Remembering IAF’s strategic reconnaissance aircraft: The MiG-25 ‘Garuda’

September 13, 2021 11:21 AM

The pilots in this flight were the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Idris Hassan Latif and Wing Commander (later Group Captain) Apram Jeet Singh, the First Commanding Officer of the then newly raised 102 Squadron, The Trisonics.

MiG-25 ‘Garuda’After 25 years of glorious service to the nation, the MiG-25’s were decommissioned on May 1, 2006. (Photo source: PTI)

By Mohit Charan

Forty years ago, on August 25, 1981, Indian Air Force’s, then latest acquisition, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25, rechristened as Garuda, flew its first sortie. The pilots in this flight were the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Idris Hassan Latif and Wing Commander (later Group Captain) Apram Jeet Singh, the First Commanding Officer of the then newly raised 102 Squadron, The Trisonics. This is one of the fastest and highest-flying military aircraft ever manufactured.

A total of 10 such aircraft, including 8 MiG-25R Single-Seat High-Altitude Supersonic Reconnaissance Jets and 2 MiG-25U Twin-Seater Conversion Trainer Jets, were procured from the then USSR. That was an era when the remote sensing satellite technology was in its nascent stage in India, and thus specialized spy aircraft acted as the eyes of the national defence establishment.

Prior to the acquisition of MiG-25, the reconnaissance variant of the English Electric Canberra Bomber performed this role. This role required flying deep into the enemy airspace and taking pictures of its military and strategic assets. However the proliferation of advanced air defence radars and surface to air guided weapons in India’s neighborhood, made the Canberras vulnerable. Thus the need emerged for an aircraft which could carry out this mission immune to the advanced air defence capabilities of our neighbours. And this led to the acquisition of the legendary MiG-25, (NATO codename Foxbat). This aircraft, which didn’t carry any armaments, had an operational ceiling of more than 70,000 feet above mean sea level and the ability to fly at speed of up to Mach 3. And it was these characteristics which provided Defence against enemy combat aircraft and surface to air missiles. Behind the design and development of this iconic jet lies an interesting story.

During the cold war, the Soviets felt the need for a high-altitude interceptor capable of defending their vast airspace against the then frequent over flights of the American U-2 Reconnaissance Aircraft, as well as against the threat of American Strategic Bombers which were the primary nuclear weapon delivery platforms at that time. The operational US subsonic bombers were planned to be replaced by, then under design, supersonic Bombers. Thus the Soviets began work on this new interceptor in 1959. Considering the utility of the planned flight characteristics in the reconnaissance role, a spy variant was also developed. The first flight of the prototype took place in 1964. And this aircraft was shown to the public in 1967. The exemplary performance of this jet allowed it to set some 29 world records, some of which still stand. The Western intelligence agencies failed in accurately analyzing the capabilities of this new jet and assumed it to be an agile air-combat fighter. This faulty analysis prompted a dramatic increase in the performance parameters of the then under-development F-15 Eagle. It was only in 1976, when a Soviet pilot, defected, landing his MiG-25 in Japan, that the West dismantled and analysed it and learnt the actual characteristics of this jet.

In 1980, the USSR offered the MiG-25’s to India, which purchased the reconnaissance variant. These were delivered in semi-knocked down condition by the massive Antonov Transport Jets. A new 102 (Strategic Reconnaissance) Squadron was raised to operate these jets. During the course of its 25-year operational history with the IAF, the MiG-25’s served in two squadrons, both at the Bareilly Air Base. These were the 102 Sqn (Trisonics), from the time of its induction in 1981 to early 2003, and later the 35 Sqn (Rapiers), from early 2003 to mid-2006. The 102 Sqn is currently equipped with the Su-30 MKI Jets and is based in the Eastern Sector, while the 35 Sqn is currently number-plated. The MiG-25’s flew thousands of strategic photo reconnaissance and electronic intelligence missions deep into operational theatres which led to acquisition of invaluable information critical to our national security. These spy jets have played a pivotal role both in peace time as well as war. It was employed in Operations Trident (1987), Vijay (Kargil 1999) and Parakram(2002). Due to the highly sensitive nature of these missions, they have not been de-classified as yet. In May, 1997, an IAF MiG-25 while flying over Pakistan, near their National Capital, broke the sound barrier. The resulting sonic boom led the Pakistanis to scramble their interceptors which due to extraordinary flight characteristics could do no harm to the Indian Spy-Jet.

After 25 years of glorious service to the nation, the MiG-25’s were decommissioned on May 1, 2006. These retired aircraft are now on display at various military installations across the country such as Palam, Khadakwasla, Bareilly, Hyderabad and Kalaikunda. With the advancement in the indigenous development of space technologies, the role of strategic reconnaissance is now being performed by satellites.

(The author is pursuing a PhD in Defence and Strategic Studies at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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