Foxbats Versus Tomcats
In the 1980s, the MiG-25 and F-14 met in combat
The Iraqi air force received its first Foxbats – 12 MiG-25P interceptors, 12 MiG-25R reconnaissance aircraft and six MiG-25PU conversion trainers – in 1980. However, the Soviets delivered variants that fell below the technical standards demanded by the Iraqis, so Baghdad refused to accept the aircraft.
Moscow eventually agreed to upgrade the MiGs as requested and train their crews. The Iraqi Foxbats flew their first sorties into Iranian airspace in May 1982. There followed a series of reconnaissance flights ever deeper over Iran, which in turn prompted the Iranian air force to scramble its F-14 Tomcats in attempts to intercept.
Two of the most fearsome fighters of the Cold War went head to head.
But catching an Iraqi Foxbat proved extremely problematic. Iranian officers who had defected to Iraq in 1980 revealed the blueprints of the Iranian early warning radar network to Baghdad. The Iraqi MiG-25 pilots thus knew exactly where and how to enter the Iranian airspace unobserved before accelerating and climbing for the actual mission.
As a result, Iranian air defenses were usually late in detecting the Foxbats, leaving Iran’s F-14 crews only three to five minutes to attempt an intercept. For all practical purposes, if no Tomcat was almost directly in front of the incoming Iraqi MiG-25, a successful engagement was entirely out of the question.
Nevertheless, the Iranians gradually re-learned the lessons taught to them by their U.S. advisors back in the 1970s. Their first encounters with Iraqi MiG-25s were largely fruitless – with one exception. Col. Shahram Rostami claimed he shot down one Foxbat over the northern Persian Gulf on Sept. 16, 1982 and another on Dec. 2, 1982.
At top — a MiG-25PD of the Soviet air force. U.S. Defense Department photo. Above — an F-14A of the Iranian air force. Tom Cooper collection
A few days later, Maj. Ali-Asghar Jahanbakhsh failed to shoot down with a missile an Iraqi MiG-25 approaching Tehran, but might have scored a few hits with his M61 Vulcan cannon. In his rush to evade, the Iraqi pilot then made a mistake and turned left – toward the border of the former Soviet Union.
According to Iranian reports, the claim from September 1982 resulted in the first confirmed Foxbat kill, while the MiG-25 intercepted by Jahanbakhsh crashed inside Turkey after running out of fuel. Currently-available Iraqi sources deny these losses.
Rostami continued hunting Foxbats and was awarded for his persistence in June 1983. While on a combat air patrol over Khark Island in the Persian Gulf, ground control advised him of an Iraqi aircraft approaching from the north at an altitude of 70,000 feet and a speed of nearly Mach 2.5.
Executing a series of burst-climbs while accelerating from Mach 0.4 to Mach 1.5, Rostami climbed to an altitude of 40,000 feet. The range of two fast-moving fighters rapidly decreased from 150 miles down to 40 miles before Rostami’s backseater, Lt. Mohammad Rafie, locked on on the Iraqi Foxbat and fired an AIM-54A Phoenix missile.
The hefty missile thundered high up and away into the sky, while Rostami maneuvered his Tomcat some 20 or 30 degrees to the side. A few seconds later, the Phoenix scored a direct hit, converting the MiG-25 into a giant fireball that sent fiercely burning pieces toward the earth.
The ‘MiG-insulter’ from March 24, 1986. This was the F-14A flown by Lt. Cmdr. Mike Bucchi during his dogfight with a Libyan MiG-25. U.S. Navy photo via R. Wayne
Subsequent investigation revealed that the Foxbat in question was a MiG-25R flown by Col. Abdullah Faraj Mohammad, commander of No. 84 Squadron of the Iraqi air force. Mohammad’s radar-warning system failed on that mission. Ground control warned him of the F-14 in front of him, but he continued – and paid the ultimate price for this mistake.
The Iranian F-14s continued hunting Iraqi MiG-25s right until the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 – without any further success, as far as is known.
On the contrary, aviators of the U.S. Navy experienced additional encounters during Operations Attain Document II and Attain Document III in March 1986 off Libya. Perhaps the most famous of these took place during the early afternoon of March 24, 1986, when two MiG-25PDSs of the Libyan air force scrambled from Misurata with orders to intercept and shoot down a pair of U.S. Navy Tomcats on patrol north of the base.
Still operating along rules of engagement from 1981 — along which its pilots were granted permission to fire only if they were fired upon by the Libyans first — the U.S. Navy vectored two F-14As from VF-33 Starfighters, led by the deputy commander of that unit Cmdr. Mike Bucchi, to intercept.
As so often before, the Navy Tomcats took the Libyans by surprise. Shortly after the four fighters merged at an altitude of 20,000 feet, both F-14s were in advantageous positions behind their opponents. With Bucchi behind him, one of Foxbats began maneuvering very aggressively, attempting to out-turn the Tomcat. Without success. The MiG-25 was hopelessly outclassed by the F-14A in a dogfight.
In the course of this engagement, the T.V. set on the lead F-14 captured one of most spectacular videos of a MiG-25 one is likely ever to see.
When their Foxbats were unsuccessful, the Libyans fired an SA-5 surface-to-air missile at a pair of F-14As from VF-102. In turn, these two incidents provoked the U.S. retaliation in form of the Operation Prairie Fire, in the course of which Navy pilots sank two warships of the Libyan navy and twice knocked out the SA-5 SAM site positioned outside Syrte.
As far as is known, this was the last ever clash between F-14 Tomcats and MiG-25 Foxbats. While overall outcome might appear meager, with Tomcats scoring only one definitely confirmed kill, the results of most of these encounters left no doubt about F-14’s superiority over the powerful Soviet fighter jet.