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Russia Is Arming MiG-31 Fighters with R-37M Hypersonic Missiles for War in Ukraine

MiG-31
MiG-31. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s Ultrafast MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’ Interceptors Use Hypersonic Missiles to Harry Ukrainian Jets: Russia’s fleet of two-seater MiG-31 Foxhound jets, built originally as highly specialized Soviet air defense interceptors, have been playing a growing role in the air war over Ukraine according to a recent report from the UK’s Royal United Services Institute think tank.

MiG-31 and R-37M: A Deadly Combination?

In the 40-year-old interceptor’s first use in combat (Kazakhstan is the type’s only other operator), Russia’s Foxhounds have likely downed multiple Ukrainian combat aircraft, according to the report’s authors Nick Reynolds and Drs. Justin Bronk and Jack Watling.

“Russian high-altitude fighter CAPs with Su-35S and more recently with Mig-31BM interceptors are continuing to shoot down significant numbers of Ukrainian ground attack aircraft near the frontlines from distances that render them all but immune to return fire.”

That’s reportedly made possible by using large, very long-range hypersonic air-to-air missiles: the R-37M (NATO codename AA-13 Axehead-B) accelerates up to six times the speed of sound (few fighters go much faster than Mach 2) and can engage slower targets up to a staggering 250 miles away. Each measures 4 meters long and weighs 1,320 pounds

The report states: “The VKS [Russian aerospace force] has been firing up to six R-37Ms per day during October, and the extremely high speed of the weapon, coupled with very long effective range and a seeker designed for engaging low-altitude targets, makes it particularly difficult to evade.”

The report’s findings were derived from interviews with four senior aviation commanders and three senior ground-based air defense commanders from the Ukrainian Air Force, as well as their personal analysis of recovered R-37M missile fragments.

This arguably constitutes the first combat use of a Very Long Range Air-to-Air Missiles (VLRAAM) effective at distances exceeding 150 miles. Western air forces primarily don’t field VLRAAMs yet because their long reach may not be that useful against an agile jet fighter, which, if alerted, may have ample opportunity to evade.

Guiding such a weapon is tricky, too—the Axehead relies on inertial navigation, enhanced by corrections transmitted from the launching fighter as it flies in an arc toward the target to maximize range. Only once it closes within roughly 18 miles can its internal dual-band radar seeker hope to acquire the target for more precise terminal guidance.

The low-flying ground attack jets falling victim are Ukraine’s Su-25 Frogfoots and its Su-24 Fencer supersonic bomber. The former’s slower maximum speed (about 600 miles per hour, or Mach .79) means its ‘escape zone’ for outrunning the missile might be limited. The larger, swing-wing Fencer is faster (Mach 1 at low altitude, 1.6 flying high) but has often been deployed on riskier penetrating raids and suffered very heavy losses.

On October 27, Russian state media posted an interview with a MiG-31 pilot who claimed to have downed a Ukrainian Su-24.  The accompanying video shows MiG-31 Red 24 carrying three R-37Ms and one R-77-1. The Foxhound’s high maximum altitude and speed (approaching three times the speed of sound) can impart a big energetic boost to missiles, making it an excellent complement to the R-37. According to Izvestia, supposedly, the targeted Fencer made evasive maneuvers but then disappeared from Russian radars and was thus considered destroyed.

MiG-31 Fighter History

Image: Russian state media.

However, the claim should be taken with a grain of salt, along with pro-Russian sources attributing nine more kills to the Foxhound. Russia has claimed to destroy more than twice as many aircraft as in Ukraine’s air force. Like the vast majority of air-to-air claims made by both sides, there isn’t visual evidence confirming the kills.

That lack, and skepticism of the R-37’s usefulness against agile warplanes, are the basis of an article by retired USAF pilot Col. Jeffrey Fischer. He points to the R-37M’s relatively small fins, and argues it is “clearly a limited maneuvering missile” that would be ineffective against Ukrainian combat aircraft.

However, the RUSI report makes the Su-24 downing appear more plausible than before, and may imply additional similar incidents.

Air War Ukraine—Fall Edition

According to the RUSI report, Russia has divided up airspace over parts of Ukraine it controls into eight sectors, each of which is patrolled by a rotating combat air patrol (CAP) of two MiG-31BM or Su-35S fighters whose job is to detect and pounce on any approaching Ukrainian jets.

Due to a low availability of Russian aerial refueling tankers (mostly supporting Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers), each CAP usually can’t remain on station for more than two hours before being replaced with a fresh pair.

Ukraine’s MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters are technically out-classed by the longer-range radars and missiles on Russian jets, so focus instead on intercepting Russian ground attack aircraft and incoming cruise missiles and drones.  (The exception being the first few days of the war, during which Ukrainian ground-based air defenses were moving for their own survival and in large part non-functional. Ukrainian fighters had to take on the full burden of air defense in those early desperate days.)

Likewise, the Russian fighters don’t pursue Ukrainian aircraft back to their home bases, fearing Ukraine’s now quite functional ground-based air defenses.

MiG-31 Hypersonic Kinzhal

A Kh-47M2 Kinzhal ALBM being carried by a Mikoyan MiG-31K interceptor.

However, the R-37M missile does allow MiG-31s, and increasingly Su-35Ss, to take shots at Ukrainian jets without entering the range of Ukrainian ground-based defenses. As the report says, this gives them “…significant freedom to menace Ukrainian aircraft near the frontlines from outside the range of Ukrainian defences.” Russian Su-35S jets have also increasingly been seen armed with R-37M missiles.

That said, a Russian interview suggests the long-range missile shots do require clearance from an airborne command post (on an Il-22 ‘Coot-B’ aircraft) before firing, likely to avoid friendly fire.

Prior to the report, there were sound reasons to doubt Russia was fielding large numbers of R-37Ms. Russia’s military struggled for years to produce and deploy enough R-77-1 air-to-air long-range missiles intended for general-purpose use, while the R-37M was a larger, more exotic weapon.

Now it seems Russia’s inventory of the R-37M is large enough to expend liberally, even when each individual shot as low odds of a killing a maneuverable combat jet.

By contrast, Fischer speculates the R-37’s increased use might reflect a shortage of the more maneuverable R-77-1 and R-27 missiles.

There are also dubiously-sourced claims that one of Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighters—a type that appears barely active, if used at all, over Ukraine—downed a Ukrainian Su-27 fighter over Belbek, Russia, from a distance of 135 miles using an R-37M.

MiG-31: Old Technology, New Mission

The MiG-31 was initially designed to defend the Soviet Union’s sprawling borders against infiltrating nuclear-armed enemy bombers—American B-52s, B-1s and FB-111 Aardvarks. Optimized to shoot down bombers with long-range missiles rapidly, the MiG-31 isn’t very maneuverable. It has poor crew visibility, leaving it disadvantaged at within-visual range combat with enemy fighters.

MiG-31

MiG-31 fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On the other hand, it was blindingly fast–inheriting the Mach 3 maximum speed of the preceding MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor with a  ‘look-down, shoot down’ Zaslon N007 phased-array radar (backed by a short-range infrared sensor) that could detect low-flying bombers and cruise missiles. Datalinks allowed the Foxhound crew and ground-based air defense units to ‘see’ through each other’s sensors, exchanging missile guidance data.

The modernized MiG-31BM model features the more capable Zaslon-M radar with a maximum detection range of 250 miles for larger aerial targets (airliner-like aircraft like the E-3 or E7 AWACS), and ability to engage six targets simultaneously. That allows the pilot to leverage the longer range of improved R-37M missiles.

The further modernized MiG-31BSM variant also features a refueling probe, extending its potential range, a rear-view cockpit periscope, a more heat-resistant canopy allowing sustained supersonic cruising at Mach 2.4 (at that speed, incoming air molecules produce a lot of friction), and a new Baget-55-06 computer with multi-functional displays and a new ground-attack and anti-ship capability.

MiG-31s reportedly began flying patrol early in the war, mainly from a base in Belbek in the Crimean Peninsula. On October 1st, one Foxhound from the 790th Fighter Regiment skidded off the runway during takeoff, caught fire, and exploded. Only the WSO managed to eject in time.

In October several MiG-31s were deployed to Belarus—including specialized MiG-31Ks (AKA MiG-31Is) equipped to launch Kinzhal hypersonic ground attack missiles. These have already conducted a few strikes on targets in Ukraine.

MiG-31 and That Range Challenge

Sooner or later, Ukraine will eventually acquire Western jets—likely affordable tactical fighters like the F-16 or Swedish-built JAS 39 Gripen.

These will remain outranged by the MiG-31BM’s missiles and radar, but should have much better sensors and countermeasures to detect incoming R-37s and evade them while still in the ‘escape zone.’ The range gap will also be much narrower for jets armed with Meteor or AIM-120 long-range missiles (around 60-120 miles) than Ukraine’s current Su-27 and MiG-29 jets with R-27 missiles (25-50 miles)—and the MiG-31 has large radar cross-section. That might compel MiG-31s to engage from greater distances (and thus a lower probability of a kill).

Admittedly, it’s tricky to judge whether Russia’s use of VLRAAMs in Ukraine is applicable beyond the context of the Ukraine-Russia air war, where the former’s jets are at a significant technical disadvantage. Still, Russia’s successful use suggests they may be more effective and affordable than previously thought, with broader uses in air-to-air combat for a weapon previously seen as a specialized killer of AWACS, bombers, and air-refueling tankers.

MiG-31

Image: Creative Commons.

That may boost the Pentagon’s own apparent work on a VLRAAM for its non-stealth F-15EX jets—and work on counter-measures to protect its ‘backfield’ AWACS and tanker aircraft. The VLRAAM might also be an attractive weapon for the forthcoming B-21 bomber.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC NewsForbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Gary Jacobs

    November 17, 2022 at 9:09 am

    Pretty good article. It’s really an absurdity that we have not given Ukraine better fighters. They have more pilots than planes at this point, and training on new planes would not take away from current combat.

    Also excellent link in this article to the Gripen info, “it can also operate from short runways, including converted roads and highways. The fighter needs a surface just 16 meters wide and 500 meters long to take off, and it requires a stretch of 600 meters to land.”

    Perfect for Ukraine to have new planes and not make their bases easy targets. They also wouldnt be US planes, and in theory would allow Putin to save face by not having US planes shooting down Russian planes. In theory reducing the chances of further escalation.

    As much as I agree with Biden on supporting Ukraine, some of the hesitance to give them better weapons is infuriating and only prolongs the war. They should not get M1 Abrams, and if they arent getting US planes…Gripen is a perfect Plan B.

    Let’s get Ukraine what they need to finish this war asap.

  2. Steven

    November 17, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    Yeah, Gary, and maybe you can pay for it.

  3. Gary Jacobs

    November 17, 2022 at 3:52 pm

    Steven,

    Gripens would be provided by Sweden.

    As well, Considering the US has a $700 Billion per year Military budget, and $4 Trillion over all. Not to mention having spent Trillion$ in Iraq and Afghan… the support for Ukraine is pretty much the most bang for our buck the US has ever spent. Possibly even better than the money spent with Israel, even though US companies have close to $1 Trillion in R&D facilities there.

    $100 Billion to defeat the Russian army with no US troops is a bargain. And keeps our troops free to fight elsewhere. not to mention the extra sales of HIMARS around the world. M1 Abrams to Poland, among others, bringing in Billion$, and our LNG filling in for Russian gas quite nicely. 30 ships were waiting to offload near Spain last time I checked. And Germany just finished their first floating LNG conversion terminal, with 2 more coming soon.

    Bottom line: the cost argument is pretty flimsy at this point. If you are worried about inflation, that would be a legit argument, and there are plenty of other policies besides support for Ukraine that could be changed to offset that.

  4. Omega 13

    November 17, 2022 at 4:29 pm

    I just don’t think the Russkies have that many R-37’s. It isn’t like they can make more without a whole buttload of western parts.

    As for that MoD still, it just looks like more bravo sierra to convince you they have more than they do. Back in the 80s, I worked for an engineering firm that wanted to show how high tech they were in their marketing brochures. They took every PC in the building and put them in the drafting department so they could give the impression that everyone was using CAD software. At the time, the company had one CAD workstation and pad. Maybe ten PCs (this was 1987).

  5. 403Forbidden

    November 17, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    MiG-31s should by now be geared up for carrying NUKES for tearing up the ukro neo-nazi packs in Ukraine.

    Those neo-nazis are the foot soldiers of Biden & his euro sidekick stoltenberg as they plan over the long term to set up a one-world govt or one world order dominated by american-led elites that eventually would be imposed upon the entire world.

    Ukraine is not their first move. The US and NATO allies and their gulf sidekicks did the same trick in Syria, but the Syrian nation proved hard to crack and so still surviving.

    Nobody’s complaining even though US troops are in Syria and occupying its eastern oilfields and sucking up the oil for funding islamonazi groups in Syria.

    Syria, Ukraine, are part of the pieces for US and allies & their Moslem underlings to control humanity and set up or realize the cherished dream of a one-world order as first spoken by bush senior in 1990 in a bold inspiring speech to the war-lovung US Congress.

    Seems that Russia & its astounding long-range missiles like the R-37M are the only obstacles standing in the way.

    Next coming up in the way of the global fascismo elite – nukes over Ukraine !!!

  6. Gary Jacobs

    November 17, 2022 at 5:45 pm

    403forgotten,

    lol, your nuke threats get more desperate by the day. The famed Russian army cant beat the little Ukrainians on the battlefield so you resort to nuke threats like the bully you are. Sad really. I give it a .00001% chance Vlad the Impaler uses nukes.

    As for your silly Nazi talk, considering Putin has been supporting Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary, among other right wing loons around the world…and Iran the theocratic Islamist state… I’d say you’re projecting your own insecurities/failures onto others.

    Take the L, go home, and get your own house in order. Clearly there is plenty wrong in Russia that certainly wont get fixed by continuing to allow Russian soldiers to die for naked imperialist aggression in Ukraine that is nothing but a lost cause.

    Have a liberating day.

  7. Jim

    November 17, 2022 at 6:34 pm

    Russia is arming up with hypersonic missiles.

    Do these missiles have penetrating capability?

    Are they “bunker buster” caliber?

    If so… then the question is how many do they have?

    Russia has been mostly stymied by Ukraine defensive fortifications (eight year build time with re-enforced concrete, steel, and earthen works… such as face Donetsk City).

    If Russia has bunker busters, they should employ them.

    I do not know if Russia has them… but this would be an example of Russia holding back their supposed best weapons… Do Russians have any weapons… yet to be revealed in the coming months?

  8. Commentar

    November 17, 2022 at 6:48 pm

    A piece of advice to Biden and the great democrat party of supremacis USA – never, never, never foment war against a nuclear rival.

    Russia has the second largest usable nuke weapons stockpile in the world and if push comes to shove, it’s a given it will surely use nukes to protect not only Russia itself, but also the russian-speaking natives of Donbass and Crimea.

    If Biden wants war, he can always go whack some nation or some armed groups elsewhere, like in the DRC, somalia, colombia, etc.

    Avoid trifling with nuclear weapons states,especially the ones possessing doomsday rockets like R-U-S-S-I-A !!!

  9. from Russia with love

    November 18, 2022 at 2:37 am

    @Omega 13
    for almost a year now you have been repeating the mantra that Russia has run out of missiles. quite recently, Russia once again launched a massive missile strike. about 80 rockets. just use logic and common sense. if Russia has not run out of missiles for 10 months now and Western restrictions on the supply of electronics cannot affect this, they have not been able to affect this for 10 months, then probably Russia successfully produces missiles on its own, without your participation, and Russia will never run out of these missiles ? you know about the presence of missiles in Russia not from photos of large hangars with missiles, right? you know about these missiles because they are constantly destroying some kind of objects in Ukraine, right? This is not a marketing ploy, this is the real state of affairs. rockets are a one-time thing. if they are used, then they are. if they are used regularly and for a long time, then they are successfully produced. if they continue to be successfully produced for a long time, then Western sanquis do not affect this production in any way.🤷‍♂️

  10. Gary Jacobs

    November 18, 2022 at 10:13 am

    From Russia with Hate.

    You seem to ignore that Russia did not fire any long range missiles for over a week before its latest terrorist missile strikes. They were saving up for the G20. The rate of 100 per day has proven unsustainable. In Odessa the power was back on in 3 days. In some places it less, in some its a bit more.

    Russia is spending about $100million give or take, on each of those barrages. So far averaging 3days impact on Ukrainians. In the meantime, Ukraine’s rate of success shooting down Russian terrorist missiles is increased exponentially.

    The NASAM system in particular uses a type of missile that NATO countries have thousands of. And now other countries are providing high caliber cannons to shoot down low cost Iranian terror drones Russia has been reduced to using.

    Bottom line: I am betting the Russians run out of missles, or realize the futility of their strategy…long before Ukraine runs out of resolve…and long before 50 countries supporting Ukraine run out of air defense weapons to supply.

    Your overconfidence on this will likely go down in flames just like your predictions about Kherson, Kharkiv, HIMARS, and all of the other silly Putinista propaganda you troll around here with.

    Have a liberating day.

  11. Gary Jacobs

    November 18, 2022 at 11:54 am

    From Russia with Hate:

    FYI: One of the shot down Russian missiles from Russias G20 Missile terror tantrum was a X-55 with a blank warhead. X-55 are usually delivery systems for nuclear warheads. Perhaps they used it as a decoy for Ukraine to expend some of its SAM supplies… but the Unit price of the X-55 missile is $13 Million.

    Even less sustainable of a strategy for Russia than I had originally thought.

    Btw, Air defense is working better and better with A 100% score over Kyiv as 9/9 Russian terrorist cruise missiles were shot down. In other parts of the country there were hits unfortunately…but the air defense network will continue to grow around Ukraine. Everytime Russia launches a barrage against civilians, more countries step up and speed up deliveries of air defense weapons.

    Have a liberating day..

  12. from Russia with love

    November 19, 2022 at 4:05 am

    @naive Gary Jacobs
    strikes with high-altitude weapons on Ukrainian military facilities are inflicted daily. sometimes massive, like the one in which more than 80 missiles were involved, but usually on a smaller scale, 10-20 missiles each. every day for 10 months. but naive Gary Jacobs is still waiting for Russia to run out of missiles.🤣🤣🤣
    effective air defense of Ukraine? 100%? No! by 200%! Polish tractor drivers are ready to confirm this! 🤣🤣🤣 At the moment, the most effective air defense in Ukraine is energy infrastructure facilities, ammunition depots and command centers. there is confirmation of this. for example, this night, the Motor Sich plant in Zaporozhye shot down several Geran2 UAVs at once.
    t.me/topwar_official/65381
    Let’s add to this the statements of the Minister of Energy of Ukraine: “In Ukraine, electricity will not be temporarily turned off. Electricity will be temporarily turned on.”🤷‍♂️

    naive Gary Jacobs, you are still not bad and continue to amuse me. 😂 you are not as cool as that idiot who writes that in Russia there is no winter equipment for the army, but not bad either. 😎👍

  13. ATM

    November 19, 2022 at 3:44 pm

    Any weapon that changes the order of battle is important and hypersonic weapons do that in two ways. They generally have greater range and certainly greater speed. In effect slower support aircraft such as refueler and AWAC must be positioned further away and other aircraft have to be ready to deal with projectiles that arrive at the target box with greater energy thus options to manuver.

    If these weapon are proven in combat and an adversary has more than a few, it is a game changer.

  14. Gary Jacobs

    November 19, 2022 at 5:37 pm

    From Russia with hate.

    LoL, Of course its usually on a smaller scale because Russia cant sustain 100 per day. And since they arent actually precision missiles that cant be used on an actual battlefield, where Russia keeps losing. Badly.

    So all you have left is to terrorize civilians. Because thats what supposedly might Russia has been reduced to… The Slavic Hamas and Hezbollah with bigger weapons. It may make your sick twisted self feel better to punish other people for wanting to be free from Russian tyranny… but you cant actually win a war that way.

    Have a liberating day.

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