How the Mig-31 repelled the SR-71 Blackbird from Soviet skies

Dec 11 2013 - 71 Comments

Even if no SR-71 was lost due to hostile actions during the entire Blackbird career, the Mach 3+ capable spyplane faced an adversary that could effectively intercept it: the MiG-31 Foxhound.

The SR-71 impressive mission record was reached thanks to some unique features of its airframe, such as its ability to fly at more than three and a half times the speed of sound at 88,000 feet, its small (for the time) Radar Cross Section (RCS) and its sophisticated electronic countermeasures (ECM).

These flight characteristics made the Blackbird safe against any attempt of interception conducted by enemy fighters or surface-to-air missiles (SAM), during its reconnaissance missions in the Russian skies during the Cold War years.

The only aircraft which possessed the capabilities to shoot down an SR-71 was the F-14 Tomcat, that could use its AIM-54 Phoenix long range missile against the fast black plane.

In fact the Phoenix was developed to shoot down Soviet cruise missiles which flew at an altitude similar to the one reached by the Blackbird. Moreover with a speed between Mach 4 and Mach 5, the AIM-54 was fast enough to cause serious problems to the SR-71.

But, the capabilities featured by the Tomcat and its long range missiles, weren’t matched by any Russian interceptor, and to stop SR-71s’ overflights, the Soviets developed an aircraft which had similar characteristics to those owned by the F-14.

As we have recently explained, the only aircraft that had a speed close to the one of the SR-71 was the MiG-25. But even if it could fly at Mach 3.2, the Foxbat wasn’t able to sustain such speeds long enough to reach the Blackbird.

Another serious problem which affected the Foxbat was the lack of effectiveness of its R-40 missiles (AA-6 Acrid based on NATO designation) against an air-to-air target smaller than a large strategic bomber.

These deficiencies were settled when a more advanced MiG-25 development, the MiG-31, entered in service in the 1980s: the Foxhound was armed with a missile very similar to the US AIM-54 Phoenix, the R-33 (AA-9 Amos as reported by NATO designation).

This weapon was ideal not only for shooting down the American bombers, but also to intercept and destroy fast reconnaissance aircraft, such as the SR-71.

This statement was dramatically confirmed in Paul Crickmore’s book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond The Secret Missions.

In this book one of the first Foxhound pilots, Captain Mikhail Myagkiy, who had been scrambled with its MiG-31 several times to intercept the US super-fast spy plane, explains how he was able to lock on a Blackbird on Jan. 31, 1986:

“The scheme for intercepting the SR-71 was computed down to the last second, and the MiGs had to launch exactly 16 minutes after the initial alert. (…) They alerted us for an intercept at 11.00. They sounded the alarm with a shrill bell and then confirmed it with a loudspeaker. The appearance of an SR-71 was always accompanied by nervousness. Everyone began to talk in frenzied voices, to scurry about, and react to the situation with excessive emotion.”

Myagkiy and its Weapons System Officer (WSO) were able to achieve a SR-71 lock on at 52,000 feet  and at a distance of 120 Km from the target.

The Foxhound climbed at 65,676 feet where the crew had the Blackbird in sight and according to Myagkiy:

“Had the spy plane violated Soviet airspace, a live missile launch would have been carried out. There was no practically chance the aircraft could avoid an R-33 missile.”

After this interception Blackbirds reportedly began to fly their reconnaissance missions from outside the borders of the Soviet Union.

But the MiG-31s intercepted the SR-71 at least another time.

On Sept. 3, 2012 an article written by Rakesh Krishman Simha for explains how the Foxhound was able to stop Blackbirds spy missions over Soviet Union on Jun. 3, 1986.

That day, no less than six MiG-31s “intercepted” an SR-71 over the Barents Sea by performing a coordinated interception that subjected the Blackbird to a possible all angle air-to-air missiles attack.

Apparently, after this interception, no SR-71 flew a reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union and few years later the Blackbird was retired to be replaced with the satellites.

Even if claiming that the MiG-31 was one of the causes of the SR-71 retirement is a bit far fetched, it is safe to say that towards the end of the career of the legendary spyplane, Russians proved to have developed tactics that could put the Blackbird at risk.

The Mig-31 is still in service, but the SR-71 successor, dubbed SR-72 and capable to reach Mach 6, should be quite safe at hypersonic speed.

David Cenciotti contributed to this post.

MiG-31 1

Image credit: Russian Air Force / Mig-31 Facebook page


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  • GAR9

    There are a number of platforms that can do that analysis, including the SR. In any case, since the cloud will move with the wind, it is not necessary to fly over China itself to analyze the cloud; it’ll come to you.

    • mangoman

      Not true…it won’t come to you. The fallout from any device that detonates from surface/low altitude is at the mercy of nature – the prevailing winds dictate the direction, speed, and dispersion rate for these particles.
      As well, atmospheric atomic sampling was one of the U-2’s early missions, especially over China, the Pacific, and outer USSR – back in the late 50’s – 70’s. The blackbirds did very few of these – as their missions were based more on “near real-time” situations that necessitated SIGINT, ELINT, PHOTINT, and mapping.

  • GAR9

    BTW, story of that supposed June ’86 “coordinated intercept” by Mig-31s, was being told for years before the 2012 article. The response of SR crews, including COL Richard Graham (and he was the Vice Commander and then Wing Commander of the 9th SRW in the 1980s) shown in the video, was that it “never happened”.

    So you’ve got to decide who you believe: An author writing 26 years after the event or those who were actually there.

  • Business traveller

    So quality journo. you believe that no SR-71 ever flew over Soviet, or chinese airspace because one (1) pilot said so? Slightly naive, don´t you think?
    The truth is we will probably never know.

    • mangoman

      Speaking from a SR-71/TR-1 crew chief who worked these machines for over a decade (Col Graham was my CO/Base Commander), I most certainly would take his word for it, businessman!!

      • Erik Larsen

        I seem to recall a video interview with a russian brass.Who claimed that they had several “plans” to shot down the sr71 but that they were highly unlikely to ever get close. There were so many factors in play,that he didn’t consider them realistic.
        I’ve heard stories/rumors about Mig’s burning out engines in attempt to catch up and shoot down the sr71.But unsure how true they are.
        But consider how much pride it would be for russia to nail it,and how they acted during ww2 it wouldn’t surprise me if they were true

        • JS353535

          Your rumors are correct. The Foxbat could run at full throttle/afterburner for approximately 6 minutes before the engines would flame out. The Russians never had (at that time) the manufacturing tolerances to be able to match the Blackbirds performance, nor were they able to come anywhere near the ceiling. Without careful management of intake air, the engines of the 25 and 31 would reach compressor stall long before they would ever be in range to shoot down a 71.

  • FoilHatWearer

    They fired 4000 times and never got a hit, so it obviously didn’t work.

    • Andyj

      How would you know? Oh, a pundit told you :D

  • FoilHatWearer

    Sorry that reality doesn’t mesh with your agenda, nothing I can do about that.

    • unity100

      And YOUR agenda meshes with reality is it. So all the theoretical blabbermouthing done on the american side is correct, but they are not correct on the russian side.

  • Sporkmaster

    How does a you tube video title confirm that the aircraft is really at that height?

  • bademoxy .

    “There’s no chance the blackbird could have avoided the r 22 missile” LOL -the failure rate
    of even the best air to air missiles is very high-that’s why they had to start putting cannons
    back into the warjets

  • al len

    Bogus stories I should say. If this Mig 31s manage to lock on and did not fire what is the use? Russians will always claim kills they never made and pretend they’re the best in the world, like how Putin brags about his armed forces today.

    According to record SAMs are the greatest threat to SR-71s and not Mig 31s intercepted claims.
    For a fact. Mig 31s can only fly on Mach 2.8 on high altitude compared to SR-71s Mach 3.1 – 3.3.

    No matter how hard you try, SR-71s can outrun and out perform any Mig 31 any day. This so called pilot stories are pigment of Russia’s lusted sexual imaginations.

  • al len

    So, how can a less superior less powerful Mig 31 flying at Mach 2.8 could intercept a much superior more powerful SR-71 that flies over Mach 3.1 at any given Sunday? In a race the fastest man wins the pole. Physics would clearly speaks for itself and exposes bogus claims using common sense.

    What if an SR-71 gets detected (assuming) and 2 Mig 31s scrambles to intercept. Care if those Migs can even catch up to where the SR is without getting outrun? A 15 minute chase would eventually end in a “catch me if you can” scenario and Migs left with empty hands. Better know how Russians brag on their weapons even though we know none of them really works perfectly well in a real fight.

  • Skip

    Yep, No SR-71 over flew Russia, not to say an A-12 never did. ;-)

  • Gabriel

    The SR-71 got tired of crossing the USSR. In a quarter century the communists fired more than 4,000 missiles at the plane and never shot down it.

  • Trevor Dinsmore

    If the SR-71 was “very easy to kill”, why was there NEVER a kill?? Over 1,000 missiles and zero hits. HMMMMM Doesn’t sound really easy to kill to me. And when the six MiGs “intercepted” the Blackbird (that was the SECOND time they had locked on) the SR-71 was at some 56,000 feet and 120 km distant. The MiG pilot fires a missile, threat detection goes off in the SR-71 and the pilot drops the hammer….missile runs out of fuel looooong before intercept. Game over. SR-71 wins.

  • LondonMontmorency

    “These flight characteristics made the Blackbird safe against any attempt of interception conducted by enemy fighters or surface-to-air missiles (SAM), during its reconnaissance missions in the Russian skies during the Cold War years.”

    Maybe, maybe… But what really made SR-71 safe in that regard was the simple fact that SR-71 never flew in Russian (Russian? Soviet apparently) skies.

  • Frederick Douglass

    The narrowness of the launch window for the interceptor disproves the idea that it was capable of shooting down the SR-71. Put a little wiggle in the SR-71’s course and the interceptor is in the wrong place/time.