Had there ever been an order to shoot down the SR-71, the MiG-25PD crews were ready. But the routine of this event never escalated to such a dramatic situation
Immediately after World War II, it was clear that two geopolitical systems would dominate the world. Inherent in both was their mutually abiding mistrust of one another, which sowed the seeds for an arms race that would continue until one system achieved dominance over the other. The emergence of the Convair B-58 Hustler, the Lockheed A-12 and SR-71, and potentially the North American B-70 Valkyrie and Lockheed B-12, inevitably provoked the self perpetuating ’cause and effect response’ within the opposing power blocs when, as early as 1960, the Mikoyan-Gurevich Opytno-Konstruktorskoye Byuro (OKB; design bureau) was tasked to develop a supersonic interceptor, capable of defeating these new and emerging threats.
The result was the development of the first ‘big MiG’ — the spectacular MiG-25. Officially entering service following a directive dated Apr. 13, 1972, the first Protivovozdushnaya Oborona Strany (PVO; Anti-Air Defence Troops) MiG-25P units were stationed near Moscow, Kiev, Perm, Baku, Rostov and in the North and Far East. By the mid-1970s, the MiG-25P constituted the backbone of the Soviet Air Force’s interceptor inventory, and soon after converting to type, PVO units stationed near Soviet border areas were carrying out intercepts on SR-71s involved in peripheral reconnaissance missions of the Soviet Union.
On Sep. 6, 1976, Lt Victor Belenko, the pilot of a PVO unit based at Chuguyevka, located to the north of Vladivostok, defected to the West via Japan in ‘his’ MiG-25P, providing the U.S. intelligence community with a windfall. The aircraft was dismantled by U.S. Air Force intelligence staff, and although later returned to its country of origin, it was obvious to Soviet officials that the aircraft’s capabilities were now severely compromised and unless the design was drastically upgraded, the type’s combat efficiency would be enormously
As told by Paul F Crickmore in his book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Revised Edition), in a joint effort that involved the Ministry of Aircraft Industry and military experts, the Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB embarked upon a comprehensive upgrade programme. The earlier monopulse low-pulse repetition frequency Smerch-A2 (Izdelye 720M) radar was replaced by the much-improved Sapfeer-25. This new radar unit was lager than its predecessor and required a modest fuselage stretch forward of the cockpit; its improved capabilities enabled detection of targets with an RCS of 16m2 at a range of more than 100km (62.5 miles).
An infra-red search and track (IRST) system was developed which, when coupled with the radar, made the weapons system less susceptible to the effects of ECM; it also provided the platform with the ability to perform ‘sneak attacks’ without switching on the radar. The upgrade also included installation of the BAN-75 target indication and guidance system that acted in concert with the ground-based Luch-1 guidance system to align the optical axis of
the aircraft’s radar with the target; this also ensured that its radar was less sensitive to jamming. In addition, a new IFF set and ground-based command system were provided (the latter replaced the Vozdookh-IM and incorporated a jam-proof aircraft receiver).
Four R-60 missiles would be carried instead of four R-40TDs, which, due to more effective homing heads, almost doubled the range of the earlier weapons. Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, the upgraded platform would be powered by newer engines, two R-15BD-300s. Work progressed rapidly on the design, designated MiG-25PD or Izdelye
84D (D for Dorabotannyy, meaning modified or upgraded), and by the end of 1982, the entire fleet had also undergone a mid-life update programme, leading to the designation MiG-25PDS (Perekhvatchik, Doralotannyy v Stroyou; field-modified interceptor).
There now follows an insight into MiG-25PD operations as conducted by the 787th Istrebitelniy Aviatisonniy Polk (IAP; fighter aviation regiment) against Det 4 SR-71s flying over the Baltic Sea. It is reproduced by courtesy of Lutz Freund, editor of Sowjetische Fliegerkrafte Deutschland 1945-1994.
Around 1980, the Warsaw Pact’s air defence forces (PVO) introduced a new alarm call — ‘Jastreb’ (hawk). It meant that a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was approaching. Later on it became the standard alarm signal for all high and very fast-flying targets.
Under normal circumstances the alarm call came several minutes before an SR-71, typically flying at an altitude of 20 to 25km at some 800-900m/s, entered the range of Soviet and German Democratic Republic (GDR) air surveillance and guidance radars. At Finow air base the alarm resulted in the 787th IAP scrambling a MiG-25PD fighter. They took off and approached the intruder in a wide curve on a parallel course, with a separation of a few kilometres. During this MiG-25 manoeuvre the aircraft overflew all of the GDR’s northern or southern area. On military maps the MiG-25’s flightpath was shown as a large circle.
Depending on the weather, SR-71s flew reconnaissance missions once or twice a week along the Warsaw Pact border. During military manoeuvres flight frequency could rise to two missions every 24 hours. The aircraft used two standard routes. The approach towards GDR airspace was from Denmark. Over the West German city of Kiel the flight path continued either to Aufklarungsstrecke 2 (reconnaissance route 2), along the Baltic Sea coast line to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and back, or to Aufklarungsstrecke 5, along the GDR’s western border. Such missions normally lasted around 60 minutes. The distance to the border varied due to the aircraft’s high velocity and it was unable to follow the border’s exact line. Sometimes an SR-71 came within a few kilometres of GDR’s border in the area of Boizenburg, or just slipped over it.
Had there ever been an order to shoot down the intruder, the MiG-25 crews were ready. But the routine of this event never escalated to such a dramatic situation. After a short time flying alongside the SR-71, the MiG-25PD headed home. The usual flightpast home to Finow was over Poland.
Beside the airborne defenders, the missile defence forces were also on alert. It would have been possible to successfully destroy the intruder, but for a successful lock-on and shootdown they would need a slightly lateral shot to reduce the extreme altitude. The missile defence forces remained on alert as long as the SR-71 was detected in the region by Soviet radio listening troops.
Finow-Eberswalde was built in 1936 and used by Soviet forces from 1945. With the introduction of MiG-25PU its runway (10/28) was lengthened to 2,510m. Between Jul. 24, 1982 and Aug. 10, 1989, the 787th IAP operated MiG-25PD from the base, more or less coincident with the period of SR-71 operations out of Mildenhall, UK. After the withdrawal of the SR-71 from the UK, MiG-23s and MiG-29s replaced the MiG-25.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikimedia Commons
Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Revised Edition) is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com