||Beautiful photograph of
fully-armed LARAF MiG-23MS interceptors, taken by USN pilots in August
US NAVY - ALL VIA AUTHOR
EARLY MIG-23S IN OPERATIONAL SERVICE
Few fighters, especially jet-powered, were ever built in such huge numbers and at such a pace as the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23.
Furthermore, hardly any other type characterised the Soviet approach to the concept of tactical
fighter so much as this, which was designated Flogger by NATO. Very few other types have been so badly misunderstood as the MiG-23.
Faced with the development of technologically superior Western fighters during the 1960s, the Soviets were not intent on designing the
Flogger manoeuvrability, instead they wanted a powerful and fast fighter, which could accept or decline an engagement by virtue of its higher speed. It
would have to suit large-scale production, and at the same time have the capability 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
Fishbed, but not be more manoeuvrable.
Most of these requirements could be met by choosing a very
streamlined fuselage, coupled with
the wing capable of a sweep according to the flight regime, and whose chord
would increase as the wing moved back, thus reducing the thickness to
chord ratio. Such a 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-loading increases, the drag reduces, and the low-level high-speed ride is more comfortable. Therefore, the MiG-23 - which had wings that could only be swept to three pre-set positions (16, 45
and 72 decrees) in order to keep their construction simple and cheap - became
operating at very high speeds at low-levels over increased ranges. It offered a stable weapons platform at reasonable weapons loads, but the manoeuvrability - which could have been achieved by much more complex and expensive construction - was clearly sacrificed, and is usually described as
being somewhere between that of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and a non-slatted McDonnell Douglas
F-4 Phantom II.
All of these capabilities of the design - including its economic production - resulted in the MiG-23 becoming the most important tactical fighter with many Soviet-supplied air forces during the 1970s and most of 1980s. This led to the type being intensively
used in many smaller - so-called 'local'-wars, during the course of which the
Flogger would occasionally confront the latest-generation of its Western
|An Egyptian pilot doing a walk-around
of his MiG-23MS
Little is known about the operational experiences of the various MiG-23 operators, save for some scant details about Israeli and Syrian
clashes over the Lebanon between 1981 and 1985, all of which came from Israeli sources. These reports
indicate that the MiG-23 in Syrian service suffered extensive losses for no gains, and concluded that the Soviets had been wrong with their requirements for the design of the aircraft
- and even more so its weapons systems - as neither could
match their Western counterparts.
|An Egyptian pilot taking over the MiG-23MS
from his crew-chief. Note the national marking under each wing and a series
of concrete hardened shelters in the rear
Under closer scrutiny, however, this is not entirely true. On the 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 rate 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 considered as an 'underdog'.
Long before the Soviets ever had a chance to put their MiG-23s into operational use, the type experienced
its combat premiere in the Middle East.The first air force to request deliveries of
MiG-23s was Egypt, in 1970. However, at the time, the Flogger
was not even in production, and request was swiftly refused by the Soviets, who in 1972 fielded the MiG-23M. After additional requests from
Egypt and Iraq, in early 1973, the first downgraded export version, the MiG-23MS,
equipped with the weapons system of MiG-21MF and R-27F2M-200 turbojets, was developed. Interestingly, this was first supplied
to Syria - two MiG-23MS versions and two MiG-23UB two-seaters were shipped in
crates on October 14, 1973, aboard two Antonov An-12B Cub transports, which landed at al-Mazzah air base.
Before these four could be assembled, flight-tested and their crews made combat ready, the war with Israel was
Although there was a sense of urgency in bringing these new aircraft into
service, the Syrians found the MiG-23 more demanding to fly and operate than had been advertised by the Soviets-consequently converting to type took longe than
anticipaited. During early 1974, several Syrian MiG-23MS were lost in iccidents, and by April, the 54th Squadron, based at Dmeyr, was still not completely combat-
ready, as only eight MiG23MS remained operational (the other unit stated to receive the MiG-23MS - the 77th
Squadron - was also only preparing for conversion.
Unintentionally, one of the aircraft and pilots from the 54th was soon to be involved in the fighting? and score the first "kills"
for the type. Fighting continued in 1973 after Yom Kippur/Ramadan WAR along the front of the Golan Height, especially arround the mount Jebel Sheikh (better known as Mount Hermon),
in what the Syrians were now calling the "War of Attrition". On April 13, 1974, after almost 100 days of continuous artillery exchanges and skirmishes along the Golan Height,
in anticipation of the eventual "Super Offensive" against Israel, apparently planned to be undertaken by Syria, Iraq and Libya, Syrian
helicopters delivered commandos to attack the Israeli observation post at Jebel Sheikh. This provoked a week-Iong
series of heavy clashes in the air and on the ground, during which both sides lost a number of fighters in air
combat and to anti-aircraft fire from the ground. The situation was finally so tense, that a new war was seemingly inevitable, especially after April 18, 1974, when
the IDF/AF launched a series of air strikes, against Syrian SAM-siles around Jebel Sheikh.
These strikes continued into the next day and in the early
afternoon, Captain al-Masry (now Lt Gen retired) flew his
MIG-23MS on a weapons test to the north-west of Damascus. He continues his story:
At the time, the 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 missiom 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 had 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 freaquency, 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 really have much of a choice: they would have attacked me anyway, so I engaged them first.
"I FIRED THREE MISSILES, TWO OF WHICH
HIT TWO ENEMY PLANES AND I WATCHED
THEM GO DOWN IN FLAMES."
Flying at low level, he accelerated to offset the enemy formation, turned as tightly as his Flogger permitted and rolled right behind the Israeli formation: "I fired three missiles, two
of whitch hit two enemy planes and I watched them go down in flames."
The rest of the Israeli formation immediately dispersed
in different directions, and the Syrian turned behind the closest one trying to engage with his guns. The Phantom in front of him executed a break to the left, but,
while manoeuvring behind the target, al-Masry's aircraft shuddered from a direct hit:
"While I was manoeuvring, 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."
Al-Masry couldn't manoeuvre any more when another missile struck his MiG, causing it to break into two large sections and plunge to the ground.
Subsequent analysis of the pattern of the hit, the size of the explosion and claims
Israeli claims against MiG-23s, indicate that he was hit by two SA-6s in a clear case of friendly fire. Until today, al-Masry cannot clearly remember how he survived this mission:
"I fell to the ground together with the crashing aircraft,
and was rescued immediately. I was hurt very bad on the shoulder and chest, and awakened from a coma one month later."
For his success in that battle, and downing of two F-4E Phantoms (to this day, the IDF-AF confirmed the loss of only one Phantom on that day,
the crew of which was captured by the Syrians), al-Masry was subsequently promoted to the rank of Major and awarded the "Hero of the Republic" Medal by General Mustafa Tlas (now Syria's Minister of Defence).
However, be was never to fly again - his injuries precluded him from passing rigorous tests when he tried to re-qualify after his recovery.
Maj al-Masry remained with the SyAAF well into the 1980s, by which time he was promoted to the rank of Lt General. However, another pilot from this family flew MiG-23s as well, and
later became a commander of the first Syrian MiG-29 fulcrum unit.
The career of the Syrian MiG-23s subsequently continued at a high pace, and during 1974, an additional 24 MiG-23MS interceptors,
as well as a similar number of MiG-23BNs, a new strike version, were delivered to al-Mazzah air base, near Damascus. These entered service with the 695th and 698th Squadrons stationed at an-Nasiriyah. After a total of 54 MiG-23MS had been delivered in 1974, the 54th and 77th
Squadrons completed their conversion to the type, and later the 678th and 697th Squadrons followed suit - then in 1978 deliveries of MiG-23MFs started,
equipping two other squadrons.