Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (Flogger)
Swing-Wing Fighter-Interceptor Aircraft
The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 Flogger was the first Soviet aircraft to feature variable sweep wings and paved the way for the equally-successful MiG-27 Flogger ground strike variant.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
The Mach 2-capable MiG-23 "Flogger" became the first true "swing-wing" fighter to enter service with the Soviet Union and went on to become a primary mount of the Soviet air services (replacing the range-limited MiG-21 "Fishbed") making it one of the most-produced and successful aircraft of the Cold War. The MiG-23 was made into a dedicated strike / fighter-bomber in the similar-yet-modified MiG-27 series. The MiG-23 itself went on to prove a reliable and robust performer through decades of service (and several notable wars and conflicts) and continues in active service with some air forces today. Relatively cheap for its time (between three and six million dollars a plane), the Mikoyan-Gurevich product was an easy sell to Warsaw Pact nations and Third World allies alike. In all, the MiG-23 represented the most important Soviet fighter for a good part of the 1970s and the early 1980s and were made all-the-more potent by their ability to carry nuclear-tipped weapons.
It should be noted that through most of the Cold War, the MiG-23 was thought to be nothing more than a "serviceable" and "highly utilitarian" aircraft at best. It was only some decades later that the old Western observations were upgraded to conclude that the MiG-23 was an impressive design in its own right, one that could match or (in some cases) out-best many of the available Western counterparts of the time.
About the MiG-27 "Flogger"
The MiG-27 "Flogger" is a direct development of the MiG-23 detailed in this entry and has its own write-up elsewhere on this website. The MiG-27 is essentially a dedicated ground-attack fighter-bomber form of the MiG-23 "Flogger" fighter / interceptor. It features the same swing-swing capability but is armored for low-level strike runs, has a broadened ground ordnance role across more external hardpoints and sports new fixed intake inlets. Its engine is decidedly less-complicated and features a simpler nozzle for the reduced-performance role. The twin-barrel cannon of the MiG-23 has given way to a multi-barrel type and special target acquisition systems are standard as is a terrain avoidance radar. The MiG-27 is discernable from the MiG-23 by its sleeker tapered nose cone assembly (promoting better "lookdown" capabilities). The MiG-27 was developed in two major derivatives under the NATO codenames of "Flogger-D" and the "Flogger-J". Use of the MiG-27 was primarily with the Soviet Union and India and began deliveries in 1975, ultimately seeing retirement with Russia in the 1990s. India took up license production of the type under the Hindustan Aeronautics banner as the Bahadur (or "Valiant").
Mikoyan-Gurevich began as a manufacturer of piston-powered fighters during World War 2 with their most notable creations being the "hotrod" MiG-1 and MiG-3 fighters. Success continued in the post-war world with the unveiling of their revolutionary single-seat, single-engine MiG-15 "Fagot" jet-powered fighter in the Korean War - coming as quite the surprise to NATO forces to which the North American F-86 Sabre was directly developed to counter the new threat. The MiG-15 was followed into service by the much-improved MiG-17 "Fresco", another single-seat, single-engine implement with greater handling and performance overall. The MiG-19 "Farmer" then appeared as a twin-engine solution with supersonic (Mach 1.0) capability. Mikoyan-Gurevich found additional success with the development of the MiG-21 "Fishbed" - a Mach 2-capable single-seat, single-engine fighter that went on to be used throughout the world as both an interceptor and a limited strike fighter. This lengthy history had cemented Mikoyan-Gurevich as a major player in the development of Cold War jet fighters and solidified valuable experience gained in the design and development of different wing systems to solve different speed criteria and furthered the firm's understanding of jet-powered machines to keep Soviet air forces on par with their American counterparts.
By this time, McDonnell Douglas had brought online the fabulous F-4 Phantom II, a twin-seat, twin-engine Mach 2-capable fighter with a strong dogfighting prowess and inherent strike capabilities. The F-4 featured a powerful radar system coupled with high performance specifications and quickly became the primary mount of the USAF, USN and the USMC during her reign and, later, was fielded across Europe as an ultimate Soviet deterrent. The F-111 Aardvark was another American Cold War fighter design intended to solve a need for both the USAF and USN in one fail swoop. It featured a twin-seat, side-by-side cockpit, powerful twin engines and variable geometry wings for different flight performances. However, this expensive design bloated to become a long-range strike aircraft and was far from a fighter in the end product. Regardless, the F-4 and the F-111 would be the MiG-23's principle adversaries during the latter's design and development stages.
The MiG-21 "Fishbed" was good for what it was initially designed for - speed. It could climb fast and achieve speeds of up to Mach 2 while fielding capable avionics and a weapons system that included both short-range cannon and longer-range missiles for most jobs at hand. However, if the MiG-21 was deficient in any areas it was in operational range, combat payload and its reliance on ground-based interception to help guide the system to a target area (no self-sustained sensors were onboard to handle such actions). Jet powerplants had always proven thirsty since the days of World War 2 and post-war jet technology the world over had yet to wholly solve the need for greater range output out of their engines - though progress was sure and steady by the time of the MIG-23 development. The clipped delta wings and slim fuselage of the MiG-21 had limited its armament potential across just four hardpoints by the time of the later production models. In all, this tailed-delta design was adequate for the interception role and, though it was developed into a ground strike variant, it was far from the answer of a the true multi-role performer that the Soviet Air Force was now looking for.
Development of the MiG-23 began in the early part of the 1960s as an attempt by the MiG bureau to counter the limitations of their MiG-21 product. As the Soviet authorities were growing evermore disappointed with the range of their MiG-21s, a new official specification was formed by 1965. The specification called for a modern, larger and heavier aircraft to be produced in two varied forms - an interceptor for use by the Soviet air defense force (PVO) and a ground-attack version for use by the Soviet tactical air forces, Frontal Aviation - all this while not requiring the aircraft to use much runway.
The challenge to Mikoyan-Gurevich lay in getting such a large plane off of the ground in a short amount of time. Greater power and size would naturally come at the expense of added weight and require more real estate before take-off and during landing. Two Mikoyan-Gurevich design groups were formed and the first team looked to direct Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) solutions for their new jet. The second design team looked into an airframe approach utilizing a variable geometry wing (or "swing wing") assembly to help offset the long take-off runs while at the same time offering greater payloads by making use of underwing hardpoints as well as underfuselage weapon stations. Both designs were put into action concurrently beginning in 1964 and progress was soon realized by 1966.
The first design team put forth the Model 23-01 prototype type (eventually becoming the MiG-23PD). This aircraft was a similar - though larger - "tailed-delta" wing design not unlike the MiG-21 before it. Wings were tapered and clipped at the tips while the cockpit sat ahead of a raised fuselage spine and behind a nose cone. Intakes were fitted to the sides of the fuselage to make way for the expected radome. One major difference between the MiG-21 and the Model 23-01 was the fitting of two Kolesov RD-36-35 "lift" jets in the fuselage. The lift jets were situated along the center fuselage for best effect and could be used equally in landing and take-off procedures thusly resulting in shorter runway distances being used. Standard thrust would be derived from a single Tumansky R-27-300 standard powerplant placed within the fuselage amidships. Tests were started with a first flight on April 3rd, 1967, and proved the design sound. The aircraft was unveiled at the 1967 Domododevo Air Show three months later to which Western observers took note and - in true NATO fashion - assigned it the lackluster nickname of "Faithless".
The second design team took their swing-wing approach and produced the Model 23-11 prototype. Utilizing a similar fuselage as that of the Model 23-01, the Model 23-11 aircraft fitted the same Tumansky R-27-300 powerplant, nose assembly and empennage. However, along its midsection, the 23-11 made use of the heavy and complicated component needed to control the variable geometry wings. The system would allow for the required changes to the wing sweep of the aircraft depending on the in-flight action, in effect promoting better characteristics during the landing/take-off, cruise and high-performance flight categories. First flight was accomplished on April 10th, 1967. Like the 23-01 prototype, the 23-11 prototype was also debuted at Domodoevo and Western observers bestowed the name of "Flogger" to the type.
A Decision is Made
The earlier 23-01 prototype was a solid attempt at solving the STOL issue. However, it quickly became apparent that the design was not going to produce a livable solution. The lift jets were effective at their given job during take-off and landing but, once the aircraft was in flight, the lift jets offered no performance advantage while at the same time penalized the aircraft by increasing its weight. Essentially, once the aircraft was airborne there was little use for these lift jets, making them more of a novelty concept than practical fair.
The 23-11 swing-wing prototype (Ye-231) was promising yet held its own inherent drawbacks. The swing-wing component was a complicated affair that proved heavy and large, requiring a large housing within the fuselage for which to work in. However, the inherent applicable benefits looked to be just what Mikoyan-Gurevich and Soviet authorities were looking for. The wings could be made strong enough to sustain heavy ordnance loads - greater than that of the preceding MiG-21 - while still retaining performance. As such, priority was given to the 23-11 design, leaving the 23-01 prototype to the pages of aviation history books.
Flight testing of the 23-11 prototype continued on into 1968 and culminated with the 98th flight - not one flight recorded any serious abnormalities in the design. The smooth development ushered in a production order and the legacy of the MiG-23 "Flogger" was now born. The MiG-23 was introduced in 1970 and began entering service in 1971,being made ready in quantity by 1973.
The utilitarian appearance of the MiG-23 can work well in fooling the casual observer to quickly writing off the MiG-23 as "just another Cold War workman-like Soviet design". However, despite the aircraft's basic design layout and many conventional components, the MiG-23 proved that there was more to the airframe than what was exhibited. The design was capped by a conical assembly housing the radar system. The cockpit was situated just aft of this assembly and featured seating for the pilot with adequate views forward, above and to the sides. Cockpit vision was hindered by way of the raised fuselage spine and high-mounted wings, both playing critical roles in the variable geometry wing process. Rear-view mirrors helped to an extent but the priority for the design was always in forward and downward visibility from the cockpit at high speeds.
Going against previous Mikoyan-Gurevich jet designs and their identifiable nose-mounted intakes, the MiG-23 utilized split rectangular side intake inlets with each opening fitted to either side of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. From there, the fuselage took on a tubular look with slab-sides. The empennage consisted of a large single engine exhaust ring, a large-area tapered vertical tail fin emerging from the fuselage spine and sporting clipped and swept edges and strong conventional horizontal tailplanes. A ventral fin was noted just under the engine exhaust housing. One of the definitive characteristics of the MiG-23 became its tricycle landing gear arrangement with all three centered along the fuselage (as opposed to fitting the main landing gears in the wings - impossible on a swing-wing aircraft design). The complicated main landing gears retracted into housings along the sides of the fuselage and were single-wheeled. The twin-wheeled nose landing gear recessed rearwards just under the cockpit floor. When at rest on the ground, the MiG-23 definitely maintained a pronounced and distinct appearance all her own.
Of course the most notable exception to the "conventionality" of the MiG-23 design lay in its wings. The wings were extended from the main fuselage body via static swept-wing "gloves" located at the wing roots. The variable geometry wing system allowed for three modes of flight that included take-off/landing, cruising and high-performance. The initial mode with wings fully extended sported a (approximately) 16-degree sweep angle and was sufficient in promoting stable low-speed flight by incorporating more drag and lift. The second mode, this at a 45-degree sweep angle, was used in typical cruising actions where a balance of drag and sweep was optimal. The final mode saw the wings fully-retracted by way of a 72-degree sweep, allowing for good high-performance flight at altitude by decreasing drag and forward surface area. The value of such a system would still allow the MiG-23 to carry a potent ordnance load across fuselage, wingroot and underwing weapon stations while still retaining strong performance output. Additionally, the MiG-23 afforded its operators an increase in range that would make the MiG-21 envious.
Like the MiG products before it, the lethality of the MiG-23 was made potent by its ever-expanding weapons suite primarily coupled to the radar, HUD (Heads-Up Display) and gunsight. Standard armament became a twin-barreled 23mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23L cannon with 200 to 260 projectile rounds (sources vary) mounted in a GP-9 gun pack under the fuselage. Six total hardpoints allowed for up to 6,600lbs of external stores. Hardpoints included two fuselage stations, two underwing "glove" stations and two underwing pylons for the fitting of various air-to-air missile systems. Cleared missile systems eventually included the AA-7 "Apex", AA-8 "Aphid", AA-10 "Alamo", AA-11 "Archer" and AA-12 "Adder" missiles of differing seeker heads and engagement range. A typical interceptor loadout became 2 x AA-7 "Apex" radar/infra-red and 2 x AA-8 "Aphid" short-range infrared missile assortments. In 1974, "double pylons" - fitting two missiles to one weapon station - were fitted for increased loadouts.
The resulting expansion of the MiG-23 as a ground attack fighter enabled the type to bring to bear a bevy of conventional drop bombs, napalm, rocket pods and air-to-surface missiles as needed (as well as nuclear-tipped weapons). Further development would create the dedicated MiG-27 series variant.
The First Floggers
Entry of the first MiG-23s into Soviet air service proved somewhat disappointing. The first production variant became the MiG-23S to which its "S" designation denoted the use of the new pulse-Doppler "Sapfir-23" radar system in the nose. However, delays to the Sapfir radar program caused these Floggers to instead ship with the more primitive RP-22SM "Jay Bird" radar systems as found on the MiG-21 "Fishbeds". This move, though a necessity, drastically cut down on the usefulness of the new jet as a modern interceptor. This particular MiG-23 model was now incapable of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) actions and was essentially limited against its Western counterparts right out of the gate. It limitations kept the MiG-23S model from ever materializing into a frontline operational fighter.
To counter the deficiencies of the initial MiG-23S production models and its "Jay Bird" radar installation, Mikoyan-Gurevich moved quickly to produce the improved MiG-23M ("M" signifying its "modified" state). The M-model fitted the intended Sapfir radar system when it was finally made available. The new MiG-23 officially made itself the most potent MiG product to date as the Sapfir radar raised the capabilities of the aircraft and - coupled with the right missile system (this being the AA-7 "Apex" air-to-air missile) - could now be considered a feared interceptor capable of matching wits with the best of the West.
As the only production swing-wing fighter in Soviet service, the MiG-23 was something of a must-have novelty for its allies and supporters. As such, interest was generated from nations wanting the system in their inventories. However, the MiG-23 (in its base production form) was something of a closely-held project for the Soviet Union, being that it utilized sophisticated and sensitive internal systems not meant for public consumption. As such, the MiG-23 had to be developed into simplified (sometimes referred to as "sanitized") forms for the sole purpose of export. This often occurred in two distinct forms - one for Warsaw Pact nations and another for "trusted" Third World export customers. Warsaw Pact nations were generally given a slightly revised version of the base Soviet models while Third World customers were given downgraded forms featuring simpler radar. Such thinking produced the MiG-23MS and the MiG-23MF export models.
Sales proved a success and the MiG-23 found its way into the inventories of many-a-nation around the world. When all was said and done, some 5,047 MiG-23s were produced between 1967 through 1984. Foreign operators became Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Cote d'Ivoire, Cuba, East Germany, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, India (as the Rakshak "Defender/Protector"), Iran, Iraq, Libya, Namibia, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Yemen, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. Operators were generally concentrated throughout Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (Cuba is of particular note here however, as its proximity to the United States would allow the MiG-23 to reach potential targets in Florida with relative ease).
Other Flogger Users
China received several MiG-23 systems from Egypt and - in true Chinese fashion - attempted a program to reverse-engineer the aircraft for their own needs. The program itself proved something of a failure though lessons learned in the process lent themselves quite well to other forthcoming projects. Israel obtained a MiG-21 of Syrian origin via a pilot defection. After evaluation, this MiG-23 eventually became a "trophy" outside Hatzerim Airbase. Other Egyptian MiG-23s found their way to the United States via the Foreign Material Acquisition/Exploitation program. These were studied extensively and ultimately featured in war games with the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Tonopah, serving under the American designation of YF-113 well into the 1980s.
While the Model 23-11 (Ye-231) formed the basis of the MiG-23 line, it was further enhanced by a slew of modifications and upgrades during its production run. The MiG-23 became a base model designation that featured its cannon armament without the external weapon hardpoints while introducing a "sawtooth" wing leading edge. These served as pre-production evaluation aircraft to provide the program with valuable pilot and in-flight systems feedback.
The MIG-23S became the first production model though it was limited in practical use to operational trials rather than frontline operations. Roughly 50 to 60 examples were produced in all. The aircraft lacked the Sapfir radar (losing its Beyond Visual Range capability) but were fielded with improved forms of the Tumansky R-27F2M-300 series engines yielding up to 22,046lbs of standard thrust. These aircraft were given the same radar and weapons suite as the MiG-21MF/bis production models (Rp-22 "Jay Bird") as an interim solution until the Sapfir was being made ready. The radar was housed under a shorter radome than initially planned. A twin-barreled 23mm GSh-23L cannon system was affixed to the underside of the fuselage. Infra-Red Search and Tracking was via the TP-23 system. Production of the type lasted from 1969 through to the 1970.
The MiG-23SM was the improved MiG-23S but still served in a pre-production evaluation role. Some 80 examples were eventually produced and these MiG-23s sported the full S-23 weapons suite (including the Sapfir-23 "High Lark" radar), an improved Tumansky R-27F2M-300 engine and capability for the AA-7 "Apex" semi-active, radar-homing missile system. The additions brought back Beyond Visual Range capability while the fire control system was redesigned and autopilot was improved. Wings were slightly revised as were the wing sweep positions (now 18.5, 47.5 and 74.5 degrees for the three available positions). An extra fuel tank was added internally for increased range. Engines were later improved to the Soyuz (Tumansky) R-29-300 series engines of 27,557lbs standard thrust fitting a shorter jetpipe.
The Ye-231, MiG-23, MiG-23S and MiG-23SM fell under the NATO first generation "Flogger-A" codename.
The MiG-23M was the first "true" mass-production form of the Flogger. First flight occurred in June of 1972 and production followed soon after. The powerplant was further uprated and sensor equipment was installed. The Sapfir-23 "High Lark" was an improved version of the original Doppler system and housed under a larger radome. The ASP-23D gunsight was installed and the vertical tail fin was relocated further aft, resulting in a definitive change in the aircraft's profile. The rear fuselage accommodated a new (fourth) internal fuel tank. Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) came in the form of the TP-23 system and capability with the R-23 missile was brought online. The M-model brought with it true "lookdown/shoot-down" capabilities, allowing the aircraft to engage targets under the horizon. A new "Type 1" wing - this featuring extended leading edges - was introduced bringing the "dogtooth" look along the inboard wing area (the "Type 2" wing was a wing structure that did away with the leading-edge slats while the "Type 3" wing, beginning in 1973, brought these back into the fold). The MiG-23M was received by Frontal Aviation as replacement for their MiG-21 air superiority fighters with ground attack considered a secondary role. The M-model was also delivered to the PVO and worked alongside existing "Fitters", "Flagons" and "Fishbeds" in the air defense role.
The MiG-23MF became the simplified export derivative of the MiG-23M production form. To export customers, the MiG-23MF model proved more popular than the MiG-23MS (detailed below) and was therefore sold to many nations with differing radar and communication setups as dictated by each particular operator. Radar was the RP-22 series housed under the small radome.
The MiG-23M and MiG-23MF models were collectively codenamed as "Flogger-B" by NATO.
The MiG-23U was a two-seat trainer developed from the MiG-23S. Since the MiG-23 proved to be unlike any previous aircraft available to Soviet airmen, they would require a applicable mount to learn its intricacies. A requirement for the aircraft was put forth in May of 1968 some six months after the main production model was green-lighted. First flight came in May of 1969. It featured the two-seat tandem arrangement but a new Tumansky R-29 series engine was utilized. The instructor occupied the rear cockpit and both positions were separated from one another and housed under individual canopies. With the addition of the second cockpit, one forward internal fuel tank was removed but a new one was added in the aft portion of the fuselage. The aircraft featured the S-21 weapon system. During its tenure, many of these MiG-23U trainers had their radar systems removed while others were brought up to the new MiG-23M standard. Production began in 1971 but the MiG-23U was eventually replaced by the more-capable MiG-23UB trainers. The MiG023U retained some of its combat capabilities.
The MiG-23UB (prototype Model 23-51) was another MiG-23 trainer. While the MiG-23UB was relegated to flight and weapons training, it still retained some limited combat capabilities. These MiG-23s were identified by their twin separate cockpits, Type 3 wings (with non-swiveling underwing pylons) and a cone-like fairing along the starboard wingroot housing the AA-7 "Apex" missile illuminator pod. As the two cockpits were not "stepped" (one higher than the other), the rear instructor's rear position was fitted with a retractable periscope to afford him a better view of the forward action. Additionally, the instructor had a whole suite of pre-programmed situations to which he could field against the student pilot. Angle-of-Attack (AoA) was limited for safety reasons. Production ended in 1975 to which some 769 total examples were produced and widely distributed out of Irkutsk. Both MiG-23 and MiG-27 operators used the MiG-23UB trainer as a starting point for their Flogger pilots.
Both the MiG-23U and the MiG-23UB trainers were identified by NATO under the "Flogger-C" codename.
The MiG-23MS was a downgraded export variant of the MiG-23M production model. The product was sold with its S-21 weapon system intact though tied to an RP-22SM "Jay Bird" radar. Missile capability was restricted to the AA-2 "Atoll" and AA-8 "Aphid" missiles and this version lacked Beyond Visual Range capability. Production ran from 1973 into 1978.
The MiG-23MP was similar to the MiG-23MS but never exported and saw only limited production numbers within the Soviet Union.
The MiG-23MS and MiG-23MP were collectively codenamed as "Flogger-E" in NATO terminology.
The MiG-23ML (from prototype Model 23-12) was a redesigned MiG-23 to help combat the reports of airframe fatigue and stress being encountered by early Floggers while at the same time attention was put into improving handling at high angles of attack. Maneuverability was enhanced and promoted higher G-limits (now 8.5 from 8.0). The fourth rear internal fuel tank was deleted, aerodynamic refinements were instituted and the vertical tail fin was modified with no dorsal fin extension. All of these changes resulting in a lightened airframe. The undercarriage was further redesigned while a new Soyuz (Tumansky) R-35F-300 series powerplant of 28,660lbs thrust with afterburner was installed. The rectangular intake fitted variable ramps doubling as splitter plates that would counteract the slower-moving air near the fuselage.
Internally, the avionics suite was given a complete overhaul while communications systems and autopilot were improved. The radar was upgraded to the Sapfir-23ML system featuring a range of up to 56 miles (over the previous 37-mile limitation). Look-down and jamming capabilities were equally improved while the HUD (Heads-Up Display) served up the radar picture to the pilot - negating the need for the pilot to take his eyes off of the forward action in order to read his system. Standard armament remained the GSh-23L twin-barreled cannon system fitted inside of a GP-9 gun pack under the fuselage. In all, the changes brought about better performance and capability through a refined and lightened airframe. Top speed was Mach 2.35 (1,555 mph) at altitude with a climb rate of 50,000 feet-per-minute up to a service ceiling of 60,700 feet. Combat range was 970 nautical miles with a ferry range listed at 1,515 nautical miles.
1984 saw the development of the MiG-23UM as another two-seat trainer to follow in line with the MiG-23ML and MiG-23P platforms. Earlier MiG-23UB systems were upgraded to the new MiG-23UM standard and featured the Angle of Attack restriction to prevent stalls as well as the UUA-1 AoA indicator. Restrictive combat capabilities are still retained.
The MiG-23MF became another export derivative, though this one retaining much of its Soviet original equipment. The "High Lark" fire control radar was still in place and support for the AA-7 missile was standard. Deliveries were made to Warsaw Pact allies and (later) to Third World entities Angola, India, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The MiG-23P was similar to the improved MiG-23ML and produced from the Model 23-14 prototype. It was essentially a modified - yet dedicated - interceptor for the PVO, fitting an improved Sapfir-23P series radar as well as an improved avionics and a new digital computer for interacting with ground control. The MiG-23P could better make use of ground-based navigation, bringing the aircraft to the interception point automatically while allowing the pilot a lightened workload and freedom to concentrate on weapons delivery and engine control. Cues could be delivered to the pilot as to when to ignite afterburner or release his weaponry.
The MiG-23bis brought back the Infra-Red Scan and Tracking system as well as a new, more informative HUD (Head-Up Display).
The MiG-23MLA was a later production variant of the MiG-23ML. The Electronic Countermeasures suite was improved as was the radar system. A new gunsight was installed. Production ran from 1978 to 1982 and produced some 1,000 examples. The MLA-model was delivered to Warsaw Pact nations and Third World entities in varying, yet simplified, forms.
The second generation MiG-23MF, MiG-23P, MiG-23bis and the MiG-23MLA were all categorized under the NATO codename of "Flogger-G".
The MiG-23MLD (model 23-18) was the definitive fighter form of the MiG-23 production line and became the final single-seat MiG-23s produced (reportedly converted from existing MiG-23MLs). Much attention was paid into improve combat handling. Close-in fighting was improved as were avionics, general pilot safety and the Sapfir-23MLA-II radar. Vortex generators was added to the wingroots and nose probe while leading edge root notches were incorporated to the wings. Countermeasures were addressed by the installation of chaff/flare dispensers along the rear upper fuselage. Countermeasures were further linked to a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) for enemy missile protection. The AA-11 "Archer" short-range missile became a new Soviet staple and increased the MiG-23s lethality as a fighter to an extent. The underwing pylons were redesigned to swivel in an effort to maintain optimal airflow during wing sweep processes at speed.
Interestingly, no new-build MiG-23MLD models were ordered for the Soviet Air Force. Instead conversions of some 560 existing MiG-23MLs were made. Deliveries occurred from 1982 through 1985. As with other new variants, the MLD was offered to Warsaw Pact and Third World customers in simplified forms - these interestingly were in fact new-build models. Production of the MiG-23MLD ended in 1984.
The MiG-23MLD became the "Flogger-K" codename in NATO lore.
Fighter-Bomber MiG-23 Floggers
The MiG-23 "Flogger" was developed into capable ground attack forms falling under the NATO codenames of "Flogger-F" and "Flogger-H".
"Flogger-F" was a fighter-bomber made up of the MiG-23B which was itself developed from the Mikoyan-Gurevich 32-24 prototype (of which three were ultimately produced) and still further related in origin to the MiG-23S. The straight-line speed, robustness and relatively cheap cost of the MiG-23 fighter made it an ideal candidate for conversion into a fighter-bomber. By 1969, a movement began to develop the MiG-23 as such and first flight was achieved on August 20th, 1970, with an airframe sporting an all-new forward fuselage and improvements made to the cockpit to compensate for the dangers inherent in low-altitude flying. The nose cone was revised to provide better forward and downward visibility while cockpit seat was raised. The windscreen was armored along with the cockpit sides and fuel tanks were made fire resistant through an inert gas-injection fire protection system. The radar system of her interceptor counterparts was removed and replaced by the PrNK Sokol-23S series navigation/attack suite comprised of the PBK-3 bomb sight and a built-in laser rangefinder. The navigation suite was further improved as was the all-important autopilot feature. The wingroot gloves were affixed with leading edge fairings housing a TV camera and a missile illuminator (initially introduced in the upcoming MiG-23BN but fielded in the MiG-23B first). Weapons loadout was appropriately increased for the new role and the suitable Lyulka (Lyul'ka) AL-21F-300 turbofan engine was fitted into a shortened rear fuselage. The MiG-23B was initially fitted with the Type 2 wing but later updated with the Type 3 wing. Despite the upgrades, production was limited to a small 24 examples spanning 1971 to 1972 as a new and improved variant became available (this being the MiG-23BN). The MiG-23B was not exported like previous MiG-23s were.
The MiG-23BN (32-23) was based on the MiG-23B and fitted with the less-powerful Soyuz (Tumansky) R-29B-300 series engine and an upgraded PrNK Sokol 23N navigation/attack system. Actually intended as the first strike version in the series, the MiG-23BN would have to wait for inception into service as its expected engine and internal systems faced developmental delays. Export totals of the BN-model were good and the type formed the definitive ground-attack form of the MiG-23 fighter line until replaced by the MiG-27. Some 624 examples appeared from 1973 to 1985.
The MiG-23BN fell under the NATO "Flogger-H" designation.
However, both the MiG-23B and the MiG-23BN proved somewhat inferior once in service. As such, Mikoyan-Gurevich looked to improve both types and gave life to the MiG-23BK (Model 32-26) and the MiG-23BM (Model 32-25). Both of these new aircraft became direct upgrades to the previous two offerings with some existing models converted to these standards while others were simply exported for logistics sake.
The MiG-23BK fitted the same PrNK-23 navigation/attack system as found on the MiG-27K along with laser rangefinder and improved avionics. The aircraft was only made available for export to Warsaw Pact nations. The MiG-23BM was of a similar design but incorporated the Sokol PrNK-23M navigation/attack system of the MiG-27D as well as its own improved avionics. The changes lengthened the service lives of these two aircraft and made them viable strike fighters.
Both aircraft shared the NATO codename of "Flogger-H".
The MiG-23BM "Experimental" was devised as a truly dedicated strike aircraft, doing away with much of the MiG-23's fighter origins. This development eventually graduated to become the successful line of MiG-27 Floggers detailed elsewhere on this site.
Floggers in Afghanistan
The Flogger was fielded in the Soviet-Afghanistan War of the 1980s. As the Afghan forces lacked any sort of viable air force, the MiG-23 was utilized heavily in the ground-attack role. These Floggers were therefore equipped with chaff/flare dispensers to combat the growing number of shoulder-launched, infra-red, American-made Stinger missiles being fielded by rebel forces. The fighting eventually spilled over into portions of Pakistan where MiG-23s were engaged by Pakistani F-16 Fighting Falcons. At least two MiG-23s were credited as downed by the Pakistani Air Force in the ensuing action.
Colonel Anatolij Levchenko achieved the highest Soviet title of "Hero of the Soviet Union" when he lost his life in actions during the Soviet-Afghanistan War. Having received detrimental direct hits from AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery) ground fire during an attack run against enemy targets at Salang Pass, his damaged plane refused to allow him to eject. Seemingly knowing his situation was dire, Levchenko pointed his damaged aircraft at the AAA installation and plowed the emplacement at full speed, subsequently destroying it and its surprised operators at the cost of his own life.
The MiG-23 was fielded by Syria in the 1982 war in Lebanon to which Israeli F-15 Eagles maintained the advantage. Iraq utilized the type against Iran in their bloody war from 1980 to 1988. Likewise, Iraq brought the MiG-23 out to play once again in the lopsided Gulf War of 1991. Iraq fielded the MiG-23 once more in actions encompassing Operation Desert Fox in 1998. American F-14 Tomcats successfully destroyed Libyan MiG-23s on camera in a much publicized engagement.
The MiG-23 has been retired from Soviet/Russian service since 1994 though large stockpiles remain in storage. Fewer and fewer operators of the MiG-23 remain to date with places like Turkmenistan (230), Syria (146) and Libya (130) maintaining large collections in operational service. Indian MiG-23BN models of the IAF were officially retired on March 6th, 2009, completing nearly 30 years of service to the nation. Many of the currently flyable MiG-23s are MiG-23ML, MiG-23MLD, MiG-23MF and MiG-23MF fighter types. About a quarter are then made up of the MiG-23BN fighter-bomber forms and the rest are MiG-23UB trainers. It is expected that the MiG-23 airframe and available weapon systems will be of use to their respective operators up until 2015
The Flogger was replaced in the fighter and strike aircraft roles for Russia by the much-improved Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 "Fulcrum".