A “final” upgrade of the MiG-23 was ordered, based on upgrades applied to the previous ML and MLA variants. The result was the MiG-23MLD – or Flogger-K.

In service since 1970, the MiG-23 Flogger fighter was still produced in the Soviet Union until 1985. Although initially considered a problematic fighter and dependent on the MiG-21’s avionics, by the mid-1970s the MiG-23 had evolved into a potential single-engine fighter, of which the Soviet Union alone had more than 2,000 in service. The differences between the original and later variants are huge, from wings, materials, sensors and weapons. MiG-23 was one of the most successful variants in the MiG series of fighters with around 5,000 of them were produced.

The main problem with the MiG-23 dates back to the 1980s, when it was no longer considered cost-effective to operate. At that time, the 4th generation fighter model, MiG-29, in service since 1982, was proven to be superior to the MiG-23 in most aspects. In a last-ditch effort to extend the life of the 23 family, a “final” upgrade of the MiG-23 was ordered, based on upgrades applied to the previous ML and MLA variants. The result was the MiG-23MLD – or Flogger-K.

The new plane had a complete overhaul to not only its avionics, but the airframe as well. It introduced vortex generators and leading edge dogtooth, which increased its maneuverability and controllability at high alpha and stall speeds. The flight-control system incorporated the SOS-3-4 synthetic stick-stop device/signals limiter being used on the MiG-29 to improve handling and safety in high-AoA maneuvers.

The airframe was lightened even further over the ML “lightweight” variant, the wings were upgraded to the new strengthened “Type 4” wing with the “dogtooth” wing root for increased AoA at higher speeds, and were also given new slats and vortex generators to increase low speed performance. And to top off the flight performance upgrades, the powerful R-35F-300 engine providing extra thrust over older MiG-23 models was installed.

A strengthening of the wing pivot allowed the addition of a fourth wing sweep position of 33°, which was intended to reduce turn radius and allow for rapid deceleration during dogfights. However, with the wings at the 33° position, the MiG-23MLD was much more difficult to handle and suffered from poor acceleration. Moving the wings to this position was primarily reserved for experienced MiG-23 pilots, while combat manuals continued to emphasize the 45° position.

Significant improvements were made in avionics, with the incorporation of the Sapfir-23MLA-II (N008) radar which featured greater range, reliability, ECM resistance and improved modes for look-down/shoot-down over rough terrain. The radar also featured a close-in fighting mode with vertical-scan capability covering a narrow sector in front of the fighter. Against a bomber-sized target operating at medium to high altitudes, the Sapfire-23MLA-II had a maximum detection range of 70 km (43 mi).

The RP-23MLA-II was powerful, better than the AN/APG-63 of the F-16A, and similar to the Phazotron N019 Rubin of the MiG-29A. It could use helmet mounted sights combined with the deadly R-73. This combination in 1994 prompted the US to develop the AIM-9X out of panic, after they realized that the F-16C lost 20 – 30 times in mock dogfights against German MiG-29As. The F-16C won only once.

Other improvements included the SPO-15L Beryoza radar warning receiver, A-321 Klystron digital tactical radio navigation/automatic landing system, SAU-23-18 automatic flight control system, and SARP-12-24 crash-resistant flight recorder. Survivability was improved with a pair of six-round downward-firing chaff/flare dispensers mounted in the underfuselage centerline pylon, complemented by the two thirty-round upward-firing BVP-50-60 chaff/flare dispenser.

Almost all MLDs were rebuilt from older ML and MLA aircraft, with the exception being the 62 export MLDs sold to Bulgaria (12) and Syria (50), being the last brand new single-seat MiG-23 airframes to roll off the production line. The Soviet MiG-23MLD participated in the war in Afghanistan. The regiment of these planes protected Kabul, and then Bagram from 1986 to 1987. The regiment “worked” mainly on ground targets. However, air to air combat did happen when the MiG-23MLD downed a Pakistani F-16A with an R-60M missile.


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