MiG-25RR Radiational Sampler: The Mach 3 Soviet Jet Built to Spy on China's Nuclear Program

The Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat entered service in 1970 as what was widely considered the most potent fighter/interceptor aircraft of its time, and retains the title of the fastest combat aircraft in the world today despite production having ceased in 1985. In spite of its extremely high operational costs far exceeding those of any other non stealth fighter, the Foxbat remained in Russian Air Force service until 2013 reflecting the value attributed to its advanced capabilities, with the aircraft also remaining in service in the Algerian Air Force today. Two main families of MiG-25 variants entered service with entirely different roles, including interceptors for the Soviet Air Defence Force designed for air to air combat, the MiG-25P series, and reconnaissance and strike variants for the Soviet Air Force as the MiG-25R series. While more capable aircraft for air to air combat were developed in the Soviet Union from the 1980s to surpass the MiG-25P, the MiG-25R family had no successor that outmatched it leading to it gaining more variants and remaining in service longer. Specialised MiG-25R variants fulfilled roles ranging from air defence suppression to electronic warfare and high altitude bombing, but one of the most niche variants was developed in response to growing concerns in the Soviet Union regarding the development of the Chinese nuclear program in the 1970s. This. aircraft, the MiG-25RR, was designed specifically to monitor nuclear testing across the border.

While over 220 MiG-25R platforms of various variants were built, only eight were designed for monitoring nuclear testing as the MiG-25RR. The aircraft was developed specifically in response to the perceived threat posed by the Chinese nuclear program following the Sino-Soviet split. While the USSR had played a key part in supporting Chinese nuclear development during the 1950s, the deterioration of relations between the two following the following decade resulted in China's nuclear arsenal being aimed at deterring military action not only by U.S. forces to its south and east, but also by Soviet forces on its northern and western borders. 

China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) tested ints first nuclear weapon in 1964, and its first thermonuclear weapon just three years later in 1967. Testing continued until 1996, with higher payload weapons with smaller and lighter warheads continuing to be developed allowing them to be mounted on ballistic missiles. While North Korea managed to achieve this feat in under a decade, it took China 32 years to achieve the desired result before testing could be ended. The PLA carried out 45 nuclear tests during this period, the largest being in November 1976 when a 4 megaton hydrogen bomb was set off in the atmosphere. This came at a time of heightened tensions between the Moscow and Beijing, and these frequent tests in a neighbouring country were cause for major concern in the Soviet Union.

Eight MiG-25RR radiation sampling aircraft were deployed with Vista mission equipment suites, which included FUKA air sampling pods developed to detect radioactive particles in the atmosphere at high altitudes. While the suites were initially designed for Yakovlev reconnaissance aircraft, they were modified for the more capable Foxbat which could fly much faster and higher to evade Chinese defences. The Chinese PLA Air Force’s most advanced combat aircraft at the time was an early and relatively unsophisticated variant of the J-7 single engine light fighter based on the Soviet MiG-21, restricted to flying below Mach 2 and at relatively low altitudes, while its most capable air defence system was the Soviet S-75 long range missile platform. The bulk of Chinese units deployed much less capable aircraft, while S-75 coverage was sparse, and the MiG-25's speed and altitude thus made it effectively immune to interception. Indeed, the PLA was unable to detect, much less successfully target, the Foxbats due to the aircraft's high performance. Chinese air defences would remain extremely weak until the 1990s, when advanced new air defence systems and fighter jets were purchased from Russia following the Soviet collapse.

The USSR’s use of the MiG-25 to monitor Chinese activities was not the only time the Foxbat was deployed for such purposes. Iraq regularly used its own MiG-25 fleet to inspect Iranian military facilities, including monitoring nuclear sites which regularly came under attack. India too made extensive use of its small contingent of eight dedicated reconnaissance Foxbats to monitor Pakistani military and nuclear activities in the 1980s and 1990s. The aircraft was near invulnerable when properly piloted, and even when detected Foxbats could regularly fly across the length and breadth of enemy territories leaving hostile fighters and air defence units effectively helpless to intercept them. Soviet MiG-25s flying over Israeli held Sinai in the 1970s and Indian and Iraqi Foxbats flying over Pakistan and Iran respectively, all demonstrated this, and of these only Iraqi MIG-25s ever suffered combat losses - although rarely. Chinese airspace in the 1970s was much less well protected than those of the other three targets for Foxbat reconnaissance missions, with the country having yet to deploy fighters with even basic beyond visual range missiles, and as a result the MiG-25RR could fly over Chinese airspace with impunity.

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