Entering service in the Soviet Air Force from 1970, and remaining in production until 1985, the MiG-23 swept wing fighter was one of the most widely used combat jets of the Cold War era and one of the most capable third generation fighters ever to enter service.
Despite its advanced capabilities, the fighter has been widely retired from service with most operators favouring either the older MiG-21, which though less capable is much easier to operate and requires less maintenance, or the newer MiG-29 which is generally considered a more cost effective aircraft in terms of operational costs. As a result, major operators of the MiG-23 include only North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Libya, Angola and Ethiopia, with Kazakhstan operating an advanced derivative of the jet specialised in strike roles – the MiG-27.
MiG-23s have rarely seen combat outside the Syrian theatre, although even in Syria the MiG-21 was generally favoured for dropping cheap unguided bombs due to its low operational costs and greater ease of maintenance. MiG-23s in the Ethiopian Air Force, however, have reportedly recently seen combat against Tigray rebel forces in the country.
Ethiopian Air Force MiG-23BN
Ethiopia’s MiG-23 fleet is the smallest operational one in the world at an estimated 8-10 aircraft, but uses relatively modern MiG-23ML variants from the early 1980s as well as MiG-23UB trainer variants. The MiG-23ML is much more capable in both air to air and strike roles than older models such as the MiG-23B, which had a poor combat record, a different wing design, an inferior flight performance and inferior sensors and avionics.
The ML variant is also used by North Korea and Angola, while the superior MiG-23MLD is used by Syria. Without significant investment in modernisation of the airframes, the fighters’ relatively limited capabilities has led them to be assigned to strike roles, while the country’s newer and much more modern Su-27SK jets are responsible for air to air missions. A number of reports indicate that Ethiopia is considering acquiring a new fighter class for its fleet.
Ongoing tensions with Egypt and Sudan, which both deploy more modern aircraft, provides an impetus to do so. While an arms embargo on North Korea, and the sheer number of MiG-23s deployed by cash-strapped Syria and Cuba, means none of these three are expected to retire their Floggers in the next decade, Ethiopia’s swept wing jets may be seeing some of their last combat operations.