New Delhi: 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.