Middle East Tensions Threaten Draw in Russian Forces: Putin Orders Hypersonic Missile Armed MiGs Deployed to Counter American Carriers

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on October 18 that he had ordered MiG-31K/I strike fighters armed with Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles to carry out regular patrols over neutral airspace in the Black Sea. “Our MiG-31 planes are armed with Kinzhal missile systems. It is known that they have a range of over 1,000 km and a Mach-9 speed,” he stated, emphasising that the deployment was a reaction to escalating instability in the Middle East. In particular, the U.S. Navy’s deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Mediterranean Sea near Israel was raised as a factor. The MiG-31s will place the Eastern Mediterranean within striking distance of the hypersonic weapons carried by the aircraft. The United States has vastly expanded its military footprint in and surrounding the Middle East since the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas on October 7, including not only the deployment of two nuclear powered aircraft carriers, but also an assault carrier with a Marine Rapid Response Force, A-10 attack jets, F-15E strike fighters, forward deployed B-1B bombers, and a range of other assets. 

The expansion of the U.S. Military presence in the Middle East poses a potential threat to Russian forces and interests in the region, and coincides with growing warnings that jihadist militias operating with the protection and support of Washington’s NATO ally Turkey are planning offensives against Russian targets in Syria. With the United States expected to intervene against Syria, Hezbollah and possibly Iran should tensions between these parties and Israel escalate into larger scale hostilities, Russia’s commitment to preventing the overthrow of the Syrian state, and its significant military facilities in Syria, could lead to its involvement. Tensions between Russian and American forces in Syria have escalated in 2023 with Moscow consistently slamming what is widely considered an illegal occupation of Northeastern Syria by the U.S. Military and illegal appropriation and sale of Syrian oil. With Russian forces in the region remaining relatively small, the ability of assets in the Black Sea to provide fire support has long been highly prized. This was seen during counterinsurgency efforts in Syria from 2015 when cruise missile strikes were launched from the Black Sea Fleet and from bombers operating over the region. 

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal ballistic missile gained significant publicity for its successful destruction of an American Patriot air defence system in Ukraine on May 16, with its first use recorded on March 18 2022 to strike a  large underground warehouse in Western Ukraine housing war materials recently delivered through Poland. The Kinzhal is deployed by Russian Air Force MiG-31K strike fighters and entered service in late 2017, and has since been deployed by the newer MiG-31I strike fighter, the Tu-22M3 bomber and most recently from September 2023 the Su-34 strike fighter. The missile’s strong performance is not only thought to have fuelled the increase in the number of aircraft which can deploy it, allowing the Russian Air Force to outfit more squadrons with the weapons without needing to bring more MiG-31s into service, but it has also helped support arguments for a quintupling of production of the missiles which was achieved by early 2023. The Kinzhal is prized not only for is very high terminal speeds of close to Mach 9, but also its high manoeuvrability and quasi ballistic low altitude trajectory which makes it extremely difficult to track, intercept and at times challenging to even detect during flight. With a 2000km engagement range, the missile is considered effectively impossible to intercept reliably with the only viable known defence being the disruption or disabling of satellites and other surveillance assets that provide targeting data for its use.