There’s a famous Russian saying: Something new is something old that everyone has forgotten. Consider the MiG-31 fighter, a seemingly obsolete 40-year-old warhorse that may be on the verge of a dangerous second act, or even a third.
The -31, whose forte back in the 1980s was chasing U.S. SR-71 spyplanes at enormous speed 12 miles above the Soviet Arctic, has officially been repurposed as a delivery vehicle for the Kinzhal (“dagger”), one of the family of hypersonic missiles Vladimir Putin is counting on to get Russia back into the global arms race.
But that’s the less intriguing job. What’s really roiled defense aviation geeks for the past two years is a photo, posted by unofficial snoops, of a MiG-31 carrying a mystery missile that looks even bigger than the Kinzhal. And the Kinzhal isn’t small: It weighs half a metric ton and can fly 1,200 miles.
Observers speculated that this newer, larger missile was meant to be shot upward at U.S. and allied low-Earth-orbit satellites. An April 2020 article by British scholar Bart Hendrickx posted in The Space Review flushes out this hypothesis following clues from Russian defense contracts and terse official statements. His conclusion: The MiG-31 is knee-deep in a secret Kremlin anti-satellite plan dubbed Burevestnik, the storm-riding bird memorialized in a 1901 epic poem by Maxim Gorky.
Why the MiG-31? To start with, it’s big. You might say huge. It took off for its first mission in 1981 weighing 42,000 kilos (92,400 pounds), one-and-a-half times the mass of the Sukhoi Su-27, its Soviet contemporary, and toting four R-33 missiles, which were just 10 kilos lighter than the Kinzhal. The -31 is also one of the fastest airplanes flying today. It cruises as fast as Mach 2.4 (1,840 miles per hour), and can rev above Mach 2.8 in hot pursuit. It ranged 1,250 kilometers (776 miles) even before mid-air refueling was added in the mid-1980s.
The MiG-31 attains this velocity by flying at extreme altitude—66,000 feet—to minimize air resistance. Closer to the ground, it can still make Mach 1.2. Its R-33s can (in theory) hit targets 300 kilometers away. The blend of speed and lethal firepower earned the “Foxhound” respect from its NATO opponents back in the day. A squad of four -31s was enough to keep pests away from 900 kilometers of border.
Again, in theory. No one ever tested them.
The MiG-31’s cardinal flaw was lack of versatility. It deterred against airborne attack on the Soviet homeland, a far-fetched scenario even in the you-blink-first ’80s, and arguably kept the Blackbird scrupulously out of Soviet airspace. But with the advent of multi-purpose fighters, like the Su-27 and U.S. contemporaries F-14 and F-15, the MiG-31 was decisively mono-functional. “It’s more like a surface-to-air missile than a plane,” says Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at Washington defense think-tank CNA.
Too big and clumsy for use in dogfights or localized post-cold war conflicts, the Foxhound languished while other Russian weapons systems switched to earning their keep through export. Four decades on, the MiG-31 has never fired a shot in anger—or earned the Kremlin a ruble from any foreign sale.
Present-day conflicts may be another story as “blinding” the enemy’s eyes in the sky becomes a critical factor in battlefield dominance. Shooting at satellites from fighter aircraft is not exactly a new idea either. The U.S. Air Force did it successfully at least once back in 1980s Star Wars days, clocking a dummy target with an ASM-135A missile launched by an F-15 (“The First Space Ace,” April/May 2018). The Soviets’ planned response involved mounting a modified MiG-31 with a 79M6 missile. It got through a few test flights before perestroika put all such efforts on a long pause. The Kinzhal, if Russian propaganda is to be believed, boasts a range of 1,200 miles, which just happens to be the maximum altitude of a low-Earth-orbit satellite. So it doesn’t stretch credibility (too much) to believe that the enormous Missile X at Zhukovskoe was a cousin of the Kinzhal modified for space attack.
If one is aiming for orbiting targets at that prodigious distance, starting with a mobile platform 66,000 feet up offers considerable advantages. You save boatloads of energy—and cost—launching from that altitude. No less important, the MiG-31 could shift satellite killing to a 24/7 regime, says Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “Ground-based systems may have to wait for a day until the satellite passes within their range,” he explains. “Air launch gives you more flexibility.”
Many critical U.S.-NATO satellites circle beyond Kinzhal/Missile X’s reach in geostationary or medium-Earth orbits (where the GPS constellation is). But the low-Earth-orbit tier is also packed with assets that need closer proximity for higher-resolution images of a given tactical theater, Kofman says. Troops on the ground have come to rely on these connections, rather like the average citizen on their home internet. “We’re pretty dependent on space-based assets for precision-guided weapons, real-time target-tracking, a lot of the backbone of modern conflict,” he says.
Russia’s military needs to connect a lot of dots, and spend a lot of rubles, before the MiG-31 can realistically crack this backbone. But its ability to carry massive new weapons has at least earned the aging system one more reprieve. In 2015, Moscow’s defense ministry announced it would upgrade 130 aircraft to the latest -31BM modification by 2030. The monster roars on.
The USSR may have been decaying internally by the late 1970s. But it maintained the will, and considerable means, to match the U.S. stride for stride in the great superpower arms race. “The Soviet Union collapsed at the peak of its technological might,” Kofman observes.
The immediate catalyst for the MiG-31 was the Western capture of its predecessor, a MiG-25 “Foxbat,” in 1976, when pilot Viktor Belenko flew it to Japan and requested political asylum. Belenko revealed more secrets about the airplane’s shortcomings than its prowess. Free World analysts had been overawed by the Foxbat’s Mach 3 speed. This turned to be largely for show. “At Mach 2.8 the engines overheated, and the four air-to-air missiles slung under the wings vibrated dangerously,” relates a historical account on the Russia Beyond the Headlines website. (Windshields also tended to ice over because ground crews would drink the preventive measure, grain alcohol, before take-off.)
The -31 was ready for test flights within three years of this revelation, with dramatic improvements. Its engines produced less thrust, but ran more reliably. The length of the aircraft was extended to make room for a second crew member, who handled navigation and weapons. But the most impressive innovation was its Zaslon radar system (Flash Dance in NATO parlance), the first passive electronically scanned array system to be mounted on a fighter. In a demonstration in 1991, when the peaceful climate allowed the MiG-31 to appear at the Paris Air Show, that Zaslon radar was the envy of all who witnessed it, according to a memoir by MiG test pilot Valery Menitsky.
The Zaslon could lock on six targets simultaneously (though the -31 carried only four missiles). Critically, it added “look-down, shoot-down” capability, enabling the R-33 air-to-air missiles with which the -31 is typically armed to strike targets at lower altitudes, like a cruise missile for instance. The MiG-25 could only shoot upward.
Still, the haste and ambition of the MiG-31 project took its toll. Menitsky himself barely survived a test flight gone awry. With the fuel gauge plummeting mysteriously toward empty, he crash-landed at Zhukovskoe without power at 292 mph, destroyed a concrete runway barrier, and rolled almost a mile before finally stopping. Climbing from the cockpit unharmed, Menitsky and his wingman lit cigarettes to steady their nerves, only to have them yanked from their mouths by an alarmed fireman. The -31 wasn’t out of gas after all, and they were standing in a puddle of kerosene.
Menitsky’s direct boss, MiG head test pilot Alexander Fedotov, was not so lucky, according to a post-glasnost report by Russian historian Andrey Simonov. The fuel system failed again on a modification of the -31 he was putting through its paces in 1984. It showed all tanks empty a few minutes into the flight. Fedotov also returned to base for an emergency landing without engines. But in fact the airplane had 12.5 tons (3,000 gallons) of fuel in its tanks. In free-fall with this immense weight, the aircraft was destroyed on impact. Fedotov, who had earned his country’s highest military honor—Hero of the Soviet Union—testing every MiG model since the early 1960s, did not survive a last-second parachute attempt. Co-pilot Valery Zaitsev died with him.
The MiG-31 never got the respect its engineering breakthroughs, and his friend’s sacrifice, deserved at home either, Menitsky complained. It was outshone from the start by the Su-27, which military parade announcers would gush on about “for six or seven minutes,” while nodding to the -31 with half a sentence. “Certain leaders of the Sukhoi firm and their lobbyists from the Defense Ministry supported a campaign begun by Sukhoi’s chief constructor to burnish the image of the Su-27 at the expense of the MiG-31,” Menitsky seethed in his reminiscences.
There is some truth in this, according to Ilya Grinberg, a professor of engineering technology at SUNY Buffalo State who earned his Ph.D. at Moscow State University of Civil Engineering. Legendary designers Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich, the “M” and “G” in MiG, both died in the 1970s. Their successor, Rostislav Belyakov, “believed MiG’s products would prove themselves,” while Sukhoi boss Mikhail Simonov “was a master of schmoozing and lobbying.” But the lighter, nimbler Su-27 (Western code name “Flanker”) also proved much better suited to the post-cold war era. Russia has exported it or its modification, the Su-35, to half a dozen countries and licensed production of an analog, Shenyang J-11, to China.
There was one mission, however, that only the MiG-31 could handle: chasing SR-71s across the endless Soviet borders and keeping the Blackbird respectfully at the edge of international airspace. The Central Intelligence Agency went to work on what became the SR-71 Blackbird at the famous Lockheed Skunk Works after the Soviets downed Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 from the supposedly unreachable altitude of 62,000 feet in 1960. The Blackbird first flew U.S. Air Force missions over Vietnam, then shifted to monitoring Soviet naval assets in 1976, flying a northern route from Mildenhall air base in the U.K. and a Far Eastern loop from California’s Beale Air Force Base.
Soviet defenders saw no hope of hitting the SR-71 from the ground. The new craft could fly, and snap pictures, at 80,000 feet or more, cruising at an unheard-of Mach 3.3. “This was a different threat,” Grinberg says. The SR-71 could fly anywhere with impunity.
Well, not quite impunity, once the MiG-31 took off after it. The -31 gave away 10,000 to 15,000 feet in altitude and 350-some mph in speed. But coordinated squadrons could keep the solo-flying SR-71 well within missile range, all the more so as the Americans flew fixed, more-or-less exact routes for the best views of their recon targets. “If the SR-71 had violated Soviet airspace, a live missile launch would have been carried out,” pilot Mikhail Myagkiy recalled in an excerpt reproduced in Paul Crickmore’s book: Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions. “There was practically no chance that the aircraft could avoid an R-33.” The SR-71 pilots never tested Myagkiy’s boast. They “tickled” the border on occasion, but never crossed it, the Soviet captain related.
So twice a week, through the last burst of cold war tension during the Reagan years, the world’s fastest aircraft staged a secret supersonic ballet above the forbidding coasts of Novaya Zemlya and the White Sea. Myagkiy once got close enough to put naked eyes on his enemy, and saved a print-out of the flight’s black box data as a keepsake. “A contrail at 22,000-23,000 meters is very rare,” he wrote. “But on this day the weather was excellent and the air was transparent. I passed under the spyplane, it was 3,000-4,000 meters above us, and even managed to make out its black silhouette.”
If nothing else, the SR-71 chase gave MiG-31 crews, isolated on cheerless bases from Murmansk to Kamchatka, a sense of purpose that could border on delusions of grandeur. Memoirist Menitsky imagined his U.S. Air Force counterparts living in terror. “The appearance of the MiG-31 shook the pilots who flew SR-71,” he writes. “They wrote to all their top commanders that they experienced psychological pressure from flights along Russia’s borders, and asked to change the routes throughout our Far East. Soon the flights stopped.”
More objective historians beg to differ. It’s not even clear that the American pilots knew the MiG‑31s were after them, according to Valery Romanenko, a Ukrainian expert in Russian military aviation who helped Crickmore with the research for his SR-71 book. Publicly, American generals cited the Blackbird’s cost and improving alternative intel from satellites when they retired the aircraft in 1989.
Without its nemesis, or the free-spending Soviet war machine that collapsed two years later, the MiG-31 fell on hard times. China reportedly looked at buying 24 Foxhounds in 1992 with an eye on a domestic copycat, but opted for the Su-27 instead—one more blow to Valery Menitsky and other MiG die-hards. Valery Romanenko at one point consulted with Nigerian procurement officials thinking of buying -31s for their (limited) AWACS capabilities. He talked them out of it. Active regiments flying the -31 contracted from seven to two, Romanenko says. From this shrinking contingent, 14 airplanes crashed and burned between 1995 and 2016, according to official reports Grinberg and Romanenko collated, though thankfully all the pilots survived.
The first hint of a comeback arrived in 2009, according to Bart Hendrickx’s research, when Russia’s air force chief announced the MiG-31 “was being upgraded to perform the same space missions as in the Soviet days.” Not much was heard on this score until early 2017, when another top commander told defense ministry media outlet Zvezda that a new missile mounted on the MiG-31BM would be “capable of destroying targets in near space.”
The plot thickened in March 2018 when Putin announced the existence of the Kinzhal. In July of that year, TASS reported that MiG-31s had held drills armed with the new hypersonic threat and been designated “the basic carrier of Kinzhal hypersonic missiles today.” In September the notorious photo of the -31 with Missile X in its belly appeared, posted by a Russian aviation paparazzo who uses the tag ShipSash.
Do these scattered clues mean the MiG-31will be a key part of the arsenal of a resurgent Russia as the battlefield moves into low Earth orbit? Space will likely be a combat theater if big powers come to blows again, and knocking out satellites should be relatively simple. After all, their orbits are fixed and they can’t easily take evasive action.
Whether destroying an enemy satellite would be useful is another question.
One reason the U.S. counter-space program of the 1980s killed only one test satellite was the volume of post-impact debris, which could harm any of the 1,000-some other craft currently sharing low Earth orbit, Harrison says. “An air-launched anti-satellite weapon is a serious and credible threat, but I’m not sure it would be that useful in the same orbital regime that the Russians might use themselves.” He sees the future in lasers that can temporarily blind satellites without blasting them perilously to bits. Directed-energy weapons might also be used covertly, as the victimized country would want to keep the attack secret. “If we say something, we’re admitting to them that the attack was effective,” Harrison explains. “So it’s likely no one would ever know.”
Russia could also attempt to blind its enemies using Nudol, a ground-based anti-satellite missile system parked at the Plesetsk cosmodrome. Russia has conducted at least 10 tests of the system since 2014.
If Russia really wants to incapacitate an adversary’s satellite, there are ways to do it that wouldn’t require them to rely on the high-altitude marksmanship of a 40-year-old airplane. But to underestimate the aging Foxhound would be a mistake. It’s like the old Russian saying: Something new—and in this case, dangerous—is something old that everyone has forgotten.