SR-71s flew off the coast of Russia, “taunting and toying with MiG-25s sent up to intercept them, scooting up to altitudes the Soviet planes could not reach,” Viktor Belenko, former Soviet MiG-25 pilot
In the late 1960s, the USSR revealed the existence of the aircraft that appeared to be the world’s deadliest fighter, the MiG-25 (NATO reporting name “Foxbat”). This aircraft could outrun any fighter in the air, and indeed any military aircraft other than the SR-71 Blackbird.
The MiG-25’s development has been attributed at various times to the threat posed by either the B-70 Valkyrie, or to the SR-71. The Valkyrie’s cancellation has also been attributed to the threat posed by the MiG-25, even if that is doubtful, since the Foxbat was not seen publicity until 1967, and it’s capabilities were not known for several years after that. A more likely reason behind the B-70’s cancellation were the new Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) that threatened the survivability of high-speed, high-altitude bombers. Furthermore less costly, nuclear-armed ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) were also entering service. As a result, in 1961, the expensive B-70 bomber program was canceled before any Valkyries had been completed or flown.
However even after the B-70 was cancelled, the Foxbat’s development and production went forward. In fact as explained by Lou Drendel in his book SR-71 Blackbird In Action, the Habu posed a much more formidable threat, with its demonstrated ability to sustain cruise speeds above Mach 3 at over 80,000 feet.
The MiG-25 has presented as much an enigmatic image as the Blackbird, at times being reported as invincible, and at other times being dismissed as practically prehistoric in it’s approach to high speed and altitude flight.
“Naturally, it is to the advantage of the anti-military press to derogate the threat posed by the MiG-25,” says Drendel. “And they were quick to seize upon the fact that it does not approach the sophistication of the Blackbird, even though it was developed in the same time period.” Titanium was used sparingly in the MiG-25 (for the most part, only on leading edges of wings and tail) and its arc-welded surface did look crude. Its engines were powerful, but its airframe was relatively straightforward, and did not contribute to enhanced high speed performance as the Blackbird did.
“On the other hand, the pro-military press feels the need to enhance the threat posed by the MiG-25,” continues Drendel. “And may attach more significance to its design sophistication than is warranted. After all, without the spur of a clear and imminent danger, the American People have shown a great deal of reluctance to invest in defense.”
However western analysts, lacked good information about Foxbat’s capabilities until Sep. 6, 1976. On that day in fact Lieutenant Viktor Belenko, a Soviet MiG-25 pilot, successfully defected to the West, flying his Foxbat to Hakodate, Japan. The U.S. Government debriefed him for five months after his defection, and employed him as a consultant for several years thereafter. Belenko had brought with him the pilot’s manual for the MiG-25, expecting to assist American pilots in evaluating and testing the aircraft.
In 1980 he co-wrote his autobiography, MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko, where he states that MiG-25 pilots were forbidden to exceed Mach 2.5, and he maintained that the Foxbat could not safely exceed 2.8. When told that MiG-25s flew at Mach 3.2 in the skies over Israel, he said that the engines had been completely destroyed by these speeds, and that the pilots had been lucky to live through the experience.
In his autobiography Belenko claims that SR-71s flew off the coast of Russia, “taunting and toying with MiG-25s sent up to intercept them, scooting up to altitudes the Soviet planes could not reach, and circling leisurely above them, or dashing off at speeds the Russians could not match.”
Loaded with two R-40 missiles (NATO reporting name AA-6 ‘Acrid’), the Foxbat could reach 78,000 feet, but with its full complement of four missiles, it was limited to 68,900 feet. Given that SR-71’s cruise speed was fast than the top speed of Acrid missiles, there was no chance of a tail-chase interception, and apparently the Foxbat’s radar and fire control system was not sophisticated enough to solve the problems of a head-on intercept at closing speeds that would exceed Mach 5.
Most of these problems were later resolved by the MiG-31 Foxhound (that was the ultimate MiG-25 development) which posed a serious threat to the SR-71. In fact according to Paul Crickmore book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions, the MiG-31’s powerful combination of great performance, passive electronic scanner array radar, digital datalink with other interceptors and long range missiles made access to Soviet airspace very challenging also for the super fast Blackbird.
Photo credit: Dmitriy Pichugin and via Wikimedia and U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com