Foxhounds Over Beijing: When the West Held its Breath For a Chinese Purchase of Advanced MiG-31 Interceptors

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force owed much of its success in becoming a world leading service in the 1990s to the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the decade. The country’s ability to subsequently acquire vast quantities of the some of the world’s most capable armaments and technologies from cash strapped successor states, namely from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, was a direct result. With Chinese orders having effectively saved much of the Russian defence industry at a time of crisis in the 1990s, the technologies of a world leading military aviation power allowed the East Asian state to upgrade its formerly near obsolete aerial warfare capabilities into a cutting edge fighting force which in the 1990s boasted the world’s most capable air superiority aircraft outside Russia itself. This was primarily achieved through purchases of the Su-27 and Su-30 heavyweight fighters, which were considered the most formidable in the world in air to air combat by U.S. sources until the entry into service of the American F-22 Raptor in December 2005. China’s J-11, J-15 and J-16 fighters were heavily based on the Russian Su-27 design, with the airframe improved substantially with indigenous Chinese technologies as the country’s defence sector gradually overtook that of Russia in the 2000s and 2010s.

China received its first Su-27s in 1991, which in terms of overall air to air capabilities were considered second at the time only to the Russian MiG-31 Foxhound – an interceptor rather than a fighter. A number of reports from sources such as the British think tank IISS indicated that China was set not only to acquire the MiG-31 alongside the Su-27, but that it would also manufacture over 200 of the costly Foxhound interceptors domestically under license. Similar reports were widespread in the West at the time, raising concerns that the balance of power over the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan Strait would quickly become less favourable for the United States Air Force. 

Reports of a Chinese MiG-31 purchase came at a time when Russia was still developing the Soviet program for a ‘Super Foxhound’ interceptor as the MiG-31M, which would have surpassed the already formidable capabilities of the original jet and could have been offered to China. The original MiG-31 had entered service in 1981 and was modernised extensively during its time in service which would eventually provide it with some of the most advanced long range anti aircraft capabilities in the world – a role for which it was highly specialised and in many ways superior to either the Su-27 or its American analogue the F-15. The interceptor was touted both by its crews and by a number of Russian defence analysts as the country’s analogue to the American F-22 Raptor, and although lacking stealth capabilities many of its performance specifications from speed and altitude to engagement range and air to ground capabilities surpassed those its newer American rival.

Reports of a Chinese purchase of the MiG-31, either ‘off the shelf’ from Russian production lines or for license production in China itself, never materialised with the country instead pursuing transfers of Russian technologies on a massive scale, license production of the Su-27 and later purchases of the Su-27’s successor the Su-30 which was derived from the same airframe design. With much of Russia’s military hardware unaccounted for in the 1990s and early 2000s due to the chaotic domestic situation, and with China having shown a strong interest in studying its technologies, the possibility of a Chinese acquisition of a small number of MiG-31 jets for research purposes cannot be ruled out. China notably has yet to deploy an aircraft with similar capabilities to the Foxhound, with its sole interceptor aircraft the J-8 being a much lighter and cheaper design. The usefulness of the heavyweight Russian design was shown in the latter half of the 2010s when Foxhounds were equipped with hypersonic ballistic missiles as the MiG-31K for both strike and anti shipping roles, as well as with anti satellite weapons where their high speeds and operational altitudes were highly valued. For deployment of hypersonic missile or anti satellite weapons the Foxhound has no peer competitors in the world other than heavy bombers. 

Had China gone ahead with purchasing the MiG-31, its potential uses for the interceptor would have been manyfold. With its Air Force investing heavily in assets to protect Chinese airspace form hostile attacks, in particular focusing on the ability to target large and bulky American support aircraft critical to a successful offensive such as KC-135 Stratotanker and E-3 Sentry AWACS platform at extreme ranges, the MiG-31 would be the ideal aircraft for such a role. The interceptor’s R-37 missiles have by far the longest engagement range in the world at approximately 400km, and are designed specifically to target such support jet while having a high immunity to electronic disruption. The R-37 was considered ready for serial production in the 1990s, but this was cancelled when the MiG-31M program was terminated meaning the missile only began to entered service in the 2010s.

While China’s Su-27s engaged enemy fighters, the Foxhounds could have complemented them both as command and control aircraft and by neutralising enemy support aircraft. Should an enemy tanker fleet be destroyed over the South or East China Seas it would leave fighter jets effectively stranded without the fuel to return to base and forced either land at Chinese airfields or crash, with tankers very heavily relied on due to the generally shorter ranges of American fighters relative to Chinese or Russian ones. With the MiG-31 having been designed with a long range and large sensor suite to guard the vast expanses of Soviet territory, it would have been a potentially ideal asset to guard the South and East China Seas. 

The MiG-31 today is fielded by two Soviet successor states, Russia and Kazakhstan, and no exports have ever been confirmed. A number of reports indicate that Syria attempted to place an order for the jets to modernise its Soviet era aerial warfare capabilities and provide superiority over Israeli F-15 jets, although this was unsuccessful. With over 100 in service, Russia began to modernise its fleet to the MiG-31BM/BSM standard around 2010 although these are still considered far less capable than the larger MiG-31M would have been. A more capable heavy interceptor is currently under development under the PAK DP program, otherwise informally known as the MiG-41, with the new aircraft designed to engage space targets and fly in near space at hypersonic speeds. With the new interceptor expected to be operational by the end of the decade, should Russia’s defence sector be able to deliver a worthy 21st century successor to the Foxhound then the possibility cannot be ruled out that China may show an interest in very unique aircraft. With the MiG-31 being the only fourth generation interceptor in service anywhere in the world today, the PAK DP is expected to similarly produce an aircraft which has no equivalents abroad and thus one of the few remaining areas where Russia’s defence sector produces armaments which China has no equivalent to domestically.