The Buzz

Is China Getting Ready to Purchase Russia's Lethal MiG-31?

Chinese media is speculating that Russia hopes to offer Beijing its Mikoyan MiG-31BM Foxhound interceptor for export. However, a MiG-31 sale to Beijing is highly unlikely.

The origin of the Chinese speculation seems to stem from a recent Russian air defense exercise held near Primorye—adjacent to Northeastern China—in which MiG-31BMs featured quite heavily. The exercises are routine for the Russian air defense forces, but because of the proximity of the war games to the Chinese border, the Chinese media have speculated that Moscow is hoping to sell the long-range, high-speed and high-flying interceptor to Beijing.

However, the Chinese speculation is almost certainly wrong. While the Kremlin continues to upgrade and operate the Mach 2.83-capable MiG-31 to defend Russia’s vast territory, the Foxhound has been out of production since 1994. Moscow considers the surviving MiG-31 fleet to be valuable assets. “Russia keeps an inventory of these planes and upgrades their weapons and avionics,” Russian defense analyst Vasily Kashin at Moscow's Higher School of Economics (HSE) told The National Interest. “They are valued.”

But while the MiG-31 is an extremely capable interceptor, restarting the production line would be a tall order. As such, it is exceedingly unlikely that Russia would ever be able to sell China the Foxhound—even if it were so inclined. “No. It is not possible. The MiG-31 has not been produced for decades,” Kashin said. “The production line is closed. Restart of production will require billions in investment and years of effort.”

Moreover, the China is not likely to be interested in the MiG-31. While the jet has long range and offers blistering performance—the Foxhound can sustain speeds greater than Mach 2.4 at altitudes approaching 70,000ft with a full air-to-air weapons load—the technology is dated. Even with upgraded avionics and refurbished airframes, China is not likely willing to buy hardware of the MiG-31’s vintage.  “It is not likely that the Chinese will be interested in buying such old second hand stuff, even upgraded,” Kashin said.

Indeed, the MiG-31 has not found a customer outside the former Soviet Union. The powerful jet is operated only by Russia itself and Kazakhstan—both of which inherited their aircraft from the Soviet Union when that state collapsed in 1991. There were rumors that Russia had sold the MiG-31 to Syria in 2007 but the order was placed on hold in 2009. More recently in 2015, it was rumored that some number of MiG-31s were delivered to Syria, however Moscow denies that it ever delivered those aircraft to the Assad regime.

The MiG-31 will likely continue to serve in the Russian Aerospace Forces well into the 2030s, but there are likely no prospects for any exports. But Russia is known to have started preliminary work on the development of a successor to the Foxhound tentatively called the MiG-41.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.