The Russian Air Force has begun to deploy its heaviest class of tactical combat jet for operations against Ukrainian targets, according to reports from number of Western media outlets, with the MiG-31BM/BSM Foxhound making its debut in the eight month long war. These reports claim that the Foxhound has been deployed to neutralise Ukrainian Air Force assets, with a study by the British Royal United Services Institute claiming that the aircraft “have proven highly effective against Ukrainian attack aircraft and fighters, with the MiG-31BM and R-37M long-range air to air missile being especially problematic.” Regarding the R-37M in particular, it noted that “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.” Other reports indicate that some MiG-31s from the 712th Regiment have been forward deployed to facilities on Crimea, and in late October shot down a Ukrainian Su-24M strike fighter.
The MiG-31 has for decades been seen as the uncontested top Russian asset for air to air combat, with the induction of a fraction of a unit of Su-57 fifth generation fighters only recently having challenged this title. The Foxhound is an oversized aircraft capable of flying much higher and faster, carrying much larger sensors, and deploying more firepower, than even other Russian heavyweights such as the Su-30 and Su-35 which form the backbone of its fleet. Its R-37M missile is a close contender for the title of the most dangerous in the world, with a 400km engagement range, Mach 6 speed and 60kg warhead which no other missile outside China comes close to matching. The MiG-31 was the first fighter or interceptor in the world capable of firing all its weapons at extreme altitudes in space, providing missiles such as the R-37 with much more energy than if it were employed by other aircraft, and was also the first with a phased array radar and the ability to cruise supersonically for very extended periods. The Foxhound fleet has been prioritised for upgrades since the early 2010s, including the integration of new weapons and avionics, and has increasingly been deployed to the Arctic as tensions with NATO rise in the theatre due to its high performance and suitability for operations in extreme weather.
Although Ukraine’s fighter fleet, unlike its air defences, has posed little challenge for the Russian Air Force due to the obsolete nature of its inventory, deployment of MiG-31s provides a valuable opportunity to test the aircraft and their missiles under combat conditions. Russian fighters, and the Su-35 in particular, have gained extensive air to air combat experience since the outbreak of the war and multiple air to air kills, which is something no 21st century fighter from any other country have benefitted from. The Su-57, too, alongside its deployments for strike and air defence suppression missions, was reported but not confirmed to have been involved in a single air to air engagement in which it shot down a Ukrainian Su-27.
While MiG-31BM/BSM interceptors have only recently begun to play a significant role in the Russian-Ukrainian War, a strike variant the MiG-31K was forward deployed against NATO states shortly before the conflict began as a deterrent, while one carried out a major strike on Ukrainian positions near the Polish border in March. Like the R-37M missile, the Kh-47M2 hypersonic ballistic missile carried by the MiG-31K is an oversized weapon which other classes of Russian tactical combat aircraft would be unable to employ as effectively. The missile’s cost and scarcity, however, means it has not played a large role in strikes against Ukrainian targets neither ha the MiG-31K. Russia is currently developing a successor to the MiG-31 under the PAK DP program, although whether this will be an ambitious space flying near hypersonic aircraft as some sources claim, or a conservative enhanced derivative of the current MiG-31, remains uncertain.