Friday, 24 January 2020

Book Review: MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East by Tom Cooper

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Although many military enthusiasts spend hours scrounging local markets and shops for any interesting books on past and current military affairs to add to their evergrowing collection of books, not nearly enough know about Helion's @War series (which is divided into Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America) covering mainly post-World War II conflicts.

As three of our four upcoming books on North Korea's Armed Forces (1: Army, Special Operations Force, 2: Air Force, Navy and Strategic Rocket Force and 3: Foreign Intelligence Agencies) will be included in the Asia@War series, our interests have obviously been drawn to the other volumes as well.

In this new segment we'll be covering some of our favourite @War series books, with the aim of increasing public awareness of their existence and occasionally sneaking in some shameless self-promotion as well. As I'm a firm believer in a review concept that generates curiosity and encourages further reading rather than trying to explain a whole book from cover to cover, I'll try to keep every review brief and spoiler-free.

We'll be kicking off with 'MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East' written by Tom Cooper and published by Helion & Company.

Title: MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East, Mikoyan i Gurevich MiG-23 in Service in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, 1973-2018
Date of publication: June 2018
Binding: Paperback
Paper size: A4
Pages: 72
Photos: 91 black-and-white photos and three full-colour photos
Artworks: 20
Text comprehensibility for non-native English readers: Excellent

But before beginning the review, it is insightful to consider the background of the @War series. Following the pattern set up by the Africa@War book series, the @War series has expanded to cover Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America to provide a series of in-depth studies of military forces and armed conflicts on these continents.

With each instalment, the @War series has meanwhile grown to such an extent that there really is something for everybody, from forgotten wars in South America prior to and after the Second World War to current conflicts like the Syrian Civil War and Yemeni Civil War that bring you up to speed with the latest developments and of course, all you ever wanted to know about the Korean People's Army and its branches.

The philosophy of the @War series by Helion & Company is simple: It seeks to popularise expert knowledge by reaching out to historians and analysts (or vice versa) and asking them to bring their research into print, which in some cases would otherwise have remained confined to a hardrive. Indeed, while the number of books covering the Second World War is virtually endless, research on conflicts in forgotten corners of the world tend to get ignored by most other publishers out of fear the resulting books would generate insufficient profits. The @War series seeks to challenge this perception.

Neatly packed in an A4 format book usually consisting of 40.000+ words (larger subjects tend to get split into multiple books) and supported by excellent colour profiles and often never before published photographs (most of which in black-and-white), they provide an easily accessible manner of familiarising oneself with a topic more thoroughly than any online resource ever could.

As the vast majority of our loyal readers have a specific interest in equipment and battle reports, you should be feeling right at home with the @War series, which focuses on the organisational structure of militaries, their equipment, capabilities, tactics and combat operations. Each volume is richly illustrated by colour profiles of aircraft, vehicles, ships and nowadays even infantry.

So how do you introduce a topic like the MiG-23 in the Middle East? Where do you start when covering an aircraft that formed the backbone of several air forces in the Middle East and North Africa in the past and present? Algeria? Egypt? Iraq perhaps? No, Tom Cooper starts off with the requirements set out by the Soviet High Command that would eventually lead to the MiG-23, and why this design philosophy not necessarily matched that of the soon-to-be operators in the Middle East and Northern Africa. This makes you really understand how the MiG-23 came to be and why the resulting aircraft performed the way it did in the various air forces around the world in which it was commissioned.

Used in large numbers the Iran-Iraq War on the Iraqi side, but also facing off against foes such as Israel and in Libyan service even the US Navy, the MiG-23's history in the Middle East dates back as far as the mid-1970s. More recently, it has been deployed for combat in the Libyan and Syrian Civil Wars, with sporadic use continuing to this day.

While considering its combat history, the combat specifics of the MiG-23 variants that entered service with MENA air forces is covered, from the dreadful MiG-23MS to the much-loved MiG-23ML(D) and arguably the most dashing variant of them all: The MiG-23BN. As Libya, Iraq and Syria were recipients of all major MiG-23 variants exported during the Cold War, useful comparisons can be made between the features and combat history of early- and late-generation Floggers. While newer variants of the MiG-23 brought with them updated avionics and radar amongst a range of other improvements, its MENA operators engaged in almost constant conflict with neighbouring countries were often the first to test the new equipment in combat. With North Korea currently being the largest operator of MiG-23s in the world, their findings are still very much relevant even today!

The book also provides information on (highly successful and less successful) modernisation programmes of the MiG-23 carried out by Syria and Iraq, such as the mating of French Exocet anti-ship missiles to the venerable Flogger and the upgrade of MiG-23MLs with equipment taken from French Mirage F1s and stored Su-22 fighter-bombers, which in turn prevented several MiG-23MLs from being hit by U.S. AIM-120 AMRAAMs during aerial combats over and near the Coalition-established Iraqi no-fly zones during the 1990s.

While one could argue that the combat history and specifics of the MiG-23 variants used in the Middle East and North Africa manages to touch on several niche subjects in one go, Tom does a great job at mating them with enough background information to understand what is going on without getting sidetracked too much and deviate from the subject at hand. The resulting text not only gives you an idea of the MiG-23's combat history in the Syrian Civil War, but also provides a unique insight into the whole of the SyAAF. Two for the price of one!

The text is further supported by twenty beautifully drawn artworks showing the various MiG-23 variants in the camouflage patterns of their operators. Apart from being a delight to look at, these can go on to reveal interesting details about their loadouts, which not always consisted of your standard Soviet RBK and FAB bombs. Did you know that Algeria armed its MiG-23BNs with U.S. designed Mk.81 and Mk.82 bombs manufactured in South Africa? No? I didn't think so.

Locations and tactics mentioned and explained in the text are well supported by illustrations and maps. Although a map of Syria dedicated to the Syrian Civil War theatre of operations is lacking, this isn't really a problem with Google Maps installed on just about every phone nowadays.

All in all, MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East is an exceptionally complete thesis on its subject matter, but manages to present its richly informative content in a way that's pleasant to read a commendable achievement for books of this type. We can only hope that more of such volumes will released in the future. With the list of @War books growing year on year, this is certain to happen!

MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East can be ordered for just £16.95 at Helion's own website. Mind you that buying your books directly from Helion means that more money ends up in the hands of the author and publisher rather than online stores, which further supports their work and increases the chances of more books being released.
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