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

Dec 11 2013 - 159 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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  • Edward Richardson

    The MiG 31’s engines would have to be replaced after one top speed run, the aircraft is totally overrated. In fact, that’s where its real (albeit unintentional) value was for the West. When they saw it in the skies over some barbaric weapons of death parade the USSR was constantly staging, they famously made it into the boogeyman of the skies, which led to the development of a far, far more superior weapon – the F-15 Eagle (over 100 victories and no losses in aerial combat).

  • Glenn_Blech

    As usual, a few mistakes in the article. Writer quotes the Russian pilot as saying that if the SR-71 had crossed the border, it would have been shot down, then says that border crossings stopped after this ‘intercept.’
    Guess what… Border was never crossed. Also, although AGM54 did climb to SR71 altitudes, the cruise missiles it was designed to defeat were low-level anti-ship missiles.

  • Interesting “story”, but SR-71 missions continued long after the alleged intercept in January 1986. Had this actually happened, it would’ve been common knowledge in intelligence circles, and it wasn’t.

  • Timothy Hardy

    Yes, the article is in error. SR-71s never overflew the Soviet Union but gathered data from all along its periphery.

  • Gerard J

    I’m just doing some “back of the envelope” math here.

    It’s widely “known” the SR-71 could cruise at mach 3 and perhaps up to 3.32 or so, rumors of 3.5. But lets stick with 3.0Ma, That’s 2283MPH.
    60 minute in an hour so 38 miles per minute. (2238 / 60).
    in 16 minutes the SR-71 travels 608 miles.

    A quick search of the internet says that military surveillance radar has a maximum range of about 300 miles.

    In 16 minutes the SR-72 would fly completely through the full diameter of a long range surveillance radar site.

    Let’s say the SR-72 hits a detection station’s alert. The article says they wait 11 minutes then scramble the fighters. They say they climb at 10,000FPM (not realistic) so 7 minutes after takeoff they could be at intercept altitude. We’re 18 minutes since detection and the SR-71 is 684 miles downrange from where it was initially detected (that’s 65% of the north/south distance across California).
    To put that in a real-world example: if an SR-71 was detected as it entered California airspace at the southern tip the fighters would realistically have to scramble from almost the northern most tip of California, perhaps in Oregon to have any chance of finding and intercepting the SR-71.
    Let’s say by a snowball’s chance in hell they do that, and they manage to overcome the ECM, get missile lock and fire one off. Generally speaking to get a successful hit they’d have to fire from nearly in front of or nearly behind the SR-71.

    Specs for the R-40 say 2.0-4.5Ma and 50 mile range

    From the front with a, let’s say’ 4.0Ma missile speed there’s be a 7.0Ma closure rate. The precision required for the tracking and flight control systems on the missile would have to be immensely accurate and be able to compensate for minute atmospheric changes.
    7.0Ma is 88 miles per minute 1.5 miles per second.
    If the missile was fired from 50 miles out that’s a 33s flight time during which the ECM operator is working to jam or block the missile and the front aspect is the lowest radar signature so least likely to get any sort of missile lock.
    This is at possible scenario if not plausible.

    From the rear, we can reverse engineer the numbers.
    50 miles of missile range and closing on the the SR-71 at 1.0Ma(761MPH, 12.6MPm) (SR-71 at 3.0Ma, missile at 4.0Ma). The missile has ~1 minute of flight time capability. (4.0Ma=3044MPH, 51MPM). So how far can you travel at mach 1 in one minute? 12 miles.
    What are the odds of getting a MiG within 12 miles of the ass of an SR-71? And remember 12 miles is the furthest firing point, you’d really want to be closer to 10 miles to ensure enough flight time of the missile in case the SR-71 pushes the throttle or maneuvers when it detects a launch.

    I just don’t think the story of a MiG getting lock on an SR-71 makes any sense. The odds of actually hitting an SR-71 with a missile are so astronomically low as to be impossible in my view. There was never any fear of the plane being shot down and that idea would never have entered in to the retirement of the platform.

  • Gerard J

    What “support-asset activity” are you talking about? SR-71 launched from one of three bases around the world, refueled in flight and flew alone in to their target zone at hight speed. There’s no “tell” that an SR-71 will be targeting you until it’s already 200 miles past you.
    The U-2 requires a lot of support and logistics as it lacks in-flight refueling capability so to launch in to a target zone you have to have a base less than ½ the distance from the target zone as the range of the U-2.