Wednesday 6 July 2022

Beast From The East - Bulgaria’s MiG-25 Foxbats

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
It is little known that Bulgaria once operated a significant fleet of reconnaisance aircraft that at one point even included a number of MiG-25RBT 'Foxbats'. Bulgaria was the only Warsaw Pact country to operate the mighty Foxbat, the highly specialised nature of which and prohibitive operating costs were apparently enough to dissuade all other Warsaw Pact members from acquiring the aircraft. Bulgaria itself would only purchase four MiG-25s, which likely did little to improve the operations and maintenance costs per unit while they were in operational service.

Presumably for this reason, but also the drastically changed post-cold war security climate, the MiG-25s were retired already within ten years of entering service and exchanged for five MiG-23MLD fighter-aircraft with Russia in 1991. Although this marked the end of 'Foxbat' operations in Bulgaria, Ukraine would continue to operate its MiG-25PD(S) interceptors and MiG-25RBTs until 1996 while Russia only retired its last MiG-25RB(T)s in November 2013, some 50 years after the type first entered service.

Two decades earlier, in November 1982, three MiG-25RBTs (serials: 731, 736 and 754) and a single MiG-25RU two-seat conversion trainer (serial: 51) arrived at Dobrich Air Base in northeastern Bulgaria. The aircraft subsequently entered service with the 26th Reconnaissance Air Regiment for photo reconnaissance and electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) duties. 
Tragedy struck on the 12th of April 1984 when a MiG-25RBT was lost after running out of fuel in bad weather, forcing the pilot to eject. In May 1991, the three remaining aircraft roamed through Bulgarian airspace for the last time as they departed for an uncertain future in a crumbling USSR. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the aircraft were taken over by the Russian Air Force and flown from Lipetsk and later from Shatalovo, later even seeing action during the Chechen Wars. [1]

During the 1950s the Bulgarian Air Force's 26th Reconnaissance Air Regiment was initially equipped with a hodgepodge of aircraft that weren't particularly well-suited to the reconnaissance role, mostly comprising bomber aircraft that were flown in their original configuration. But in the decades that followed, the unit eventually grew out to become the best-equipped aerial reconnaissance unit in the Warsaw Pact.

In the course of the 1950s, it received fourteen Il-28R (and one Il-28U trainer) aircraft, supplemented by some twelve MiG-15bisR at the start of the 1960s. Though their service in Bulgaria wouldn't be exceptionally longlasting, it bears mentioning that such aircraft have elsewhere weathered the ages and found use even in today's day and age, with North Korea still maintaining them in operational condition. [2]

The Il-28Rs and MiG-15bisRs were later supplemented and replaced by MiG-21R combat-capable reconnaissance aircraft and MiG-21MFs modified for the same role. The 1980s would see the unit's golden decade with the delivery of the MiG-25RBTs as well as Su-22M-4s. [3] [4] As the last remaining MiG-21R and MiG-21MF-R aircraft were retired from service, Dobrich Air Base closed its doors in 2002, followed by the retirement of the Su-22M-4s two years later. Since then, no dedicated reconnaissance aircraft are operated by the Bulgarian Air Force.

A Bulgarian MiG-25 is flanked by two MiG-21s, clearly showcasing its massive size

When equipped with multiple ejector racks (MERs), the reconnaissance-configured MiG-25RBT could be turned into a high-speed bomber armed with up to eight 500kg FAB-500Ts. There is no evidence to suggest Bulgaria ever received MERs for its MiG-25s or had any interest in deploying its aircraft as bombers in the first place however. [5] This was likely the case because of the terrible accuracy associated with using MiG-25s as bombers, which were originally supposed to deliver nuclear weapons only, so that accuracy wasn't of too great importance. 

The days of Bulgaria operating dedicated reconnaissance aircraft are long gone, with the air force struggling to maintain and eventually completely replace its other Soviet-era air assets like the MiG-29 and Su-25 with more modern Western aircraft.

[3] Bulgarian Air Defence and Air Force’s Tactical Air Units in January 1, 1983
[4] Bulgarian Air Defence and Air Force’s Tactical Air Units in January 1, 1988
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