The MiG-31BM/BSM Foxhound heavyweight interceptor reportedly saw its first ever air to air engagements in October, which represented a major landmark for Russian tactical combat aviation 41 years after the class first became operational. Although the MiG-31 first entered service in 1981, and has had capabilities long suspected to be among the world’s foremost in the air to air domain, the aircraft is one of the few in the Russian inventory which by 2020 still had not seen any combat, with the bulk of Russian Air Force assets up to and including intercontinental range strategic bombers having been employed for operations against insurgent targets in Syria. The MiG-31K, a Foxhound variant heavily modified for strike missions, first saw action in March 2022 conducting a strike on Ukrainian military facilities near the country’s border with Poland, leaving the MiG-31BM/BSM interceptor as one of the few untested assets in the Russian inventory. The aircraft are still widely considered the most capable in the Russian fleet in terms of air to air capabilities, and multiple factors in the design have led its debut in combat to long be anticipated. War with Ukraine has ensured that Russia is the only country which has had the opportunity to test modern 21st century combat aircraft for air to air operations.
The MiG-31 was developed in the 1970s as a successor to the MiG-25 Foxbat, a third generation aircraft unrivalled for its time which repeatedly proved all but invulnerable to the Western Bloc’s top end anti aircraft assets in multiple theatres across the world. In its final engagement with a Western heavyweight, NATO’s top fighter of the Cold War era the F-15 Eagle, the Foxbat in Iraqi hands claimed an aerial victory for no losses in February 1991. With the Foxhound’s design being loosely derived from that of the Foxbat, the older aircraft’s very strong performance record led to high expectations from the much more ambitious next generation aircraft that followed it. The Foxhound improved on the Foxbat’s performance across the spectrum, and several of the capabilities it introduced remain unrivalled today. Carrying the largest radar of any tactical combat jet in the world, the MiG-31 was also 20 years ahead of the world in integrating an electronically scanned array radar. These would be introduced by French and Japanese fighters in 2001 and 2002 respectively, followed by the U.S. Air Force in 2005, while the Foxhound had done so in 1981. The aircraft was also the first in the world capable of cruising supersonically for very extended periods, and could do so at Mach 2.3 speeds allowing it to cover very large areas of the Soviet Union’s vast territory and respond to threats quickly. The MiG-31’s operational altitude, and ability to employ all its weapons when flying significantly above the Armstrong Limit, also made it a unique asset.
Perhaps the most significant strength of the MiG-31 is its ability to carry exceptionally high missile payloads, including six oversized R-37M missiles and several regular sized R-77 and R-74 missiles. The R-37M was introduced in the late 2010s, following the integration of new avionics and the new Zaslon-M radars onto the aircraft, and allows Foxhounds to engage targets up to 400km away. The missile’s extreme range and unrivalled Mach 6 speed complements the MiG-31’s ability to launch them when flying very high and very fast, providing much more energy than if other Russian aircraft had launched them. The R-37M has reportedly also made its debut in combat over Ukraine, and proven particularly effective alongside the MiG-31 itself, although confirmation has yet to materialise regarding which targets have been neutralised. Approximately 110 MiG-31s configured for air to air combat are in service in the Russian Air Force today, all of which have been modernised to the MiG-31BM/BSM standard with Zaslon-M radars.
Although they have significantly higher operational costs than fighter sized aircraft such as the Su-35, the MiG-31’s performance advantages are very significant meaning they are unlikely to be phased out of service until a new dedicated interceptor, currently under development under the secretive PAK DP program, is considered ready for service. An important asset the aircraft retains is that its capabilities remain largely a mystery to Russia’s adversaries in the West, as it is the only class of Russian tactical combat aside from the new Su-57 not to have been exported with only Kazakhstan, a close Russian security partner, also operating the class after having inherited it from the Soviet Union. Soviet successor states in Europe which have aligned with the West since 1991 and supplied Western powers with sensitive equipment, most notably Ukraine, did not inherit the aircraft. The Kazakh Air Force’s Foxhounds have notably also been modernised to the BM/BSM standard, providing the country with the most capable combat aircraft in Central Asia. The MiG-31 has no competitors in the world with comparable capabilities, and may well see its numbers in service in the Russian fleet further expanded should its continue to demonstrate its strong advantages over Ukrainian skies.