12 November 2010

Foxbats Over the Sinai

By 1971 the Soviet Union had built up the Egyptian Air Force to unprecedented levels in the Middle East in the years since the 1967 Six-Day War when the Israelis caught the majority of the Egyptian air arm on the ground. Despite the rearmament effort and 20,000 military advisers, the Egyptians were still in no position to confront the Israeli Air Force over the Sinai. The three-year War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel ended in 1970 when President Nasser of Egypt died of a heart attack. With no gains being made by either side, Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, ended the campaign and set about the planning of what would be the 1973 Yom Kippur War. While direct Soviet military involvement was out of the question given the atmosphere of detente that was building between the Soviet Union and the United States, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev authorized the deployment of a reconnaissance task force of MiG-25 "Foxbat" aircraft to Egypt to scout the Israeli defenses on the east bank of the Sinai. It was a bold decision given that most new Soviet aircraft are kept secret for several years, let alone deployed overseas. Operational testing of the Foxbat began in 1970 and there were a multitude of technical problems uncovered that left both the Soviet Air Force (VVS) and the Air Defense Forces (PVO) reconsidering accepting the aircraft for operational service. 

The Deputy Minister of Aircraft Industry, Aleksey Minayev, was a former engineer with OKB Mikoyan who had participated in the development of the MiG-25 before assuming his ministry position at the Kremlin. Being well aware of the VVS and PVO hesitations with the new aircraft, it was Minayev that suggested the deployment of the Foxbat the Middle East in the reconnaissance role. He had no trouble in getting the military to agree to the idea as they were anxious to really see the aircraft operate in a realistic environment to see what it could do and decide then whether or not to proceed with the deployment of the aircraft. It was agreed that the interceptor version of the Foxbat would be unsuitable for the deployment as that would have been considered an overt act and a small handful of interceptors would have been unable to hold off the Israelis. Discussion within the Kremlin came to a consensus that sending the reconnaissance version would do more good as they could provide information on the Israeli defenses in the Sinai. 

Four MiG-25s that were undergoing operational testing were selected for deployment. Two aircraft were MiG-25Rs, which was a pure reconnaissance variant and the other two were MiG-25RBs that were dual-role reconnaissance/strike aircraft. Ironically, the RB variant of the Foxbat came about due to a perceived need for a high-speed strike aircraft to counter the Israeli's deep penetration flights with McDonnell F-4E Phantom IIs during the War of Attrition to knock out Egyptian targets. The formal deployment orders were issued in March 1971 and a team of test program technicians that were ironing out the Foxbat's bugs would accompany the task force to Egypt. To save time, the personnel were flown to Cairo-West AB in Egypt aboard Antonov An-12 "Cub" transports and the Foxbats had their wings, tails and engines removed for transport about Antonov An-22 "Cock" transports. However, it was found that even stripped down, the MiGs were just barely too wide and too high to fit into the An-22 cargo hold as the main landing gears were getting stuck in the aft cargo door. A technician suggested reversing the main landing gear legs so they pointed inward and replacing the mainwheels with those from a MiG-21. This provided enough clearance to get the MiGs aboard for transport to Egypt. At Cairo-West, the Egyptians had already built hardened aircraft shelters for the Foxbats and the Soviet team reassembled the Foxbats inside the shelters. 

The first test flights began in April over Egyptian territory. The design bureau for the Foxbat's massive R15B-300 engines, OKB Tumansky, also had a team in place that managed to tweak the engines to allow the Foxbat to "sprint" at full afterburner for a full 40 minutes, well over the previous three minute limit used in operational testing in the Soviet Union. The first operational reconnaissance mission took place on 10 October 1971. Operating in pairs, two MiG-25s streaked up the Mediterranean coast from the Nile Delta to the Israeli-Lebanese border at 70,000 feet at high speed only 17 miles off the Israeli coast. Interceptions were attempted by F-4 Phantoms but failed to engage the Foxbats. A month later, a single MiG-25 overflew the northern Sinai to image the Israeli defenses there. This time the Israelis had two stripped down F-4 Phantoms ready which attempted to shoot down the MiG with AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. The missile's proximity fuses failed to cope with the Mach 3 speeds and detonated harmlessly past the speeding Foxbat. After an increasing number of overflights of the Sinai that resulted in failed intercepts, the Israelis were incensed. As the Soviet pilots maintained strict radio silence, the Israelis had no choice but to station F-4 patrols near Cairo-West AB, hoping to shoot down a MiG on takeoff. To counter this tactic, Egyptian MiG-21s from other airbases would converge on Cairo-West when the Foxbats were ready to takeoff. At least two MiG-21s would streak down the runway at low level, followed by the pair of Foxbats and then followed by another two MiG-21s to cover the rear until the Soviet pilots were at speed and altitude out of reach of the prowling Phantom patrols. 

Missions were typically flown in pairs and operated at over 70,000 feet at full afterburner. At Mach 3, a Foxbat pair could cover in just two minutes the entire length of the Suez Canal that separated Egyptian and Israeli forces. Fuel was burned off at 1,000 lbs per minute as the aircraft maintained full afterburner. The inlet ducts would heat up to 608 degrees Farenheint (320 degrees Celsius) and the aircraft skin would measure 577 degrees Farenheint (303 degrees Celsius). Pilots reported the glass canopy was so hot that it would burn their fingers if it was touched during a mission. The cameras operated automatically as the MiGs covered 1 kilometer a second. In addition, the onboard ELINT sensors would pinpoint the locations of Israeli radars, communications nodes, and ECM units. On descent and approach back to Cairo-West, the Foxbats were again met by Egyptian MiG-21s all the way to runway touchdown. Two missions a month were flown and by the end of 1971 the Soviets were making routine deep penetration flights over the Sinai with impunity. Even the Raytheon Hawk SAM units in the Sinai were useless as they were only medium altitude surface-to-air missiles with an engagement envelope that topped off at 40,000 feet. 

By the spring of 1972 the Israelis were protesting the Soviet flights to the United Nations, but it was Anwar Sadat that ended the reconnaissance flights. Frustrated that the Soviets were not training his pilots in the aircraft and that it was not being offered to him for sale, the last straw came after a superpower summit when both Brezhnev and Nixon agreed on maintaining the status quo in the Middle East. Realizing that the Soviets were not going to help him retake the Sinai, Sadat ordered nearly all of the Soviet advisers out of the country and preceded to plan for war without their assistance. Sadat issued an ultimatum to the Soviets as well that they had one week to decide to sell Egypt the Foxbat or have them out of the country. By the middle of July 1972, the reconnaissance task force had returned to Russia and the performance of the Foxbat resulted in the VVS and PVO accepting the aircraft for formal operational deployment. 

Sadat launched the October 1973 Yom Kippur War and made startling gains against a complacent Israeli military while the Syrians attempted to retake the Golan Heights in the north. As the course of the war gradually came to favor the Israelis, Sadat was at a point where he was considering accepting a cease-fire. To prompt him to end the war quickly, Brezhnev ordered two MiG-25s back to Egypt to conduct a series of reconnaissance missions over the Suez Canal to prove to Sadat the Ariel Sharon's units had crossed the west bank of the Suez into Egypt and the Egyptian Third Army was completely surrounded by the Israelis. The imagery shown to Sadat forced him into accepting the cease-fire ending the October war. The Foxbats stayed until 1974, but most of their missions by this point had been focused on monitoring US naval activity in the eastern Mediterranean. Once again frustrated that Egypt was still not being offered the Foxbat and that he had no authority over their use, he ordered the Soviets back out of the country again in 1975, ending the last active Soviet involvement in the Middle East. 
Source: OKB Mikoyan: A History of the Design Bureau and its Aircraft by Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov. Midland Publishing, 2009, p324-345.

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