Modernization Prolongs Life of Russia’s MiG-25 Spyplanes

 - October 19, 2012, 10:50 AM
The Russian Air Force still operates 20 MiG-25R reconnaissance aircraft and has decided to modernize them. This one was photographed over the Baltic Sea by the Swedish air force in 1990.

The Russian defense ministry has decided to modernize the air force’s surviving MiG-25 spyplanes for service until 2020. The venerable aircraft will receive a modern navigation suite based on Glonass receivers and laser gyroscopes; digital photo and video cameras; and a new “radio-technical reconnaissance complex.” The latter will include a new side-looking radar for surface surveillance and various communications and electronic intelligence-gathering systems.

Some of the specified equipment is still in development, while the balance comes off the shelf. Sources in the defense ministry say that the Russian air force is short of dedicated reconnaissance aircraft. The MiG-25R refit will bridge the gap until a new reconnaissance airplane becomes available.

The Russian air force still operates 20 MiG-25s, based at Baltimor AFB near Voronezh and at Monchegorsk AFB. Less than half of these aircraft are combat-ready, while others need repair and spares. The powerplant is the biggest concern for mechanics. The Tumansky R15B engines (initially developed for a cruise missile) proved strongly built and highly reliable, but their design is based on 1950s and 1960s technology and features a short time between overhaul (TBO). Since R15 production ended in the late 1980s, the number of aircraft listed in the air force’s inventory is determined largely by the number of available spares.

The Soviet Union launched development of the MiG-25 in 1962 as a high-altitude interceptor capable of countering the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and other high-flying supersonic threats. Eighty percent of the airframe was made of welded steel to withstand the heat created at high speeds. The type was officially accepted into service in 1972, although it flew photo-reconnaissance missions in the October 1971 war in support of Egyptian armed forces, overflying Israel at high supersonic speeds. The MiG-25 fleet underwent considerable rework after pilot Victor Belenko defected to Japan in a MiG-25P in September 1976; his aircraft was partially disassembled for technical assessment before being returned to the Soviet Union.

Officially, the MiG-25’s top speed is restricted to Mach 2.83 with a specified weapons load on external hard points, but the airplane has exceeded Mach 3 in clean configuration. Although the MiG-25 was followed by the MiG-31, the latter’s top speed and altitude were somewhat lower. Also, the MiG-31 was never produced in a specialized reconnaissance version.

While the lion’s share of nearly 1,200 MiG-25s built were interceptors, the type’s career as a spyplane has been more successful. Since 1971 Russia produced a long line of reconnaissance aircraft on the MiG-25 platform, including R, RB, RBSh, RBK, RBS and RBF versions. Finally, the MiG-25RBM remained in production at the Sokol plant in Nizhny Novrogod from 1982 to 1985. Based on the MiG-25RB platform, it was dedicated to suppression of hostile radar and other emitters with anti-radiation missiles and was distinguishable by a longer nose section to house bulkier equipment.