OPED by Air Marshal Anil Chopra
In the ongoing Ukraine conflict, MiG-31 fighter aircraft have reportedly shot down several Ukrainian aircraft, mainly by utilizing the long-range R-37M air-to-air missile. The MiG-31s have been able to operate virtually unopposed due to Ukraine’s own fighters lacking range, speed, or altitude.
A Russian hypersonic air-to-air missile with a very long range, the Vympel R-37M “Axehead” and its variants are designed to shoot down tankers, AWACS, and other C4ISTAR aircraft.
The Axehead missiles have kept the Ukrainian and NATO at farther distances. 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.
Four MiG-31s were also deployed to Crimea. To avoid R-37M missiles, 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 last year.
On January 26, according to the Ukrainian Air Force, 55 missiles and 24 Shahed-136 drones were fired at targets in Ukraine. Included in the attack was a Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missile.
On March 9, a barrage of 84 missiles, including six Kinzhals, was fired at Ukrainian cities, their largest use to date. Ukraine has no way to stop Kinzhals. It is not known whether the Patriot missile system can stop such missiles.
Mikoyan MiG-31 “Foxhound”
MiG-31 is a supersonic interceptor aircraft that was developed for use by the Soviet Air Forces through the Mikoyan design bureau as a replacement for the earlier MiG-25 “Foxbat” and has the distinction of being among the fastest combat jets in the world. The Russian Air Force operates 130 aircraft, and the Kazakhstan Air Force operates 20.
The Russian defense ministry expects the MiG-31s to remain in service until 2030 or beyond and was confirmed in 2020 when an announcement was made to extend the service lifetime from 2,500 to 3,500 hours on the existing airframes. Over 50 planes are modified to MiG-31BM (Bolshaya Modernizatsiya/Deep Modernization).
Russians claim that the MiG-31BM is 2.6 times more efficient. The upgraded Zaslon-M radar detection range for air targets has been increased to 400 km for AEW&C-sized aircraft. The aircraft can automatically track up to 24 targets and simultaneously engage up to eight.
The new long-range Mach 6, R-37 missile has a range of up to 400 km. MiG-31BM has the multi-role capability, as it is capable of using 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.
Though it evolved from the MiG-25, there were significant changes. The aircraft fuselage is longer. The wings and airframe of the MiG-31 were stronger than those of the MiG-25. The advanced radar, with look-up and look-down/shoot-down capability and multi-target tracking and engagement, was a significant improvement.
The aircraft had advanced sensors and weapons. Radar reportedly worked well even during active radar jamming. Russians highlighted the cooperative work that could be undertaken within a formation of four MiG-31 interceptors, using data links, dominating a 900-kilometer front.
They claimed that the aircraft radar and weapons combination could intercept cruise missiles flying at low altitudes and also launch aircraft. Similarly, it could take on UAVs and helicopters. The aircraft could act as air defense escorts to long-range strategic bombers. The MiG-31 was not designed for close combat or high-g turning, and the Max ‘g’ limit was 5.
In addition, the MiG-31BM had upgraded avionics, HOTAS controls, and modern multi-function displays (MFDs). There were four semi-recessed hard points under the fuselage and four underwing pylons with a capacity of up to 9,000 kg of ordnance, and they could carry combinations of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles.
The Zaslon-M radar had 1.4 meters diameter antennae and an increased detection range of 400 km for large targets. The aircraft had an infrared search and track (IRST) system in a retractable under-nose fairing with a range of around 56 kilometers.
The MiG-31 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 them based on inputs from other aircraft through data-link. The MiG-31 had radar Electronic Counter-Measures. The MiG-31BM could also carry the Kh-47M2 nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile with a claimed range of more than 2,000 km and Mach 10 speed.
I had the privilege of flying a MiG-31 BM, with the Tail Number 903, as the first foreign pilot on May 28, 1999, alongside Russian pilot Alexander Georgevich Konovalov, at the Sokol Aircraft Plant in Nizhny Novgorod, 400 kilometers East of Moscow. This plant manufactured the aircraft. At its peak, the plant made nearly 200 MiG-21s a year.
Aircraft Impressions During Walk Around
The aircraft looks large and overbearing as one walks toward it. It was visibly larger than the MiG-25 that India once operated. One got to see the huge nose cone that housed the large radar. Air intakes were side-mounted ramps. Looking into the huge intake was like looking into a tunnel, and one could see the first stage of the huge engine.
With a high shoulder-mounted wing, one could comfortably walk under the aircraft. The undercarriage was peculiar. Two main wheels on each side were in Tandem but not aligned with each other and had a peculiar retraction mechanism. The undercarriage had been strengthened to take the greater weight.
The gross weight of MiG-31 was 41,000 kg vis-à-vis 36,720 kg of MiG-25. The MiG-31 has two Soloviev D-30F6 engines with 93 kN dry thrust and 152 kN with afterburner, compared to MiG-25’s two Tumansky R-15B-300 engines with 73.5 kN dry thrust and 100.1 kN with afterburner.
Strengthened wings allowed a small increase in max-G from 4.5 to 5G. Higher thrust gave better acceleration and low-level flight. The MiG-25 radar was primarily optimized for high-flying targets, but the Zaslon radar of the MiG-31 also has look-down/shoot-down capability. While MiG-25 carried only air-to-air missiles, MiG-31 also carried air-to-surface missiles.
My Flight Experience With MiG-31
After take-off, the Russian pilot kept the afterburner on for a little while to demonstrate a high rate of climb. In level flight, the aircraft accelerated quickly, like someone pushing from behind with brute force.
During the sortie, we climbed up to 15 kilometers and accelerated to a maximum of Mach 2.7. The transition to supersonic and subsequent cruise was very smooth. We also flew at a low level to see the acceleration but did not hit maximum speed or go supersonic, though the aircraft had the ability.
Our maximum speed was 1,100kmph. The aircraft handling was somewhat sluggish, more like a heavy bomber than a fighter. I was demonstrated a radar look-up lock-on on an airliner at around 185 km. We locked on to the MiG-21 around 85 km.
Later, the MiG 21 was asked to descend to a lower height of about 1 km. We carried out look-down radar work, locking on to a low-flying MiG-21 around 40 km. The aircraft was sluggish in turns, as was expected from the aircraft’s aerodynamic profile.
The two best things about the aircraft were acceleration and max speed and radar and weapon combinations. The total weapon load at 9,000 kg was not much, and some modern, smaller-in-size fighters can carry similar tonnage.
Western Versus Russian Aircraft
As a test pilot, I had flown many Russian and Western aircraft and could compare the design philosophies of the two sides. So I have no specific loyalties and can make an independent comment.
Both the Russian and Western aircraft had their own strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies.
Russian aircraft were simpler in design, cockpits were big, more mechanical rather than complex electronics, and had high standardization and commonality. Switching from one Russian aircraft to other was so much easier.
I liked the leveling mode of the Russian autopilot that brought you to level flight by pressing this button on the control column. This was handy if one got disoriented. I know of someone who saved his life because of this. I also liked the simplicity of Russian ejection seats. And they were as fool-proof as any Western ones.
Russian aircraft mostly had brut power, they were fuel guzzlers, and some had high specific fuel consumption (SFC), and many passed out smoke through their exhaust. Russian aircraft were cheaper in their base price, but in the long run, their life cycle costs were higher. For example, a MiG-29 would overtake a Mirage-2000 in around five years in life cycle costs.
The Western avionics, including electronic warfare systems, were more sophisticated. Russians used brute power there too. Russian aircraft required greater stick displacement for any aircraft response; it was much lesser in Western aircraft.
This was as per their concept. This had its own dynamics when one changed fleet from Russian to Western aircraft or vice-versa. Pilots had to be cautioned about this.
Russian cockpit switches were much larger and easy to operate in the cockpit, the Western cockpit switches were smaller, and one had to get used to them while operating with gloves on.
The Russian and Western artificial Horizon instrument display was quite different. In Russian aircraft, the Artificial horizon bar turned with the aircraft, thus remaining parallel to the aircraft and not to the actual horizon. The aircraft symbol/bar moved twice the degrees to indicate the bank. This worked well when one was head down. Most pilots really liked this instrument.
In the Heads-Up Displays (HUDs) of initial Russian aircraft, they replicated the same display. This was most confusing because the displayed horizon was different than the real one. We discussed this with the Russian test pilots, who had flown some Western aircraft.
They also tended to agree with us on this. It took us a great effort and pressure to convince the Russian designers to redo the software on all subsequent Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft of Russian origin to make the HUD to the Western symbols and logic.
Russian inner helmets were standardized between pilots, tank crew, and even ship or submarine crew. Russian radio navigation system (RSBN) was quite different from the Western TACAN.
I found the Russian system very complex and, in many ways, less accurate. 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 radar and missiles are still formidable.
Was MiG-31 Of Interest To India?
Russians had made many attempts trying to convince the Indian government and the IAF to go for the MiG-31 “multirole aircraft.” Their main USP was long-range carrier killer missiles and anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launch capability. From the MiG-25 experience, IAF well understood the complexities of maintaining an aircraft of this type.
Notwithstanding the upgrade, 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. The IAF had already made up its mind about the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI.
India could not keep investing more in the Russian arms basket. India had a great experience with Mirage-2000 and was also looking at upgrading it. Yes, India needed long-range missiles and interceptors for China.
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.
Su-30 variants manoeuvre very well. IAF was not ready to buy the MiG-31, just as AWACS killers. Nor was India interested in MiG-31’s capability to launch ASAT missiles, as it was already building its own surface-based ASAT capability.
IAF’s finite budget allocations could not afford too many platforms. Also, buying just 10-12 MiG-31s would have added more logistics complexities to IAF’s already many fleets.
As per my knowledge, IAF never did a formal evaluation of the aircraft. The MiG-35, which Russians claim can shoot down almost all kinds of reconnaissance drones and other platforms like AEW&C and U-2 spy planes, is one of the contenders of the 114 new fighters India is going to evaluate in the near future.
IAF has depleted fighter aircraft squadrons, and numbers must go up in a hurry. The locally made Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ production is being increased, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft project must be hastened, and the 114 Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Request for Proposal (RFP) must be sent out quickly.
MiG-31 is not the aircraft for the 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 both gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years. He tweets @Chopsyturvey
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