursuit, MiG-23s accelerated away, dragging the opponents either over SAM- or AAA-sites, or in front of escorting MiG-21s and MiG-25s, which waited for their chance to attack from the rear at low level. The results were immediately successfull, foremost against Iranian F-4Es, several of which were shot down or badly damaged in following encounters. The tactics worked less well against F-5Es, however: these simply lacked the speed, acceleration and range to engage or pursue MiG-23s.

The situation became so unpleasant for Iranians, that in mid-May 1981 they were forced to temporary deploy a full squadron of F-14As to the Vahdati AB, near Dezful, which was still under continuous Iraqi artillery- and rocket-attacks, in order to re-establish the local air superiority. After the first clash between these Tomcats and two MiG-23BNs, escorted by MiG-21s and supported by an MiG-25RB, however, Iraqi MiG-23s never ventured so deep behind the Iranian border for the next five years, and for the rest of 1981 and 1982, the number of air-to-air engagements with MiG-23s over the southern front sank rapidly, with the IrAF now deploying MiG-23MS for patrolling either deeper behind the front, or over Iraqi oil rigs in the northern Gulf.

Reconstruction of the IrAF 84th Sqn's MiG-23MS flown to Vahdati in December 1982. The plane belonged to an early series delivered to Iraq.

By 1982, with the cooperation and friendship between Baghdad and Moscow re-established, the IrAF started to purchase increasing numbers of MiG-23MFs, followed closely by MiG-23MLs, and MiG-23MS’ were relegated to secondary air defence missions, while the MiG-23BNs continued to soldier on in at least eight units also after the war with Iran. By that time, however, at least three Iraqi MiG-23MS pilots became well known for their successes in air combats, although it remains unknown how many kills they scored while flying exactly that type and version, as they also flew MiG-23MFs and some other types. Capt. Ahmed Sabbah, who claimed two Iranian F-5Es as shot down on 23 September 1980, was shot down and killed already in October of the same year, by an AIM-54A Phoenix missile, fired from Iranian Tomcats, during an engagement over northern Iraq. Capt. Omar Goben, for example, is known to have flown MiG-21s and MiG-23s, and to have scored two confirmed kills against Iranian F-5Es, both in 1980. Goben claimed ten additional aerial victories in 1982, 1983, and 1985, but none of these was ever confirmed. He survived the war with Iran, only to be shot down and killed by USAF F-15Cs while flying a MiG-29, in 1991. Another pilot, Capt. Ali Sabah, better known to Iraqi public as „Tiger of Iraq“, flew MiG-23s and Mirage F.1EQs during his career, and is known to have scored at least three confirmed and three probable kills. He also survived the war with Iran, but was killed in 1993 - apparently by the Iraqi regime.

This Iraqi MiG-23MS is known to have survived the long war with Iran and hundreds of combat sorties flown under most dangerous circumstances. Later during the war the all IrAF aircraft were reserialled according to the system based on the type of aircraft: this MiG-23MS was re-serialed "23017". (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

On the contrary, the final chapter of the story about MiG-23MS in use as main tactical interceptor by the IrAF and IrAF/ADC had nothing to do with success at all. On the early morning of 2 December 1981, an Iraqi pilot of the 84th Sqn defected with his MiG-23MS to Vahdati AB. He managed to land safely, and subsequently proved to be a superb source of intelligence for the IRIAF, however, the plane was - by mistake in Iranian chain of command - left in the open for several hours too long, and in the afternoon the IrAF dispatched a tremendous strike against the Iranian base. Iraqi Su-20-pilots located the „missing“ MiG-23MS instantly and blasted it with several full loads of unguided 68mm rockets....

Still from a video showign the Iraqi Air Force MiG-23MS flown to Vahdati AB, in Iran, by a defecting pilto from the 84th Sqn, in December 1982. The aircraft was destroyed only hours later, when a formation of Iraqi Su-22s found it and delivered a devastating attack.

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