The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (Russian: Микоян и Гуревич МиГ-23; NATO reporting name: Flogger) is a variable-geometry fighter aircraft, designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau in the Soviet Union. It is considered to belong to the Soviet third generation jet fighter category, along with similarly aged Soviet fighters such as the MiG-25 "Foxbat". It was the first attempt by the Soviet Union to design look-down/shoot-down radar and one of the first to be armed with beyond visual range missiles, and the first MiG production fighter aircraft to have intakes at the sides of the fuselage. Production started in 1970 and reached large numbers with over 5,000 aircraft built. Today the MiG-23 remains in limited service with various export customers.
The MiG-23's predecessor, the MiG-21 (NATO reporting name "Fishbed"), was fast and agile, but limited in its operational capabilities by its primitive radar, short range, and limited weapons load (restricted in some aircraft to a pair of short-range R-3/K-13 (AA-2 "Atoll") air-to-air missiles). The MiG-23 was to be a heavier, more powerful machine designed to remedy these deficiencies, and match Western aircraft like the F-4 Phantom. The new fighter was to feature a totally new S-23 sensor and weapon system capable of firing beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles.
The first prototype, called "23-01" but also known as the MiG-23PD, was a tailed delta similar to the MiG-21 but with two lift jets in the fuselage. However, it became apparent very early that this configuration was unsatisfactory, as the lift jets became useless dead weight once airborne. The second prototype, known as "23-11", featured variable-geometry wings which could be set to angles of 16, 45 and 72 degrees, and it was clearly more promising. The maiden flight of 23–11 took place on 10 June 1967, and three more prototypes were prepared for further flight and system testing. All featured the Tumansky R-27-300 turbojet engine with a thrust of 7850 kp. The order to start series production of the MiG-23 was given in December 1967.
The General Dynamics F-111 and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II were the main Western influences on the MiG-23. The Soviets, however, wanted a much lighter, single-engined fighter to maximize agility. Both the F-111 and the MiG-23 were designed as fighters, but the heavy weight and inherent stability of the F-111 turned it into a long-range interdictor and kept it out of the fighter role. The MiG-23's designers kept the MiG-23 light and agile enough to dogfight with enemy fighters.
The MiG-23's armament evolved as the type's avionics were upgraded and new variants were deployed. The earliest versions, which were equipped with the MiG-21's fire control system, were limited to firing variants of the R-3/K-13 (AA-2 "Atoll") missile. The R-60 (AA-8 "Aphid") replaced the R-3 during the '70s, and from the MiG-23M onwards the BVR R-23/R-24 (AA-7 "Apex") was carried. The MiG-23MLD is capable of firing the R-73 (AA-11 "Archer"), but this missile was not exported until the MiG-29 was released for export. The helmet-mounted sight associated with the R-73 missile was fitted on the MiG-23MLDG and other experimental MiG-23MLD subvariants that never entered production as had been originally planned. The reason was that these MiG-23MLD subvariants had less priority than the then ongoing MiG-29 program, and the Mikoyan bureau therefore decided to concentrate all their efforts on the MiG-29 program and halted further work on the MiG-23. Nevertheless, a helmet-mounted sight is now offered as part of the MiG-23-98 upgrade. There were reports of the MiG-23MLD being capable of firing the R-27 (AA-10 "Alamo") beyond experimental tests; however, it seems only Angola's MiG-23-98s are capable of doing so. A MiG-23 was used to test and fire the R-27, R-73, and R-77 (AA-12 "Adder") air-to-air missiles during their early flight and firing trials. Ground-attack armament includes 57 mm rocket pods, general purpose bombs up to 500 kg in size, gun pods, and Kh-23 (AS-7 "Kerry") radio-guided missiles. Up to four external fuel tanks could be carried.
The MiG-23 had the advantage of being quite cheap in the early 1980s. For example, the MiG-23MS was priced between US$3.6 million and US$6.6 million depending on the customer; on the other hand in 1980, the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon was priced at US$14 million, and the Flogger's closest Western competitor was the Israeli $4.5 million Kfir C2. This allowed the Soviets to mass-produce the MiG-23 in significant numbers in order to gain a significant quantitative advantage over NATO air forces, especially since the Western world was recoiling under the effects of the 1973 Oil Crisis.
Many potential enemies of the USSR and its client states have had opportunities to evaluate the MiG-23’s performance. In the 1970s, after a political realignment by the Egyptian government, Egypt gave MiG-23MSs to the United States and the People's Republic of China in exchange for military hardware. In the US, these MiG-23MSs, and other variants acquired later from Germany, were used as part of a Soviet military hardware evaluation program. Dutch pilot Leon Van Maurer, who had more than 1,200 hours flying F-16s, flew against MiG-23MLs from air bases in Germany and the U.S. as part of NATO's aerial mock combat training with Soviet equipment. He concluded the MiG-23ML was superior in the vertical to early F-16 variants, just slightly inferior to the F-16A in the horizontal, and had superior BVR capability.
The Israelis tested a MiG-23MLD flown to them by a Syrian defector, and found it had better acceleration than the F-16 and F/A-18.
U.S. and Israeli reports also found that the MiG-23's Head-Up Display (HUD) doubles as a radarscope, allowing the pilot to keep his eyes focused at infinity while operating his radar. This allowed the Soviets to omit the separate radarscope from the MiG-23. This feature was carried over into the MiG-29, though in that aircraft, a cathode ray tube (CRT) is carried on the upper right corner to double as a radarscope. Western opinions about this "head-up radarscope" are mixed. The Israelis were impressed, but an American F-16 pilot criticized it as "sticking a transparent map in front of the HUD" and not providing a three-dimensional presentation that would accurately cue a pilot's eyes to look for a fighter as it appears in a particular direction.
Additionally, a Cuban pilot flew a MiG-23BN to the U.S. in 1991, and a Libyan MiG-23 pilot also defected to Greece in 1981. In both cases, the aircraft were later repatriated.
The early MiG-23M series was also used to test the American Northrop F-5s captured by the North Vietnamese and sent to the former USSR for evaluation. The Russians acknowledged the F-5 was a very agile aircraft, and at some speeds and altitudes better than the MiG-23M, one of the main reasons the MiG-23MLD and MiG-29 developments were started. These tests allowed the Russians to make modifications to several of their fourth-generation aircraft. The MiG-23, however, was not designed to combat F-5s, a weakness reflected by early MiG-23 variants.
Early Western reports claimed that the aircraft had poor dogfighting capability, due to being designed to outaccelerate the F-111. Later analysis showed the MiG-23 to be equivalent to the F-4, surpassed only by newer fourth-generation fighters, such as the F-15 and F-16. (The MiG-23 is considered a third-generation jet fighter.) The Soviet combat manual for MiG-23MLD pilots claims the MiG-23MLD to have a slight superiority over the F-4 and Kfir, but is no match for the F-15 and F-16 in most combat parameters. This manual also recommends tactics to be used against these fighters.