The Mikoyan MiG-23 fighters still remain in widespread service with export customers
The ‘swing-wing’ MiG-23 (NATO reporting name Flogger) was developed in the 1960s in response to the US F-14 Tomcat. It succeeded the previous MiG-21. It combined greater payload, range and firepower with beyond visual range intercept capability from more powerful onboard sensors. The Model 23-11 prototype first flew in 1967. Production commenced in 1969.
Over 5 000 MiG-23 aircraft and its variants were built. However overall the MiG-23 was not a successful design. This fighter was difficult to fly and expensive to maintain. Its engines had short service life. This was the reason why Warsaw Pact countries also operated the older MiG-21 fighters alongside this new aircraft.
Initial production aircraft had a number of flaws. Shortly after an improved MiG-23M (Flogger-B) was developed. It had improved electronics, more powerful engines, and other improvements. It introduced beyond visual range capability with Sapfir-23 (High Lark) pulse-Doppler radar and R-23 (Western reporting name AA-7 or Apex) semi-active air-to-air missiles. This missile was similar to the early versions of the US AIM-7 Sparrow. It was adopted in 1974 specially for use on the MiG-23. Both radar-guided and infrared-homing versions of this missile were fielded.
Two downgraded export versions of the MiG-23M were produced. The MiG-23MS (Flogger-E) had the MiG-21’s ‘Jay Bird’ radar in a short radome and therefore no beyond visual range missile capability. The MiG-23MF retained the ‘High Lark’ radar, R-23 missile capability and Flogger-B reporting name.
The MiG-23ML (Flogger-G) was intended to have improved handling especially at high angles of attack, enhanced maneuverability and higher ‘g’ limits. It featured a lightened airframe, more powerful R-35-300 engine, improved, lightweight Sapfir-23L radar adding a new dogfight mode, more capable defensive avionics and a new infra-red search and track. It formed the basis for the MiG-23MLD (Flogger-K) that had a number of aerodynamic modifications to increase high angle-of-attack capability and controllability.
The MiG-23UB (Flogger-C) was a two-seat trainer and operational conversion variant and remained active with all MiG-23 operators. Phazotron offered a MiG-23 upgrade based around its N019M Topaz multimode radar compatible with R-77 medium-range air-to-air missiles with active radar homing. There was a MiG-23B ground attack variant. It was developed in the late 1960s. Though the original MiG-23B was never produced in large numbers. It series production variant was the MiG-23 BN. However this fighter-bomber proved disappointing in service. Since 1975 it was replaced by a more capable MiG-27 tactical ground attack aircraft. The MiG-27 was in Russian service until 1994.
By 1999 the MiG-23 has been phased out of front-line service from Russian air defense interceptor and air force units and equiped reserve and training units only. At the time the MiG-23 fighters remained in widespread service with export customers. The basic MiG-23M served with Turkmenistan while Algeria operated the MiG-23MS. The MiG-23MFs served with Cuba, North Korea, Iraq and Romania. India’s surviving MiG-23MFs have been relegated to an air defense training unit.
MiG-23MLs served with Angola and Yemen while a combination of MiG-23MF/ML/MS/MLDs constituted the backbone of the air defense forces of Libya and Syria. Bulgaria operated a mix of MF/ML/MLDs. The MiG-23MLDs also equipped fighter regiments in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Eventually the MiG-23 and its variants has been retired in the Air Forces of Belarus, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Romania and Ukraine.