Mind The Gap! · Modern Times

MiG 25: Codename Foxbat.

Towards the end of the display, four jets flew across the airfield.  Nobody knew what they were! What's more, the Russians weren't telling.
Grainy footage from Domodyedovo military display in 1967.

It is 9 July 1967, the international air display at Domodyedovo military airfield near Moscow. Partly to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1917 revolution, it was also there to show off what Moscow allowed the public to see. Not that this was ever much. Towards the end of the display, four jets flew across the airfield.

Nobody knew what they were! What’s more, the Russians weren’t telling. Even Russian enthusiasts only had the American magazines for information. Nobody knew what was going on. Some experts thought it an upgraded MiG 23, others something else. Speculation was rife.

The Americans were in panic mode. Well, it’s not hard to get an American to panic, but this was one of their better class of panic. What’s more, without any firm foundation for their ideas, the American ability to imagine the impossible took firm root. This is one of the essential points to remember in the leadup to my ‘Fake News’ post. It is one of the foundations: the Americans can believe things that aren’t actually there. Yet, paradoxically, because these fantasies seem so real to them, they have to be true!

Why Call It ‘Foxbat’?

The Americans call enemy fighter jets using a corruption of their phonetic alphabet. In this case, ‘F’ is Foxtrot – hence the codename ‘Fox-something’. All the codenames were either slightly derisory or downright silly. ‘Fishbed’ being the name for the MiG 23. Quite how fish got involved is anyone’s guess.

As with all codenames, they had to be clearly identifiable when spoken over a crackly radio. Not that this mattered much in the case of the Foxbat because nobody had ever seen one.

What The Hell Is It???

This had the Americans worried, as you can imagine! Add that they knew literally nothing about it. The Russians, in contrast to the Americans, are quiet with their military secrets; nobody had heard of the Foxbat. I mean, who’d heard of the Kalibr cruise missile before its covert use in Syria? Information of the kind disseminated by the Americans is part of how they keep their control over their ‘allies’. It is intended for ‘internal consumption’ as it were – a kind of propaganda. In this post I want to look at one element that underpins the American way of doing propaganda: the fears the Americans have – fears that are especially keen when they have been outwitted!

‘What was this amazing fantasy machine?’ the Americans thought to themselves. ‘They must be using the most modern turbo-fan engines, the most up to date avionics and the latest in titanium and aluminium alloys to keep the weight down! Look at the large wings, that must mean it’s a very fast fighter with good manoeuvrability!’

What else could they think? What else had they to base their ideas on save what they already knew of their own capabilities?

America Is The Best.

The Americans know they are the best, hence anything that’s better has to be on account of the technologies the Americans have developed… The Russians are always behind, aren’t they? The Americans also ascribed to the Foxbat capabilities they would dearly love in their own aircraft.

For the Americans, the MiG 25 wasn’t just a fast jet, but the size of its wings told them that it was able to do acrobatics of the kind needed for a dog-fight with other fighter jets. It’s the kind of thinking that led to the boondoggle F-35, the all-singing, all-dancing aircraft that can, if given enough peppermints, can be persuaded to leave the ground. Okay, so the F-35 isn’t quite as bad as that, but if the Americans had been limited to a Russian development budget, the F-35 would still be on the drawing board.

If you’re strapped for cash, you have to use your brains – and that includes the people commissioning the aircraft. The Americans don’t have that problem, so get multi-role sillies. The Russians do have to think, and have a stable of competent if limited aircraft as a result. They’re good at what they do, but not for anything else… but then, an F-35 with a payload of bombs isn’t going to find it easy to counter enemy aircraft. But that’s not its job, is it?

Sinai, 1973

The Russians had sent some MiG-25s to Egypt to assist with reconnaissance duties in the Sinai desert, which was occupied by Israel at the time. The Foxbat casually flew its route, only to be met by two F-4 Phantoms. Israelis aren’t too careful about international law, so took a pot shot at the Foxbat. Seeing this, the Foxbat pilot simply put his foot to the floor and vanished.

The effect on the Israelis was total: they were in a Phantom, the fastest thing on God’s good earth… an F-4 can do Mach 2.5 (two and a half times the speed of sound). And this Russian plane simply left them standing. The Russians were at it again! Nobody knew what it was, everybody was chattering and everybody was terrified of its potential.

Japan, September 1976.

A Russian pilot landed one morning at Hakodate airport in Japan. He had defected, not only that he’d defected with one of the newest MiG 25s to hand. The Americans sprang into action, and stripped the machine bare. They discovered what they had been countering.

The engines whilst large were not turbofans, and in being considerably less efficient meant the aircraft’s range was extremely limited. What’s more, the large wing surface wasn’t for manoeuvrability as they’d imagined. They were to allow the thing to get off the ground at all, because the plane was made of steel and was extremely heavy. Nor was it designed as a dog-fighter in the way the Americans had so deludedly imagined… It couldn’t pull 10gs in a curve, only five. No good as a fighter if it couldn’t manage a tight corner. It was designed to go in a straight line and do so at very high speed.

It was the aircraft equivalent of mounting a five litre engine on a bicycle. The thing could shift; it could do little else. It had a few peripheral details like wings and fins added to two enormously powerful engines.

It didn’t need to do much else: Russians think in simple, effective terms.

So What Was The Foxbat?

Its reconnaissance role, however, was a boon. In this, it had a very high ceiling and a very high speed. All it needed to was go in one direction for a given length of time and take a few piccies.
Pilot’s view from a MiG 25 at altitude. Note the curvature of the earth.

It was a fast – that is to say, Mach 3 reconnaissance or interceptor aircraft. Its interceptor role – that is to say, meeting incoming enemy bombers quickly – faded quickly as the advent of missiles dawned. Its reconnaissance role, however, was a boon. In this, it had a very high ceiling and a very high speed. All it needed to was go in one direction for a given length of time and take a few piccies. A smaller – and vastly cheaper – version of the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’. The Americans built 32 Blackbirds, the Russians built nearly 2,000 MiG 25s. For all its being the simpler and cheaper machine, the Foxbat still holds a few flight records to this day.

Have The Russians Gone Nuts?

Back in Japan, and as they were dismantling the Foxbat, there was one thing that had the Americans splitting themselves with laughter. It was its use of thermionic valves in its control systems. Such an out of date technology… When I read the story in ‘The Times’ at the time – my father was an avid reader – I wondered to myself if the Russians weren’t on to something.

Well, it turns out that the Russians were. Because the Foxbat pilot tapped the Americans on the shoulder and mentioned that the valves would still function if the plane flew through a cloud of nuclear fallout.

The Americans had simply overlooked this detail in their glee at having the newestest and the bestest. No doubt they’d discover their error when a few of their much vaunted F-15s flew through an area where a nuclear bomb had been detonated. Only for the aircraft drop like stones when their electronic systems blanked out.

There are times you really have to get your thinking cap on, and this is one of them. Thinking is always to consider the unlikely in the light of reality – and not get caught up with your own silly ideas of what reality might be. As Americans are so prone to do.

The Foxbat: A Russian Oversight This Time.

The MiG 25 was became the darling of the Russian Air Force not for any of its capabilities, but on account of its cooling system. Indeed, it has to be stressed that Mikoyan Guryevich himself had overlooked this aspect of its design. What is certain is that the Americans would be totally oblivious to it.

You see, the MiG 25 used ethanol as a systems coolant. Three hundred litres of it. It’s not a great conceptual leap to grasp what comes next: the aircraftsmen, in the middle of nowhere and bored out of their little skulls, were ecstatic to be visited by an aircraft that was filled to the brim with pure alcohol. Whilst not legal, and with nothing else to imbibe, water and ethanol makes a surprisingly effective inebriant. Who’d notice a few litres anyway? The effect would last for months!

I will add that at the time, Muscovites queued up to buy toothpaste for the alcohol it contained. The Russians kept a lid on alcohol supplies, but forgot to check other outlets… Here we have the problem of “I can’t imagine that.” Only in a very, very different way to the Americans!

Such are cultures. Because this is what this post was really about: not fighter aircraft, but the different ways in which people think and imagine.

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