The MiG-25 Foxbat has been an enigmatic aircraft that was veiled in a thick blanket of secrecy throughout its career in the IAF. It was only when the aircraft was due to be retired, did the security blanket come off.. Shiv Aroor was one of the first one the site to get exclusive access to this massive aircraft.
• The field of vision from the MiG-25 is 1,100-km and its clarity of perspective remain unsurpassed. These planes have served their utility. We are moving to a higher network-centric warfare capability.
— Air Commodore Shankar Mani, Base Commander, AFS Bareilly
• The MiG-25s are still in perfect condition. Even at the time of phase out, all systems are working fine. We even made structural changes to the undercarriage all by ourselves.
— Wing Commander Jayapal Patil, Rapiers Sqn Technical Officer
• Most in the IAF have not even seen this base or the aircraft. Frankly, we can push our Foxbats for another 2-3 years, but after three life extensions, it’s prudent to retire them now.—
Wing Commander Alok Chauhan, Rapiers Sqn MiG-25 pilot
• After 25 years, letting go of the Foxbat is sentimental. It has done what it was inducted to do. My job is to wind up the squadron and raise a new MiG-21 unit.
— Wing Commander Manish Khanna, Commanding Officer, Rapiers Sqn
April 13, 2006, Air Force Station Bareilly
The air force station at Bareilly is like any other airbase in the country. Clean, well maintained, neatly pruned hedges, shining insignias and signs all around, even flowers blooming in the summer heat. Everyone here likes it this way — unobtrusive, quiet, sober, the dust and din of Bareilly town well outside the forbidding gates.
Till now, the same forbidding gates have guarded one of the force’s most abiding secrets. The dog squads of the early 1980s have been replaced by much more effective metal cordons, separating 35 Squadron, codenamed Rapiers, from the rest of the picturesque station. For a good 25 years, the base has guarded a few precious machines that no outsider was ever allowed to see.
Obviously, the machines served the force well. And, finally, the IAF decided that the machines have served enough. So two weeks ahead of the May 1 phase-out deadline, the IAF agreed to ‘declassify’ some of its mysteries. It was the privilege of two Express journalists to be the first inside the IAF’s MiG-25 Foxbat spyplane unit.
Wing Commander Alok Chauhan, a MiG-25 pilot with the Rapiers Squadron—in 2003 it took the Foxbats from the 102 Trisonics squadron—says it’s a rare privilege: “Most in the IAF have not even seen this base or the aircraft”. Until now, only a handful of IAF-released photographs of the Foxbats were the public domain.
Just why has the Bareilly base been a forbidden zone? Because the Foxbat was to the IAF what the SR-71 Blackbird was to the USAF. Eight MiG-25R variants and two MiG-25U for conversion training made the Trisonics squadron a “strategic reconnaissance” unit.
Flying at almost three times the speed of sound despite its 40-ton fully loaded weight—it was made of welded nickel-steel with titanium for heat critical areas—and cruising in the stratosphere at almost 100,000 feet, these mysterious jets could map all of Pakistan without letting the other side get a whiff.
After a revelatory three-hour tour of the base, the MiG-25 turns out nothing like what the drawing-room legends have thrown it up to be.
It is a great deal more.
The traditional secrecy lingers, but there is no longer any doubt. Ask anyone, including the intensely passionate base commander Air Commodore Shankar Mani, about whether the Foxbats were hurriedly purchased in 1981 to spy on Pakistan and China, and he will tell you: “They were bought for strategic reconnaissance. That should answer your question.”
Unlike the fierce Cold War arms race, the Foxbat represented a typically radical swerve away from the way the world was moving in the 1960s and 70s.
A big mammoth of an aircraft, powered by huge twin engines, flying three times the speed of sound and over three times higher than the maximum altitude allowed to civil airliners, the MiG-25 was the perfect monster the Indian government — and especially then Air Chief Idris Latif — needed to gun up IAF’s virtually non-existent reconnaissance capability in the late 1970s to spy on Pakistan and China.
Latif, now leading a retired life in Hyderabad, pulled out his old albums three days ago to reminisce. Over the phone, he said, “I am saddened that our Foxbats will soon be gone, but they served an intensely useful purpose. When I was the IAF chief, 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. She was a brilliant leader to work with. The Foxbat was the best in the world and it was made available to us.”
A month before he retired, Latif took a Foxbat up 90,000 feet to say farewell to his force.
The other incident widely speculated upon was how in 1987, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi shot down a suggestion from the Air chief that the Foxbats be used to spy on Pakistani armoured movements. It was a particularly hostile time in the Western sector.
The incumbent chief at the time, Dennis La Fontaine, now living a less hectic life at his farmhouse in Brahmanapally village in Andhra Pradesh, told The Sunday Express: “Those were issues of national security. If you believe that strategic reconnaissance is a bad thing, then understand that military intelligence gathering, by its very nature, is illegal. These are understood around the world. Why pick up these issues long past?”
La Fontaine was about to undertake a flight in a Foxbat when he was Central Air Commander, but by the time he arrived at the base, he received orders appointing him Western Air Commander, and so a dream remained unfulfilled.
An enigma shrouds the Foxbat. Entirely unarmed — the IAF chose the reconnaissance variant, not the interceptor — and with no modern countermeasures against surface-launched missiles, the Foxbat’s only defence lies in its speed and cruising altitude.
At Mach 3, it leaves even the best guided missiles far behind in a chase, and at 90,000 feet, it is comfortably beyond actionable ground radar beams. Put together, the MiG-25 is simply invisible to the enemy.
In 1997, an IAF Foxbat famously darted into Pakistani airspace and its sonic boom alerted ground radars into action. But zooming back towards the Indian border, the Foxbat was just a blur to Pakistani air defence missiles and F-16s scrambling up from Sargodha. Pak says the MiG-25 pilot deliberately gave out aircraft signature to remind PAF it had no equal in its inventory.
“These aircraft can map a country the size of Pakistan in a single-digit number of missions. Frankly, we can push our Foxbats for another 2-3 years, but after three life extensions, it’s prudent to retire them now,” says Wing Commander Alok Chauhan.
Bareilly base commander Air Commodore Shankar Mani agrees: “These aircraft were and are the envy of the world. After 25 years of yeoman service, it is now time to let them go. They have served us exceptionally. We have innovated and changed, we must move on now.”
For an aircraft that came to define Cold War paranoia and the need for hawk eyes in the sky, the Foxbats are flying more than ever before, recording as much as they possibly can before retiring. At top speed, a Foxbat can zip away from missiles, allowing for almost trouble-free spying.
The seniormost and most accomplished Foxbat pilot still in service, assistant chief Air Vice Marshal Sumit Mukerji said, “It feels pretty exclusive to be part of the Mach 3 club. It’s sad that pilots may never get a chance to fly such a machine ever again.”
Interestingly, the initial lifespan of the MiG-25s was to be just 14 years and the planes would have been gone by 1995. The year saw them put to amazing use darting up to the stratosphere to get crystal-clear photographs of the solar eclipse, the sun’s rays untouched and unscattered by interfering atmospheric molecules.
One of the two pilots who flew that mission is also the seniormost and most experienced Foxbat pilot still in service is Air Vice Marshal Sumit Mukerji himself.
“It was an experiment that worked. Not only did we film the diamond ring of the eclipse, but also the starburst, when the sun’s light filtered through the crevasses and mountains on the moon. It was an amazing image. And from that height and speed, we were able to film the eclipse for a minute and 57 seconds, impossible from the ground,” he said.
In 1995, a life extension programme pushed the MiG-25s for another ten years. In 2001, another programme propelled the jets until 2005. The final extension was made last year. Finally, the IAF decided the machines wouldn’t be pushed any more.
Predictably, it is now exorbitantly expensive and time-consuming to maintain the Foxbats. With the Russians no longer supplying spares and claiming to have done away with all blueprints, any more reverse engineering by the technicians at the Bareilly airbase is plainly uneconomical.
And until May 15, the Foxbats will remain in the air.
“For posterity, we are storing certain data right now. It is a very unique achievement that would not have been possible with any other aircraft,” says Air Commodore Mani.
The void they leave behind at the Bareilly base will be rapidly filled by two new squadrons of Russian Sukhoi-30 MKIs, aircraft that can fly farther, but not half as high or fast as the spy planes. It is to satellites that the IAF will now turn to enhance its capability once the Foxbats retire.
The IAF has already proposed declassification of much of the Foxbat’s tenure. “We have taken up a case to declassify certain things, but it is ultimately up to the higher command. We would like to ultimately ring out to the country an object that has remained under a veil of secrecy,” says Wing Commander Manish Khanna, commanding officer of the Foxbat squadron.
With the aircraft gone, Khanna’s squadron will now move to a base near Lucknow and raise a new MiG-21 unit.
Letting the Foxbats go has been deeply emotional. Wing Commander Sanjeev Taliyan speaks for the squadron: “From the height at which we fly, you can see the entire Himalayan range at one go. No aircraft has ever been able to achieve for us what the Foxbat has. We will miss flying them.”
Wing Commander Jayapal Patil, the technical officer who currently keeps the jets in ship-shape on their final run, said, “These aircraft have flown for 25 years at high speeds, so there is a level of aerodynamic strain. After the first life extension, we inspected and strengthened the jet’s mounting points, and changes made to the landing gear. But the aircraft are now at their end.”
The base commander, Air Commodore Shankar Mani is more forthright: “Now, if there’s a problem, we have to struggle to even find a fuel leak because it is such an enormous and complex machine. The Russians don’t help us with spares or blueprints. On the flipside, we’ve gained precious expertise maintaining the Foxbats entirely ourselves.”
The apparent romance of flying spying missions in such brutally powerful aircraft is severely eroded by the reality of multiple dangers pilots are always just inches away from and the indispensable discomforts of flying in extreme conditions.
First, of course, there’s the fear. Knowing that you’re sitting on 20 tons of jet fuel and moving at screaming velocities can get unnerving.
Secondly, you’re in a decidedly uncomfortable skin-tight suit to stop your blood from boiling over and rupturing your skin.
Thirdly, you’re always faced with the prospect of a 60,000 foot free fall if you ever have to eject from that altitude before your parachute opens. It has never happened, so nobody knows if a pilot will survive such a long drop through far below freezing temperatures.
But Wing Commander Alok Chauhan, one of the two pilots who took a Foxbat into the skies exclusively for this newspaper’s cameras, sums it up like only a Foxbat pilot can: “When you’re up that high, and you can see the earth’s curvature and the blue band of the atmosphere, there’s a serene sense of detachment, a feeling of physical separation that is hard to match and difficult to describe.”
Sworn to secrecy :
The MiG-25 Mission Profile
• In mission room, only three men (pilot, tech officer and mission commander) go over the spying mission; information reaches nobody else
• Mission commander briefs pilot on flight path, altitude, other parameters, technical officer makes assessment of mission demands on jet
• New celluloid wheels loaded, technical inspection done
• Pilot takes off, flight-path fed into mission computer. Just nothing on paper
• Four cameras operated either manually by pilot or pre-programmed to start taking snaps at designated altitude, time from take-off
• After mission, pilot debriefed for any event unrecorded by cameras, observation or hostile “incident”
• Films transported to main processing lab
• Photos cropped, enhanced, enlarged according to requirement, dispatched to operations room for inspection by mission commander
• Intelligence either archived or communicated through secure channels on a need basis up the chain of command; information digitalised if need be
• All archives classified, categorised and securely stowed away
The complexity of the massive Tumansky R-15BD-300 engine can be seen in this photograph.
The huge afterburners of the Tumansky Turbo Jets
Who can resist an opportunity to sit in the famous foxbat? With the engineering officer Wg Cdr J Patil.
Inside a 30-tonner, at Mach 3 and ABOVE 70,000 feet…
• At 3.2 Mach, MiG-25’s the fastest aircraft in service, quicker than a missile
• It’s a gas guzzler: twin Tumansky turbofans burn 23,000 litres in a single long mission
• Serial production began in 1969 but West had its first look at a MiG-25 when Lt Viktor Belenko of the Soviet Union defected on Sept 6, 1976, landing his aircraft at Hakodate in Japan
• Built mainly out of nickel-steel, plus titanium in heat-critical areas. Weighs nearly 30 tonnes
• Beyond 70,000 ft, pilots use same skintight inners, helmets as Russian cosmonauts
• Russians pushed a Foxbat to 123,000 ft, IAF sticks to a 90,000 ft ceiling
• Entered Indian service in 1981 with the No.102 Trisonics Squadron in Bareilly
• IAF had 8 single-seat Mig-25R for high-speed reconnaissance, and 2 twin-seat MiG-25U for conversion training
• Can map one lakh sq-km in four-five sorties
• Without leaving Bareilly airspace, a Foxbat can eyeball Delhi with its 1200 mm cameras. So if it’s flying over Punjab or Kashmir, can check on Pak
• Outlived competitor SR-71 Blackbird of the USAF
• MiG-25s were also used by Algeria, Bulgaria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria. But not many remain in service
The Author Shiv Aroor is the Defence Correspondent with Indian Express News Paper. He reports frequently on defence matters and has a blog at http://livefist.blogspot.com. The Original report was published in the Indian Express and is available at http://www.indianexpress.com/iep/printerFriendly/2491.html. Photographs are by Express Photographer Cherian Thomas.
The MiG-25s were subsequently phased out at a ceremony on May 1st, 2006. A Photo Gallery of the phase out ceremony can be viewed at this link http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Images/main.php?g2_itemId=3194
The remaining MiG-25s have been distributed all across the country for preservation. Check this page for the status of the aircraft http://www.warbirds.in/News/news37.html
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