The Foxbat that buzzed Pakistan 20 years ago
In May 1997 a MiG-25R aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) flew deep into Pakistani airspace on a reconnaissance mission, photographed sensitive defence sites and broke the sound barrier, sending a powerful sonic boom over Islamabad. Before the Pakistanis could figure out what had hit them or scramble their fighter aircraft, the intruding MiG-25 – codenamed Foxbat by NATO – was back in Indian airspace.
Details of the missions are classified, so it remains a mystery why the Indian pilot chose to reveal his presence over a heavily populated area of Pakistan. Some sources like Spyflight, a website dedicated to reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, have speculated that the MiG-25 pilot wanted to show that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was India’s bunny.
“The aircraft entered Pakistani airspace subsonically (below the speed of sound) at around 65,000 ft and was undetected,” says Spyflight. “Then having overflown and photographed strategic installations near the capital, Islamabad, the aircraft turned back towards India. Perhaps to rub the Pakistanis’ noses in it, the Foxbat pilot decided to accelerate up to Mach 2 and dropped a large sonic boom as he exited Pakistani airspace. A number of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16As were scrambled, but had insufficient time to make an effective intercept.”
India denied the incident but Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Gohar Ayub Khan, believed that the Foxbat photographed strategic installations near Islamabad. Air Power International says the Pakistan government considered the breaking of the sound barrier as deliberate: to make the point that the PAF had no aircraft in its inventory which could come close to the cruising height of the MiG-25.
Flying at speeds approaching Mach 3 – 3700 kph – at altitudes ranging from 65,000 to 90,000 ft, the MiG-25s flew faster and higher than anything the enemy had. Flying at the edge of space, the aircraft was virtually undetectable to Pakistan’s radar network. Only the sonic boom and the fact that it was flying at an unusually low level allowed a Pakistani forward operating base to trace the Foxbat and scramble a couple of F-16As from Sargodha air base.
But chasing the Foxbat was pointless. Sources in the PAF told Air Power International there was no need to intercept an aircraft flying at 65,000 feet as the F-16 could climb to an altitude of only 50,000 feet.
Peering across the border
For a 25 year period that stretched from 1981 to 2006, eight MiG-25s of the Trisonics squadron based in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, flew unchallenged over Pakistan (and sometimes Tibet), taking countless high definition photographs and radar images of the situation on the ground. Plus, they recorded electronic emissions from Pakistani and Chinese military communication networks. On an average they flew 10-15 missions a month.
The MiG-25 was Russia’s secret weapon against American bombers and therefore was not supplied to even its closest Warsaw Pact allies. However, the defection of the traitor Viktor Belenko in 1976 compromised secrecy and it became available for export. Aviation expert Shiv Aroor quotes former IAF Chief Idris Latif: “I was shocked and delighted to learn that the Soviets were actually offering MiG-25 Foxbats to us in 1980. I phoned up Mrs (Indira) Gandhi and she told me to go ahead and make a decision….The Foxbat was the best in the world and it was made available to us.”
Tough as nails
Although the photographs taken by the Trisonics remain classified, legendary aviation author Yefim Gordon offers a glimpse into the secretive world of these high-performance jets.
The Foxbat R has no defensive armament but relies on its Mach 3 speed and its high operating ceiling to escape any attacker. In 'MiG-25 Foxbat, MiG-31 Foxhound: Russia's Defensive Front Line' Gordon writes: “The MiG-25RB (reconnaissance/strike version) and its versions were popular with their crews due to their exceptional performance: high speed, excellent picture quality, the ability to reconnoitre large areas in a single sortie and low vulnerability to enemy fire.”
The Foxbat spy plane could detect parked aircraft, trains, ships and visualise the condition of bridges and similar structures. The IAF often flew special missions for the Indian Army when it sought intelligence on Pakistani armoured assets. The picture generated by the radar was developed on the ground in a specially equipped van. According to former IAF Wing Commander Alok Chauhan, “These aircraft can map a country the size of Pakistan in a single-digit number of missions….”
The aircraft could stand out in all kinds of weather and never needed cosseting in an air-conditioned hangar. The MiG-25 was extremely easy to maintain and service, demanding less specialised equipment and manpower than similar western aircraft.
Gordon adds: “Arguably the most impressive thing about the MiG-25 was that its extraordinary performance was obtained in a relatively conventional aircraft, one which was simple and cheap enough to be produced in very large numbers and to be exported. Interestingly, the only confirmed Iraqi air-to-air kill of the 1991 Gulf War was scored by a MiG-25, which downed a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet, and MiG-25 reconnaissance aircraft can still operate with impunity over many parts of the world.”
The MiG-25 holds 29 world records, among including the altitude record in an aircraft using jet engines. On August 21, 1977, Russian test pilot Alexander Fedotov climbed to an altitude of 123,523 ft above the Earth.
Flying into the sunset
With India acquiring high resolution remote sensing satellites with the capability to read even the licence plate of a parked army truck, there was no longer a need for reconnaissance aircraft to overfly enemy territory. The MiG-25R began to look like a Cold War weapon.
The other reason was the issue of spare parts from Russia. IAF officers report that the Russians had closed down the plants that made Foxbat parts. They had even got rid of the blueprints. (This isn’t as negligent as it sounds; the Americans destroyed the blueprints of their top secret SR-71 spy plane.) The IAF was, therefore, forced to rely on made in India parts, which carried potential risks in such a high-performance aircraft.
The magnificent Trisonics are gone but hopefully one day the IAF will release the stories of the daredevil missions conducted in these powerful MiGs and the brave men who flew them over Islamabad and Tibet.
Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and foreign affairs analyst. Read more of his articles here.
Views expressed in the column are personal.