MiG-31 & Vympel R-37M – A Deadly Combo That Ukraine’s F-16 Fighters Can Challenge But Not Defeat

OPINION By Air Marshal Anil Chopra

The Russian Air Force may not have won the aerial war over Ukraine, but it has maintained very significant pressure against NATO-backed and actively supported Ukraine. Russia has at least one major aerial advantage: the fearsome combination of the Mikoyan MiG-31 interceptor and its very long-range R-37M missile.

As per Ukraine, on 26 January 2023, 55 missiles were fired at targets in Ukraine. Included in the attack was a MiG-31 launched Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missile.

On 9 March 2023, a barrage of 84 missiles, including six Kinzhals, was fired at Ukrainian cities, their largest use to date. Ukraine has no way to stop the MiG-31 or Kinzhals. Ukrainians call the MiG-31 a terror weapon that can disrupt daily life in Ukraine.

The R-37M armed MiG-31 has, since October 2022, been the main threat against the Ukrainian Air Force. MiG-31 aircraft have reportedly shot down several Ukrainian aircraft, mainly by using the long-range R-37.

In August 2023, an R-37-armed Russian MiG-31 scared off a Norwegian P-8A Poseidon, forcing it to do a U-turn. In December 2023, a Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter jet was shot down by an R-37M long-range air-to-air missile reportedly fired by a MiG-31.

In August 2023, the National Police of Ukraine claimed that an R-37 missile had been used in an airstrike in the Kramatorsk region. Ukrainian pilots are hoping that the soon-to-be-supplied F-16 fighter jets armed with the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles will be a defense.

MiG-31 Platform

The MiG-31 “Foxhound” remains a very capable combat aircraft. It was originally developed during the Cold War as a home defense interceptor. Derived from the MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor and equipped with state-of-the-art digital avionics, the rear seat is occupied by a dedicated weapon systems officer.

It made its maiden flight in September 1975, the series production began in 1979, and it entered service in 1982.

The highly aerodynamic and streamlined body allows it to fly even at low altitudes at supersonic speeds. The efficient low-bypass-ratio turbofan engines give it a better combat range.

The long-range, two-seat supersonic (Mach 2.85) aircraft was always viewed with awe by the West. Its airframe reportedly comprises 49 percent arc-welded nickel steel, 33 percent light metal alloy, 16 percent titanium, and two percent composites.

The MiG-31 was not developed for close combat and had poor turn performance, but it is a great platform with look-down and shoot-down capability and can track multiple targets simultaneously.

Its Zaslon radar was the world’s first phased array, with a range of 200 km. The aircraft was never exported, and 519 were produced. Syria had reportedly ordered eight MiG-31E aircraft in 2007, but the order was not fulfilled for various reasons.

The current variant, the MiG-31BM, is multi-role and has been significantly upgraded. The upgrade provides network-centric combat control, new phased array radar, and inflight refueling.

With a reinforced airframe, the service life has been extended from 2,500 to 3,500 hours. Russians claim that the MiG-31BM is 2.6 times more efficient. The upgraded Zaslon-M radar has a 1.4-meter-diameter antenna, and the detection range for air targets has been increased to 400 km for AEW&C-sized aircraft.

The new radar complex of the MiG-31BM can track 24 airborne targets at one time, six of which can be simultaneously attacked by R-33S missiles. Radar reportedly works well even during active radar jamming.

The MiG-31BM has multi-role capability, as it can use anti-radar, air-to-ship, and air-to-ground missiles. Some avionics are common to the MiG-29SMT, and it has a flight refueling probe. In addition, the MiG-31BM had other upgraded avionics, HOTAS controls, and modern multi-function displays (MFDs). The aircraft had an infrared search and track (IRST) system in a retractable under-nose fairing with a range of around 56 kilometers.

There were 4× semi-recessed hard points under the fuselage and 4× underwing pylons with a capacity of up to 9,000 kg of ordnance. They could carry combinations of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. The new Mach-6 R-37 missile has a range of up to 400 km. The MiG-31BM can also carry R-33 long-range air-to-air missiles and R-73 short-range air-launched weapons.

Its more powerful 2xD-30F6 engines had a take-off thrust of 15,500 kg each. The maximum speed was 3,000 km/h, and a ceiling of 20,600 meters. The plan was to upgrade 100 aircraft and extend service beyond 2030.

The MiG-31 acts as an air-dominance fighter. It was equipped with digital secure data links, and the aircraft radar picture could be transferred to Su-30s and MiG-29s.

Also, ground radar pictures could be received by the MiG-31 and transferred electronically to other aircraft, thus allowing radar-silent attacks. There was a choice to slew missiles and fire based on inputs from other aircraft through data links. The MiG-31 had radar ECMs.

A formation of four MiG-31s can carry out cooperative work using data links and dominate a 900-kilometre front. The aircraft radar and weapons combination could intercept cruise missiles flying at low altitudes and launch aircraft in the same attack. Similarly, it could take on UAVs and helicopters. The aircraft could act as air defense escorts to long-range strategic bombers.

The MiG-31K variant carries the large-sized Kinzhal ballistic missile. Every time a MiG-31 takes off from a Russian military base, an air raid alert is issued across the entire Ukraine, and it plays havoc in their daily lives and is disruptive to the Ukrainian economy.

The MiG-31BM combat air patrols have proven highly effective against Ukrainian attack aircraft and fighters. MiG-31BM aircraft have reportedly shot down several Ukrainian aircraft, mainly by utilizing the long-range R-37M air-to-air missile. MiG-31s have been able to operate virtually unopposed because Ukraine’s own fighters lack range, speed, or altitude.

The author of this article had the privilege of flying the MiG-31 BM, Tail Number 903, on 28 May 1999. The flight was made at the Sokol Aircraft Plant in Nizhnie Novgorod, 400 km east of Moscow. This plant manufactured the aircraft. At its peak, the plant used to make close to 200 MiG-21s a year.

Just after my flight on MiG 31. With the Director-General of the plant, Mr V Pankov, and Mrs Nirupama Rao Menon, then the Deputy Chief of the Mission, later India’s Ambassador to the US and Foreign Secretary

The Formidable Vympel R-37M Missile

The Russian Vympel R-37M “Axehead” (export: RVV-BD) is a hypersonic air-to-air missile with a very long range. Propelled by a boost-sustained solid rocket, this variant is designed to shoot down tankers, AWACS, and other C4ISTAR aircraft. Thus, it has kept the Ukrainians and NATO at farther distances.

The R-37 original variant was inducted in med 1980s. The latest variant, a 500 Kg R-37M (60 kg warhead) missile, was inducted into service in 2019. It can hit targets at ranges between 150–400 km, making it the longest-range air-to-air missile in the Ukraine war and a serious threat to Ukraine’s battered air force.

A report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) states that in October 2022, some six R-37Ms were being fired at the Ukrainian Air Force a day. The R-37M may not have scored many hard kills, but the fact that they are forcing the Ukrainian pilots to take evasive maneuvers and turn back without completing their mission. A MiG-31 can push the R-37M around 180 kilometers into Ukrainian air space, thus denying them airspace use in their own country.

To prevent the R-37M missile hit, Ukrainian pilots have developed a dodging maneuver called “notching.” However, they can’t easily strike back at the MiG-31 that launched the missile. The longest-range air-to-air missile in their inventory remains the Russian R-27ER, with a maximum 100-kilometre range under specific conditions.

Four MiG-31s were also deployed to Crimea. Because of fear of the MiG-31 and R-37M combo, Ukraine has had to attempt to destroy MiG-31s while they are still on the ground through an attempted drone attack on the Belbek airbase in August 2022.

MiG-31 Foxhound

The Kinzhal Missile

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal ‘Dagger’ is a Russian hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile inducted into service in 2017. The 4,300 kg missile is around 7.2 m long and has a diameter of around 1.2 m.

The low-yield nuclear warhead could be between 5 and 50 kilotons. Alternatively, it could carry a conventional HE warhead. It can be launched by Tu-22M3 bombers or MiG-31K.

Also, some Su-34s have recently been modified to carry it. This Mach 10 missile, when carried on a MiG-31, has an overall operational range of nearly 2,000 km.  It is the first hypersonic weapon to have been used in operations. In June 2021, a Kinzhal missile was launched by a MiG-31K from Khmeimim Air Base on a ground target in Syria.

It has been deployed at airbases in Russia’s Southern and Western Military Districts. As per Russian sources, these missiles have received the capability of mid-flight re-targeting.

In Ukraine, Russia has used Kinzhals starting 18 March 2022, when they targeted an alleged underground weapons depot. Another one the next day targeted a fuel depot.

Many more were launched by both the Tu-22 bombers and MiG-31K fighters. On 9 March 2023, Ukrainian cities were hit with a barrage of 84 missiles, including 6 Kinzhals, the largest use of these missiles to date. Kinzhal armed MiG-31K has been undertaking permanent patrols over the Black Sea since October 2023.

F-16s For Ukraine – No Match To MiG-31

The Netherlands and other NATO countries are in the process of donating a few dozen surplus F-16 AM/BM fighters. These Block 20 MLU F-16 MLU fighter jets are no better than the Ukrainian MiG-29s. If they have to push back the MiG-31s, they will require an upgrade with modern radar, avionics, and long-range AIM-120 air-to-air missiles (180 km range).

F-16s with AIM-120s (once they get) will still be at a range disadvantage compared to MiG-31s firing R-37Ms. But the gap will reduce. The F-16s flying close to the front line could push the MiG-31s deeper inside Russia, allowing more missions over the occupied territory.

Could MiG-31 or Su-57 Interest India?

Soviets/Russian aircraft remained more than a match for the Western world. They often achieved results with simpler and cheaper means. After all, they were the first to put a man in space and, even today, are moving ahead with hypersonic weapons. Russian radars and missiles are still formidable.

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For some time after the Soviet collapse, Russia induced India to use the MiG-31, but the Indian Air Force (IAF) showed little interest. One of its USPs was long-range carrier killer missiles and anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launch capability.

From the MiG-25 experience, the IAF understood the complexities of maintaining an aircraft of this type. Notwithstanding the upgrade, the MiG-31 remained an old platform inherently designed for high altitude, high-speed interception.

It could not be compared to a modern multi-role aircraft. SU-30 variants manoeuvre very well. The IAF was not ready to buy the MiG 31 just as an AWACS killer. Nor was India interested in the MiG 31’s capability to launch ASAT missiles as it was already building its own surface-based ASAT capability.

The IAF had already invested in large numbers of Su-30 MKI, and the fleet was nearly 45 percent of the IAF. The plan was to upgrade them. The MiG 35, which Russians claim can shoot down almost all kinds of reconnaissance drones and other platforms like AEW&C and spy planes, is one of the contenders for the 114 new fighters India is going to evaluate in the near future.

Yes, India needed long-range missiles and interceptors to handle its threat in the neighborhood. But longer-range missiles on Su-30 were under consideration. Not many countries had shown interest in the MiG 31. Even the Chinese had chosen Su-30 variants instead of MiG-31 despite the US threat. Now, they have a sizeable fleet of their own J-20 5th-generation fighters.

Later, India worked with Russia on the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). More recently, Russia has been keen for India to join the Su-57 or Su-75 ‘Checkmate’ 5th-generation fighter projects.

Russian aircraft are normally much cheaper at their base price, but their life cycle costs are higher in the long run. Western avionics, including electronic warfare systems, were more sophisticated, but Russians used brute power there, too.

The IAF still has a nearly 60 percent Russian aircraft inventory. Its finite budget allocations cannot afford too many platforms. Also, buying just 10-12 MiG 31s would have added more logistics complexities to its already large fleet. There is also the need to reduce the number of eggs in the same basket.

The IAF has depleting fighter aircraft squadrons, and numbers must go up quickly. LCA production is being increased, the AMCA must be hastened, and the 114 MRCA aircraft Request for Proposal (RFP) must be sent out quickly. Alternatively, some more Rafale may be bought. MiG 31 is not the aircraft for IAF inventory.

  • Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired) is an Indian Air Force veteran fighter test pilot and is currently the Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He has been decorated with gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years.
  • He tweets @Chopsyturvey 
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