Russia Built a Mach 3 Fighter Jet to Destroy a Bomber America Never Built

January 17, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaMilitaryTechnologyWorldMiG-31XB-70

Russia Built a Mach 3 Fighter Jet to Destroy a Bomber America Never Built

And yet, the MiG-31 still inspires fear. 

According to one count, there are 252 MiG-31s in the inventory of the Russian Air Force. Moscow began modernizing its Foxhound fleet to the MiG-31BM and BSM variant starting in 2010, and plans to have 100 upgraded by 2020. The BM includes modernized cockpit displays, a hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS), and a new Zaslon-M radar with maximum detection range increased to 200 miles. It also is upgraded to employ the latest generation of long-range air-to-air missiles, including the R-33S, the R-77—the Russian equivalent to the U.S.  AIM-120—and the super-long range R-37—intended to be a tanker- and AWACs-killer. The new Foxhounds are also capable of mounting up to 18 thousand pounds of air-to-ground smart bombs and anti-radar missiles in case Moscow needs some additional strike planes. Finally, the BMs have new data-links integrating the MiG-31’s sensors with ground-based radars and friendly fighter planes, allowing the Foxhound to coordinate the entire air defense system. A flight of four of the upgraded Foxhounds could patrol a swath of airspace over 400 miles across.

In the last decade of the Cold War, the MiG-31, codenamed Foxhound by NATO, enjoyed a certain mystique in the West. The same grainy photos aerial photos of the high speed fighter would show up in aviation publications, along with ominous speculation over its capabilities. But unlike its peers—the MiG-29 and Su-27—the Foxhound never fully emerged from obscurity after the Cold War.

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The reason is simple—the MiG-31 was built to be a home-defense interceptor, and was neither exported nor used in combat. But Moscow maintains hundreds of the fighters in its inventory as parts of its multi-layered air defense network, and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Foxhound emerged as an attempt to improve on a somewhat disappointing predecessor, the MiG-25 Foxbat. The twin-engine Foxbat remains the fastest flying operational fighter, able to attain speeds over Mach 3 and fly up to 70 thousand feet in order to counter the U.S. XB-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber, which did not end up entering production. The Foxbat enjoyed an inflated reputation in Western aviation circles until Soviet defector Victor Belenko flew one over to Japan in 1976, allowing the Pentagon to discover what the Soviets had long been aware of—for all of its speed, the Foxbat was a bit of a dog when it came to maneuverability and could not maintain supersonic speeds at low altitude. Furthermore, it could attain Mach 3 speeds only by burning its engines out beyond their heat tolerance.

After the defection, the MiG-25 began to be sold for export, while the Soviet Union focused on building a better high-speed interceptor out of the Foxbat airframe. Moscow was no longer just concerned solely by high-altitude high-speed bombers, but also low-altitude cruise missiles zipping through gaps in its radar defenses. New design elements included a back seat Weapon Systems Officer to operate a powerful new radar, improved long range air-to-air missiles, and better engines.

This much evolved super Foxbat, designated the MiG-31, was distinguished by the addition of a backseat Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) to operate its large Zaslon S-800 Passive Electronically Scanned Array (PESA) radar. The heavy radar had a maximum range of 125 miles and featured “look down, shoot down” capability to detect and target low-flying aircraft, which was not widespread at the time. An infrared-red search and track system (IRST) further complimented it sensor suit.

The centerpiece of the Foxhound’s armament was its new R-33 long-range missiles, codenamed the AA-9 Amos by NATO. The R-33 are considered the  Soviet equivalent to the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles used by U.S. Navy F-14s —the large radar-guided missiles were mounted under the MiG-31’s belly for engaging opposing bombers at long ranges of up to 75 miles. The Foxhound’s radar enabled it to launch at up to four aircraft simultaneously. Four to six additional medium- or short-range air-to-air missiles could be mounted under the wings. Unlike the Foxbat, the Foxhound was also armed with a 23-millimeter cannon.

The MiG-31 retains the Foxbat’s high-altitude performance, though it is a bit slower at Mach 2.83—still faster than any operation Western fighters today. More importantly, it can fly up to Mach 1.23 at low altitude—which the MiG-25 cannot. This makes it ideal for hunting ground-skimming cruise missiles and fighter bombers.

Nonetheless, the Foxhound is not highly maneuverable, and cannot safely pull more than 5Gs while flying supersonic. The MiG-31 would not fare well in air-to-air engagements against contemporary fighters such as the F-15—but that’s simply not what it was designed to do. The Foxhound is intended to close on intruders at high speeds, fire off its missiles and disengage.

Bane of the Blackbird

Production of the Foxhound began in 1979 and it entered service in 1981. Inspired by vague but glowing intelligence reports on its capabilities, the Foxhound acquired a sinister reputation in NATO intelligence reports. Reflecting this exaggerated reputation, the 1982 film  Firefox, starring Clint Eastwood, imagined the MiG-31 as capable of flying at Mach 5, benefiting from stealth technology, and of being operated by thought alone!