Russian Navy MiG-31 Interceptors Force American B-1B Bombers Back in Arctic

Russian MiG-31 interceptors were scrambled on March 26 to escort U.S. Air Force B-1B strategic bombers away from the country’s territory over the Barents Sea. The Russian Defence Ministry reported the incident on the day as follows: “On March 26, Russian airspace control systems detected over the Barents Sea a group air target approaching Russia’s state border. To identify an air target and prevent violation of Russia’s state border, a MiG-31 fighter from the air defence forces on duty was raised in the air. The Russian fighter crew identified the aerial target as a pair of US Air Force’s B-1B strategic bombers.” MiG-31s in the region are operated under the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet, and represent the only combat aircraft capable of air to air operations stationed in the areas. MiG-31’s in the region are among the most frequently involved in engagements with Western aircraft due to the intensity of attempted surveillance efforts, in particular by the U.S. and Norway, aimed at key naval facilities hosting the bulk of the Russian strategic nuclear submarine fleet. 

The MiG-31BM interceptor began to enter service in the late 2000s and is well optimised for beyond visual range air to air combat particularly against high value targets such as strategic bombers. The baseline MiG-31 interceptor was developed in the Soviet Union largely in order to intercept threats from low flying supersonic American aircraft like the B-1B bomber, and had look down/shoot down capabilities decades ahead of its time allowing the aircraft to distinguish even low observable targets from ground clutter and engage them at beyond visual ranges. The MiG-31 deploys by far the largest radar of any combat aircraft in the world, over three times the size of NATO’s largest and longest ranged fighter the F-15 Eagle, which is well optimised to targeting aircraft at very long ranges using its primary armament of R-37M air to air missiles. The R-37M is the longest ranged air to air missile class fielded outside China, and when deployed by the MiG-31 from high altitudes and at high speeds it has a Mach 6 speed and 400 kilometre range. The MiG-31 and R-37M have proven to be Russia’s most effective air to air combat platforms when deployed in combat in the Ukrainian theatre.