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

Dec 11 2013 - 40 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 Indrus.in 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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  • John

    Love this articles! Keep ‘em coming!

  • LarsGunther

    A friend of mine did his military service as a radar technician during the 80s in Sweden. He reported that once the Swedish air force got a radar lock o an SR-71. They had learned what route it would take above the Baltic Sea and scrambled two Viggen on a course plotted for an intercept. For a brief moment a radar lock was achieved and the USAF even sent a congratulatory telegram. The Viggen never carried missiles able to shot it down, though.

    Of course this is hearsay. I’ve got no hard evidence besides this word of mouth rumour.

    Another question is if the Mig-33 would have been able to intercept an SR-71 if it had flown on an unpredictable route?

    • Observer79

      Well, as with any plane, the SR-71 slows down in the turning cycle. Approx mach 2.5 maybe? That is why the swedes could get a lock on. Mind you, the Americans knew the Swedes wouldn’t fire and hence took advantage of their airspace.

  • DDAY

    The article implies that the SR-71 flew missions OVER the Soviet Union. But it didn’t. That decision was made in the 1960s because SAMs were considered to be too great a threat. The MiG-31 was probably capable of shooting down an SR-71, but it was not the reason why the SR-71 did not fly over the Soviet Union.

  • BernardP

    “The SR-72 should be quite safe”
    I’m not holding my breath for even a prototype of the SR-72.

    • Nick B.

      I would actually be a bit surprised if they didn’t already have some sort of “SR-72″ (Research “Aurora”). For all the leaks the government has, they tend to do a pretty good job of keeping military hardware secret. That is, unless it falls out of the sky into enemy hands (RQ-170) or crashes (stealth Black Hawk).

  • PangPangSWE

    LarsGunther:

    The story of the Viggen radar lock is true.
    The Viggen did however carry Rb-71 Skyflash missiles and the USAF assessed the situation that had the Viggen fired, the Blackbird would have been hit, thus the fax to F17 airbase at Ronneby.

    The only time any one was close enough for a real kill.

    I have seen the fax, so I can authenticate the story.

    • Ghibli

      Skyflash electronic was completely unreliable, worst than the first aim9 from the 1950′s..

    • nasaponken

      one of the numeral viggen intercepts was done with a viggen trainer as wingman and the incident report was therefore by law reported in a civil air report, dont know the doc number but should be findable…

    • Callsign Vega

      LOL Skyflash. If you think that would even have come within 100 miles of hitting a SR71 I have some land to sell you in China..

  • John

    That is a bit off to me. A simple intercept calculation would show that the Mig would need to be very close to the SR-71 to get a missile shot. Say the R-33 has about a 120 mile range. Moving at Mach 4.5, which is about 57 miles per minute. So it would have 2 minutes to go to full range assuming that it didn’t have any loss of speed after the fuel burn. The SR-71 at Mach 3.5 is moving 44 miles per minute. Without going into deep intercept calculations it looks like that Mig would need to be very close to have the slightest chance of a hit. Radar lock is one thing, a kill quite another.

    Like others said, by this time no flights were going over the USSR anyway.

    I haven’t downloaded this but looks like an interesting program to calculate interception.

    http://www.codeproject.com/Articles/19310/Hitting-a-Moving-Target-The-Missile-Guidance-Syste

    • OG_Locc

      Yep. The only reason the Mig pilot is able to claim he “intercepted” an SR-71, is because he didn’t actually fire the missile.

      I’m sure hundreds of SAM operators also got locks on the SR-71. We all know how succsessful their intercepts were.

      • Simon Gunson

        The intercept mentioned was over the Barents Sea in international airspace, so he can legitimately claim an intercept. As noted had the SR-71 crossed into Soviet airspace he would have fired. There are many intercepts of Russian Bears over the north Atlantic which are equally valid intercepts.

    • Sternberg

      The Phoenix had an intercept range of just over 100 miles. The Soviet missile probably had a similar range.

  • Pooter Bilbo

    So what you’re saying is a plane developed 15 years after the SR-71 was still only barely able to intercept it using a perfectly timed zoom climb. Impressive..

    • huehue

      Not really. Any interceptor would have trouble taking on a Blackbird, even today.The SR-71 would most often do the recce runs at Mach 2+ (usually up to Mach 3, it is said).Now, a ground radar will catch that easily, but even after the alarm is heard, a plane, no matter the speed, will need time. The crew has to enter the cockpit, they have to do their checks, flip their switches, take off, and most importantly, they need time to get within intercept parameters. And judging from the Foxhound’s radar detection range, the Blackbird could easily get warned well before the MiG even got into firing parameters (with the radar turned on throughout the flight, that is).So, as you understand, it’s not as simple as having the technology to do a job, knowing how to do it right is also a big part. I’m pretty sure you could put a YF-12 intercept a SR-71 and still have it fail, simply because it won’t have enough time to get there.

      Have a nice day :)

      • Observer79

        If one plane could cause so much havoc, how would two SR-71s, one acting as decoy, fared against soviet interceptor resources?

  • Mike W.

    Since they couldn’t make the SR-71 completely stealth the decision was made not to overfly Russia, it never did. It would skirt along it’s borders.

  • marco

    Over the USSR there were enough dangers for a SR-71 mission planner to decide not to dare a flight over Soviet Union. The MiG-31 was just one of them.

    • Angmhalp

      A German teenager in a Cessna 172 landed in Red Square flying from Finland on May 28, 1987. I don’t think the Blackbird crew were too worried about the PVO interceptors. Also, I am pretty sure that all Blackbird missions by this date were “outside” of Soviet territory and airspace or else they would have been fired upon a la KAL Flight 007. The Blackbird’s Side-Looking Radar and ELINT suite could accomplish its mission without violating Soviet airspace.

      • Dexter Scott

        In point of fact when the Soviets fired on KAL 007, the 747 was outside Soviet airspace.

        • Jim Brown

          They mixed it with a similar CIA plane that was in the same area.

          • Simon Gunson

            Nope you are confusing KAL007 with the RC-135V code name “Rivet Joint” which was orbiting off the Kuriles.

      • Jim Brown

        The pilot saw Cessna but they didn’t know what to do with it especially after what happened with KAL 007.

  • Nyányó Sándór

    amazing how this rust eaten planes can fly. and they re still in use. wow.

    • warmwxrules .

      You’ve never seen my van.

  • Bigdirk

    I believe that the SR71 leaked fuel considerably. If true, all the Russians had to do was get close to it and flick a cigarette lighter…. ;-)

    • Revive Revival

      1) When it reached cruising speed, thermal expansion would seal its fuel tanks shut

      2) JP7 is incredibly inert, you won’t be able to light it with a cigarette lighter

      • Bigdirk

        You’re quite right Revive Revival. Still an opportunity for a little Irish humour, eh? On another topic, I once heard that during a transatlantic run, the plane didn’t just overshoot the runway in Britain – it overshot Britain itself. Anyone else hear of that? Is it true?

  • sferrin

    B.S.

  • Tim

    intercept? Quote from the article:”The Foxhound climbed at 65,676 feet”. With the SR-71 at 88000 ft the difference is still over 20000 ft. That is not an “intercept”, that is getting in the general vicinity!

    • Marc

      LOL, so true! The Russkies are fooling themselves into thinking they actually have a chance at downing a Blackbird…its just not going to happen. The physics of it all just do not add up.

  • David

    Lets forget the myths about damn soviet/russian military power.

  • Jim

    The multi-component surveillance mission never, ever, reported any “lock-on” by any aircraft, from any nation; intercept geometry was not possible with extreme mission speed/altitude of SR 71, virtually out-flying every missile carried at that time. This article is bunk.

  • Jim Brown

    Missiles are faster and can sustain higher G loadings than SR-71.

    • FoilHatWearer

      Not at 100,000 feet. The guidance fins are ineffective and there’s not a reaction-control system in existence that can guide the missile to a maneuvering target in that environment.

      • Simon Gunson

        Stick with foil hats because at 80,000ft plus no aircraft including the SR-71 can manouvere hard enough to shake missiles.

  • Vansh

    This article is somewhat misleading. It says several times something along the lines of “After this interception Blackbirds reportedly began to fly their reconnaissance missions from outside the borders of the Soviet Union” but fail to mention that even before the interceptions, the Blackbirds flew outside the borders of the Soviet Union as well. The Blackbirds didn’t overfly the Soviet Union due to an agreement between America and USSR following the U-2 shootdown. In fact it had cameras (separate from its “mission” equipment such as side-looking radar) recording the locations it was flying over in case there were any disputes about overflights. So trying to imply that the SR-71 changed their mission profiles due to the MiG-31 is wrong. They didn’t overfly the Soviet Union after the MiG-31 but they didn’t do it before, either.

    A plane being able to track the SR-71 by radar is very different from its being in a position to launch a missile such that the missile could actually reach the SR-71 before its fuel ran out.

    Having said that, in Ben Rich’s book he did mention that the Soviets later on did develop SAMs that were huge and could reach the SR-71. He also mentioned that the SR-71 was eventually cancelled due to politics (lack of senior politicians and Pentagon personnel that would fight for its budget) as well as not integrating newer technology such as satellite data-links when they became available (which would have given close to real-time intelligence, instead of waiting for the SR-71 to land and then retrieving the data). It was not due to technological issues such as probability of being shot down.

  • warmwxrules .

    I have a question. On the one hand we have the US trying to get glimpses of Russian bases/etc…did the Soviet Union use aircraft to circle the US? Did Russian planes ever fly over Mexico or Canada to glimpse into the USA?

  • Simon Gunson

    At extreme altitudes aircraft manouveres are limited by stall buffet. It would not surprise me at the speeds mentioned if there was a huge turn radius.

    Even airliners flying at 35,000-42,000ft have severe turning restrictions. That is one of the reasons claims about Malaysian flight MH370 making a 160 degree turn west within 60 seconds do not ring true. At very high altitudes there are sometimes only a few knots difference between stall speed and VMO.