The MiG-23 was designed to replace the MiG-21, at the request of the VVS, between 1961 and 1964. The aircraft had to be able to operate from rough terrain and have a more advanced weapon system. The OKB MiG studied two different projects, the 23-01 with two lift engines which was quickly abandoned, and the 23-11, or Ye-231, with variable geometry.
The latter, a true prototype of the MiG-23, made its first flight on 10 June 1967 in the hands of Alexander Fedotov. It was obviously inspired by the F-111 and the F-4, of which it is a true equivalent. Unlike the MiG-21, it had lateral air inlets that allowed the installation of a radar in the nose. Its wing had 3 boom positions: 16°, 45° and 72°. Eight other airframes were built, including 2 reserved for the static tests. It was revealed at the Moscow exhibition in Domodedovo on July 9 of the same year.
Series production began in June 1969. The first series, the MiG-23S, entered service in 1970. Only 60 aircraft were built, and they showed shortcomings in terms of reliability, performance and even flight behaviour (in particular a difficult spin recovery). The MiG-23SM version, built in 100 units, brought several modifications, which were hardly effective. These first two versions, named Flogger-A by NATO, were practically a pre-production.
On April 10, 1970, the prototype of the two-seater MiG-23UB (Flogger-C) made its first flight. It retained the combat capabilities of the MiG-23S from which it was derived. 770 two-seaters were built until 1985, a third of which were exported. In the 1980s, they were upgraded to the UM standard, incorporating modifications from the ML, MLA and MLD series.
The MiG-23M made its first flight in June 1972. Equipped with the final Sapfir-23D-III radar, which has look-down/shoot-down and BVR capabilities thanks to the use of AA-7s, new wings, and a more powerful engine, it is the first completed version of the new fighter. Named Flogger-B, it was built in about 1300 units. Two versions with more or less degraded avionics were destined for export: the MiG-23MF for the Warsaw Pact and the MiG-23MS (Flogger-E) equipped with the RP-22SM radar that already equipped the MiG-21.
The MiG-23ML was a thoroughly redesigned variant of the Flogger: it was at least a ton lighter, more reliable, more powerful but also more economical, more robust, and equipped with a new Sapfir-23ML radar. It appeared on January 21, 1975 and was built in nearly a thousand units, including MiG-23MLAs with radar that could operate on several frequency bands. Again, several variants with degraded avionics were exported.
The MiG-23BN (Flogger-H) made its first flight on 18 February 1971. It was more particularly intended for ground attack and is recognizable by its duckbill nose. Its structure was reinforced, the cockpit and the fuselage under the engine were armored, the avionics were completely revised. 624 examples were built and most of them were exported. It led to the MiG-27.
The MiG-23P was a bit special. Designed as a pure interceptor, it was equipped with an autopilot and could almost be remotely controlled from the ground. About 500 were built.
The MiG-23MLD or Flogger-K was the last variant, launched in 1982. It featured aerodynamic improvements and a new radar. 75 aircraft were built, and nearly 500 were upgraded to this standard.
More than 5,000 MiG-23s were built. On 4 July 1989, an abandoned MiG-23 continued to fly until it crashed in Belgium, killing a young man. Highly exported, it took part in many conflicts: in Afghanistan, in the Middle East (Syrian MiG-23s were opposed more than once to Israeli aircraft), during the Iran-Iraq conflict, in Angola. 2 Libyan MiG-23s were shot down by F-14s on 4 January 1989. In Libya again, but this time in 2011, they participated in the Libyan civil conflict. Some of them were captured by the insurgents. At least one of them was shot down on March 19, 2011.
In 1990, a Syrian pilot deserted with his machine to Israel. The US recovered a number of them, notably in Egypt, which they evaluated under the designation YF-113. According to some evaluations, the MiG-23ML would prove superior to the F-16A in vertical, horizontal, acceleration and BVR capability. On the other hand, a MiG-23M would be less maneuverable than an F-5.
China is said to have recovered 6 examples from Egypt which were evaluated under the name Q-6, and whose air intake was inspired by that of the J-8. Yugoslavia would have briefly tested Iraqi aircraft that had been sent for upgrading. Finally, contrary to what is sometimes said, Albania has never owned a MiG-23, for the simple reason that it had already broken off all relations with the USSR when the Flogger appeared.
The aircraft was the backbone of the Soviet fighters for a long time. Today, it is still used by several air forces, even if it is clearly outdated today and is starting to be used in museums. Russia withdrew its own in 1999. In the 1990s, a proposal to upgrade to MiG-23-98 standard fell through.
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