Design of the new fighter began in 1964, and the first prototype flew in April, 1967. MiG-23s entered operational service in 1971. The most distinctive feature was the variable-sweep wing, which could be set at 16, 45, or 72 degrees.
Design and Variants
A single Tumansky turbojet engine powers the MiG-23, giving it a maximum speed of 1550 mph. It carries a 23 mm cannon and has four pylons under the wings and fuselage for missiles or bombs. Avionics and range are better than in the MiG-21, but the newer plane is also more complex and not as maneuverable, leading some air forces to turn down the Flogger in favor of keeping their Fishbeds.
The Flogger came out with a number of variants. The MiG-23BN is optimized for ground attack, while the MiG-23ML “Flogger-G” is an air superiority fighter, and the MiG-23UB is the two seat trainer version.
MiG-23s saw a great deal of use with the Soviet air force in the occupation of Afghanistan. One Flogger pilot, Colonel Anatolij Levchenko, flew 188 missions during the conflict. On his last mission, on December 27, 1986, he and his flight were attacking insurgent traffic on the Salang Pass when he was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He then dived his aircraft onto the anti-aircraft battery, destroying it and allowing his squadron to continue the attack unmolested. Levchenko was posthumously named a Hero of the Soviet Union.
On occasion, dogfights would develop on the border between Afghanistan and neighboring countries. During one of those, on April 29, 1987, the Soviets claimed one Pakistani F-16 shot down by Floggers (the Pakistanis admitted the loss, but claimed that the plane was a victim of friendly fire). Over a year later, on September 12, 1988, Falcon pilot Lt. Kalid Mahmood of the PAF, claimed to have downed two MiG-23s, although the Soviets denied this. A couple of weeks later, Soviet Floggers intercepted two Iranian Cobra helicopters that had strayed into Afghan airspace, shooting them down.
The MiG-23 had a poor record against Israeli aircraft, but, contrary to earlier reports, Syrian Floggers did score some successes. Soon after they became operational, in April of 1974 (a time of undeclared conflict between Syria and Israel similar to the War of Attrition), MiG-23 pilot Captain al-Masry was on a weapons test flight when he detected eight Israeli F-4 Phantoms and attacked. He fired three air-to-air missiles, two of which hit and downed their targets, the first kills for the MiG-23. As the formation scattered, he attempted to engage another F-4, but was hit by two missiles (which may have come from a Syrian SAM site!), breaking his plane in two and forcing him to eject. Though injured, Al-Masry was recovered safely and decorated for his actions in the face of over-whelming odds. Syria used its Floggers sparingly after that, and it wasn’t until April of 1981 that they saw action again. Patrolling MiG-23 pilots shot down two IAF A-4 Skyhawks that were bombing PLO positions in Lebanon.
Floggers were more prominent in the 1982 Lebanon War (Operation Peace for Galilee), when they and MiG-21s attempted to challenge the IAF in force, resulting in one of the largest aerial battles in post-WWII history. On June 7, a MiG-23 became the first Syrian loss of the war when it was downed by an F-15 Eagle, while another Flogger pilot claimed to have shot down an F-16 on the same day. The Syrians claimed that their MiG-23s downed four more F-16s and two F-4s during the four day aerial battle, although these claims remain unconfirmed. Israeli F-15s and F-16s shot down approximately 25 MiG-23s.
On October 11, 1989, a Syrian MiG-23 pilot defected to Israel with his plane. Israel kept and evaluated the plane, which is now in the Israel Air Force Museum.
In April of 2002, a MiG-23 downed an Israeli reconnaissance drone that had entered Syrian airspace. According to reports, after this the Israeli air force temporarily stopped all recon flights on or near the border with Syria.
Libya was an early customer for the Flogger. Libyan MiG-23s were operational by the mid-70s, and saw action in the 1977 Libyan-Egyptian War. Libyan Floggers frequently tangled with US Navy fighters during fleet exercises in the Gulf of Sidra in the 80s, and several were destroyed or damaged on the ground during Operation Prairie Fire. The MiG-23 made headlines all over America on January 4, 1989, when Navy F-14 Tomcats from the USS John F. Kennedy engaged two Libyan Floggers near Tobruk, downing both MiGs after a short dogfight. The Libyan government claimed the planes were on a reconnaissance mission and unarmed, but photos of the lead MiG showed what appeared to be air-to-air missiles under the wings and fuselage.
By 1980, the MiG-23 had become one of the most important assets of the Iraqi Air Force, and Floggers were especially prominent in the initial air strikes that kicked off the Iran-Iraq War. Iraqi MiG-23s had a relatively poor record in the first year of the war, however. Not only were their planes out-classed by the F-14 Tomcats the Iranians flew, but the Iraqi pilots were generally not as well-trained as their counterparts. Information on the MiG’s combat record is still sketchy, but MiG-23s definitely took heavy losses to Iranian F-14s and F-4s. By late 1981, the Iraqi Air Force had become much more cautious with its Floggers, mainly relegating them to air-defense tasks.
MiG-23BNs played a small role in the tanker war, sinking the tanker Moira and damaging two other ships.
MiG-23s took part in the strikes on Kuwait during the 1990 invasion, one being downed by a Kuwaiti Hawk SAM battery. Once the Gulf War began, eight Floggers were shot down by American F-15s, but failed to score a single kill in return. After the war, a MiG-23 was shot down by an American F-16 when it violated the southern no-fly zone.
Starting in 1984, Cuban MiG-23s were in Angola aiding the Communist government against UNITA rebels and the South African military. The MiGs engaged South African Mirages in a number of dogfights between September 1987 and February 1988, one of which resulted in a loss for the South Africans when a Mirage suffered damage from an Apex air-to-air missile and crashed while trying to land. Floggers were also involved in ground attack missions.
- MiG-23 Flogger at GlobalSecurity.org
- Dogfight: Military Aircraft Compared and Contrasted, by Robert Jackson and Jim Winchester, Amber Books Ltd., 2006
- The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, ed. by Chris Bishop, Aerospace Publishing, 2001
- Spotlight: AH-1 Cobra
- Early MiG-23M/MS Floggers in Action
- Israeli F-15 Eagles in Combat, by Shlomo Aloni, Osprey Publishing, 2006
- The MiG-23 Combat Record
- Israeli Air-to-Air Victories since 1974
- Intrusions, Overflights, Shootdowns, and Defections in the Cold War and Thereafter
- Israeli-Syrian Shadow Boxing
- Libya & Egypt, 1971-1979
- El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi, by Joseph T. Stanik, Naval Institute Press, 2003
- Libyan Wars, 1980-1989
- Iranian F-14 Units in Combat, by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop, Osprey Publishing, 2004
- Tanker War, 1980-1988
- Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, 1990
- F-15C Eagle Units in Combat, by Steve Davies, Osprey Publishing, 2005
- Angola: Claims and Reality about SAAF Loses