The Year is : 2006. For 25 years it was India’s elusive eye in the sky, keeping a constant watch over the enemy deep inside his own territory and yet remaining beyond his reach. It was the awesome MiG-25, capable of flying too fast and too high to care much about enemy radars, fighters and missiles. After all those secret missions over Pakistan and China, the MiG-25s are now set to retire. They are at the end of their lifespan, and so prohibitively expensive to maintain and operate. The formal de-commissioning ceremony is scheduled to be held at the Bareilly Air Force Station, where these aircraft are based, on May 1.
The present MiG-25 squadron members as well as officers and personnel who had served in the squadron earlier, including those who have retired, would be attending the ceremony. It is no secret that the MiG-25 flew in hostile airspace as a matter of routine, though, of course, there are no public records to validate this. One incident which lends credence to this is a “sonic boom” heard over Islamabad in May 1997, which is attributable to a MiG-25 deliberately going supersonic to pique the Pakistanis. The boom caused panic amongst the residents of Islamabad.
According to reports, the Pakistani Air Force scrambled its F-16s, but the MiG-25 was too fast and too high for them. Cruising in the outer fringes of the atmosphere, the 40-tonne MiG-25 had no parallel in the arena of gathering high value intelligence and strategic reconnaissance, and gave the IAF an immense advantage. Flying at nearly three times the speed of sound at altitudes above 90,000 feet, it was too high and fast for any fighter to intercept or missile to lock on to. Their task would now be taken over by satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, supplemented with combat aircraft equipped with reconnaissance pods. The MiG-25s are also believed to have monitored Chinese troop movements in NEFA following reports of incursions in the eighties and early nineties, photographed militant training camps across the Line of Control, mapped enemy positions during Operation Vijay in Kargil in 1999 and kept a close eye on Pakistani formations during Operation Parakram in 2002.
Given the capabilities of its high-powered cameras, it could have accomplished much of the work while flying within Indian airspace. It was in 1981 that the Indian Air Force procured eight MiG-25R single seat reconnaissance aircraft and two MiG-25U conversion trainers from the erstwhile Soviet Union. These were flown to India in a dismantled state and assembled and flight-tested by the Russians at Bareilly. The induction of these aircraft led to the IAF raising the highly secretive No.102 Squadron, nicknamed Trisonics, with Wg Cdr A. Singh as its first Commanding Officer (CO). Codenamed Foxbat by NATO, the aircraft was christened Garuda by the IAF, after the high flying celestial mount of Lord Vishnu in Indian mythology. The MiG-25 made its official debut in Indian skies on August 25, 1981, when the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal I.H. Latif flew a sortie in a two-seater trainer. A month before he retired, he took a MiG-25 up to 90,000 feet.
For induction of the MiG-25, a 14-member team of pilots and engineering officers were sent to Russia for training. “It was an intense course lasting six months, consisting of theoretical classes as well as practicals” Air Cmde S.S. Bisht (retd), who was among the Trisonics’ founding members, said. Normally, such pre-induction courses last 3–4 months. “There was a lot of work to be done in the initial stages and the aircraft were in the air every day. Regular night sorties were also flown,” he added. A mere handful of lucky pilots got to fly the mean machine. Only officers of the level of wing commanders and above who had sufficient experience flying fighters were selected for the squadron. “Given the requirements, we wanted pilots who were senior enough and since flying was restricted due to the nature of operations, pilots who had almost finished their active flying life were chosen,” former Vice Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal P.S Brar said. Air Marshal Brar also had a chance to fly in a trainer version and he termed the sortie as a “phenomenal experience”. He said that one can count on his fingertips, the number of people who get to fly at nearly three times the speed of sound at a height of over 20 kilometers.
The MiG-25 was designed for reconnaissance and high altitude interception as a counter to the US SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft and the XB-70 Valkyrie strategic bombers, both of which were capable of Mach 3 performance. While the super-secret Blackbird remained in US service for several decades, the Valkyrie never went into production. On October 5, 1967, the MiG-25 set a record of 1852.61 mph (2981 kmph) and carried a 2,000 kg payload to an altitude of 98,349 feet (30 kms). Soviets have taken a MiG 25 to an altitude of 1,23,000 feet. A slew of altitude and speed records broken by the MiG-25 led to former US Secretary of the Air Force, Robert Seamans describing the MiG-25 as “probably the best interceptor in production in the world today”.
Two versions were developed, one a combat version armed with four AA-6 Acrid long range air to air missiles and the other a reconnaissance version carrying several cameras in its nose. A two-seater version for conversion training was also developed. On September 6, 1976, a defecting Soviet pilot, Lt Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25 at Hakodate in Japan, giving western experts an opportunity to closely examine it before it was returned. The IAF closely guarded its precious assets, keeping the MiG-25 terminal off limits to even air force personnel. Even the authorities at the Bareilly airbase were not involved with the squadron’s operations and flying activities. “Given its strategic role, all tasking was directly from Air Headquarters.” Air Marshal D.S Basra (retd) who at one time commanded the Bareilly airbase said.
In the squadron’s operations room, only the mission commander, pilot and the technical officer were permitted entry to discuss a particular sortie and the information remained closeted with other squadron members not involved. The pilot was briefed by the mission commander on the requirements and the technical officer’s responsibility was to ensure serviceability of all onboard surveillance equipment and the inertial navigation system. After the sortie, the mission commander debriefed the pilot, which included observation of any hostile activity. Pictures taken by onboard cameras are developed and analysed and then sent up the chain of command through secure channels. All pictures are archived according to laid down procedures and categories. Recalling a visit to the Bareilly airbase, Wg Cdr D.P. Sabharwal said that while he was posted as an instructor at the Air Force Technical College, he wanted to make a comparative study on the engine inlets of the MiG-25 and the MiG-29, but he was not allowed near the tarmac.
It was only after special permission was obtained that he was allowed access. Over the years, due to attrition, the IAF’s inventory has come down to four MiG-25s which includes one trainer. In 2003, No.102 Squadron was “number-plated”, that is disbanded, and the surviving MiG-25s were handed over to No.35 Squadron, the “Rapiers”. The MiG-25 initially had a service life of just 14 years, and were to be decommissioned in 1995.
Life extension programmes gave them another 10 years and the final life extension for a year came in 2005. The Russians no longer manufacture this aircraft and are reported to have even done away with technical literature and drawings. Nor are spares available. The IAF had developed indigenous methods for their upkeep, but these aircraft still had to go to Russia for major overhaul.