Farewell, Foxbat

April 16, 2006

The air force station at Bareilly is like any other airbase in the country. Clean, well maintained, neatly pruned hedges, shining insignias and signs all around, even flowers blooming in the summer heat. Everyone here likes it this way — unobtrusive, quiet, sober, the dust and din of Bareilly town well outside the forbidding gates.

Till now, the same forbidding gates have guarded one of the force’s most abiding secrets. The dog squads of the early 1980s have been replaced by much more effective metal cordons, separating 35 Squadron, codenamed Rapiers, from the rest of the picturesque station. For a good 25 years, the base has guarded a few precious machines that no outsider was ever allowed to see.

Obviously, the machines served the force well. And, finally, the IAF decided that the machines have served enough. So two weeks ahead of the May 1 phase-out deadline, the IAF agreed to ‘declassify’ some of its mysteries. It was the privilege of two Express journalists to be the first inside the IAF’s MiG-25 Foxbat spyplane unit.

After a revelatory three-hour tour of the base, the MiG-25 turns out nothing like what the drawing-room legends have thrown it up to be.

It is a great deal more.

The traditional secrecy lingers, but there is no longer any doubt. Ask anyone, including the intensely passionate base commander Air Commodore Shankar Mani, about whether the Foxbats were hurriedly purchased in 1981 to spy on Pakistan and China, and he will tell you: “They were bought for strategic reconnaissance. That should answer your question.”

Unlike the fierce Cold War arms race, the Foxbat represented a typically radical swerve away from the way the world was moving in the 1960s and 70s.

A big mammoth of an aircraft, powered by huge twin engines, flying three times the speed of sound and over three times higher than the maximum altitude allowed to civil airliners, the MiG-25 was the perfect monster the Indian government — and especially then Air Chief Idris Latif — needed to gun up IAF’s virtually non-existent reconnaissance capability in the late 1970s to spy on Pakistan and China.

Latif, now leading a retired life in Hyderabad, pulled out his old albums three days ago to reminisce. Over the phone, he said, “I am saddened that our Foxbats will soon be gone, but they served an intensely useful purpose. When I was the IAF chief, I was shocked and delighted to learn that the Soviets were actually offering MiG-25 Foxbats to us in 1980. I phoned up Mrs (Indira) Gandhi and she told me to go ahead and make a decision. She was a brilliant leader to work with. The Foxbat was the best in the world and it was made available to us.”

A month before he retired, Latif took a Foxbat up 90,000 feet to say farewell to his force. The other incident widely speculated upon was how in 1987, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi shot down a suggestion from the Air chief that the Foxbats be used to spy on Pakistani armoured movements. It was a particularly hostile time in the Western sector.

The incumbent chief at the time, Dennis La Fontaine, now living a less hectic life at his farmhouse in Brahmanapally village in Andhra Pradesh, told The Sunday Express: “Those were issues of national security. If you believe that strategic reconnaissance is a bad thing, then understand that military intelligence gathering, by its very nature, is illegal. These are understood around the world. Why pick up these issues long past?”

La Fontaine was about to undertake a flight in a Foxbat when he was Central Air Commander, but by the time he arrived at the base, he received orders appointing him Western Air Commander, and so a dream remained unfulfilled.

An enigma shrouds the Foxbat. Entirely unarmed — the IAF chose the reconnaissance variant, not the interceptor — and with no modern countermeasures against surface-launched missiles, the Foxbat’s only defence lies in its speed and cruising altitude.

At Mach 3, it leaves even the best guided missiles far behind in a chase, and at 90,000 feet, it is comfortably beyond actionable ground radar beams. Put together, the MiG-25 is simply invisible to the enemy.

In 1997, an IAF Foxbat famously darted into Pakistani airspace and its sonic boom alerted ground radars into action. But zooming back towards the Indian border, the Foxbat was just a blur to Pakistani air defence missiles and F-16s scrambling up from Sargodha.

Interestingly, the initial lifespan of the MiG-25s was to be just 14 years and the planes would have been gone by 1995. The year saw them put to amazing use darting up to the stratosphere to get crystal-clear photographs of the solar eclipse, the sun’s rays untouched and unscattered by interfering atmospheric molecules.

One of the two pilots who flew that mission is also the seniormost and most experienced Foxbat pilot still in service, Air Vice Marshal Sumit Mukerji, assistant chief at Air Headquarters. “It was an experiment that worked. Not only did we film the diamond ring of the eclipse, but also the starburst, when the sun’s light filtered through the crevasses and mountains on the moon. It was an amazing image. And from that height and speed, we were able to film the eclipse for a minute and 57 seconds, impossible from the ground,” he said.

In 1995, a life extension programme pushed the MiG-25s for another ten years. In 2001, another programme propelled the jets until 2005. The final extension was made last year. Finally, the IAF decided the machines wouldn’t be pushed any more.

Predictably, it is now exorbitantly expensive and time-consuming to maintain the Foxbats. With the Russians no longer supplying spares and claiming to have done away with all blueprints, any more reverse engineering by the technicians at the Bareilly airbase is plainly uneconomical.

Wing Commander Jayapal Patil, the technical officer who currently keeps the jets in ship-shape on their final run, said, “These aircraft have flown for 25 years at high speeds, so there is a level of aerodynamic strain. After the first life extension, we inspected and strengthened the jet’s mounting points, and changes made to the landing gear. But the aircraft are now at their end.”

Base commander Shankar Mani is more forthright: “Now, if there’s a problem, we have to struggle to even find a fuel leak because it is such an enormous and complex machine. The Russians don’t help us with spares or blueprints. On the flipside, we’ve gained precious expertise maintaining the Foxbats entirely ourselves.”

The apparent romance of flying spying missions in such brutally powerful aircraft is severely eroded by the reality of multiple dangers pilots are always just inches away from and the indispensable discomforts of flying in extreme conditions.

First, of course, there’s the fear. Knowing that you’re sitting on 20 tons of jet fuel and moving at screaming velocities can get unnerving. Secondly, you’re in a decidedly uncomfortable skin-tight suit to stop your blood from boiling over and rupturing your skin. Thirdly, you’re always faced with the prospect of a 60,000 foot free fall if you ever have to eject from that altitude before your parachute opens. It has never happened, so nobody knows if a pilot will survive such a long drop through far below freezing temperatures.

But Wing Commander Alok Chauhan, one of the two pilots who took a Foxbat into the skies exclusively for this newspaper’s cameras, sums it up like only a Foxbat pilot can: “When you’re up that high, and you can see the earth’s curvature and the blue band of the atmosphere, there’s a serene sense of detachment, a feeling of physical separation that is hard to match and difficult to describe.”

Spiritual, maybe.

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