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

Dec 11 2013 - 141 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

    LMAO you know nothing. Over 800 SAM’s were fired at it during it’s operations over Vietnam alone. Another 1000 well documented launches were made against it in other areas of operation. So again you know nothing. Do a little research guy before you spout of stupidity again.

    • Andyj

      I guess you read propaganda stories from coloured comics.
      Only one SAM was ever fired at the SR-71 and that was N. Korean. They assume it detonated about a mile level with the jet. Had they ignored the radar warning and good fortune it would of ran into the shrapnel. This ended the Korean overflights.

  • John

    LMAO Zoom climb doesn’t equal sustained operations.

    • Andyj

      Its the missile that does the killing.

  • Stephen Boris

    there is a pic in Crickmore’s book which shows an exhaust trail from a SA-2, over Hanoi in 1968, fired at the SR-71A. Page 209. No SAMs from Soviet airspace maybe. :-)

    • Andyj

      They never overflew Soviet airspace.

  • MARV DONNELLY

    I would say that this statement is wrong “The only aircraft which possessed the capabilities to shoot down an SR-71 was the F-14 Tomcat, that could use itsAIM-54 Phoenix long range missile against the fast black plane.” There was another aircraft capable of launching a rocket and possibly bringing down a SR-71, that would have been the F-106 Delta Dart! The AIR-2A rocket could have done the job and was designed with high flying targets in mind.
    The “6” had the speed and the altitude capability to launch the rocket and leave AND could be air borne in less than 5 minutes. The “6: also was capable of shooting down a high speed target (Mach 3 plus) – the BOMARC – and did so more than once! All with AIM-4 radar guided missles! All that fom 1955 technology!

  • Gleb Severov

    those russian agressors LOL

  • JohnnyAdams8

    Sr72 pilot we runtinely fly missions to the military base on the dark side of the moon. We now reach 10000 mph!

    • cencio4

      I wish you were really an SR72 pilot because we could ask some interesting questions. But I don’t think an SR72 would give away his identity

  • jdamsforall

    I used to work with a man who was an A&P mechanic on the SR-71 and he said the mach 3.3 figures were only released for public consumption, but that the actual speeds were well into mach 4 range, …he didn’t go into specifics about engine limits or burning up at those speeds, he simply stated they could attain much faster speeds and he seemed to imply that it was well within the design parameters of the aircraft. I read somewhere years ago that the closest any super SAM ever came to an SR71 was five miles behind the plane…the planes were simply too fast for even the super SAMS which were the only potential threat

  • Ben

    The author never claimed it was shot down. He just stated that mig 31 could have been a threat.

  • liberaldisgust

    @Dev , yea …. F – 15 …. win loss 101 – 0 ….. gee what Russian aircraft has come close ….. and Russia was on the Moon when ? Real easy to talk , a little harder to do ….

    • Sorry but no F-15 was ever used against contemporary Russian jetfighters, let alone Russian Airforces. And when more or less latest version of Flankers (Su-30MKI) faced F-15s and F-16s in exercise, american jets where trashed with exchange rates of 17 to 1 first and then 4 years later with rates of 21 to 1. And this will definetly be worse for USAF in case with RuASF, aspecialy over Russian soil assisted by Russian IAD

      • jollymonsam

        So there was a MiG-31 or MiG-25 the was a recce bird that flew Recce mission over Israel it was tracked on radar flying at Mach 3. The mission was a success and the aircraft landed in one of the other Middle East country the only problem was the engines needed to be removed and replaced with new engines !
        Russia sold the best military equipment to the middle eastern Arab counties in recent wars against the Americans military
        Your Russian equipment was nothing more than moving targets practice for the U.S. Military. Was it the MiG 19 or the 21 I can’t remember which one has the hydraulic lines outside on top of the right wing exposed to the airflow, the Russian engineers didn’t even think about that one. A MIG 29 from the German Air Force landed at my Base in Germany a few of us CrewChiefs drove over to look at it, yeah the fuselage panels had waves in the sheet metal not one smooth panel on the entire aircraft really poor workmanship, oh yeah I almost forgot the pilot used a handheld Garmin for GPS cos the onboard equipment is a failure.
        After I got out of the military I had a chance to work on Russian helicopters any helicopter that has to have a take off roll is a very heavy aircraft, our American helicopters you can pull on the collective and go straight up, I have a lot of stories about your wonderful Russian equipment but I prefer All American equipment all the way why because it works the first time every time.

  • Mofo

    LOL – Show off??? Are you serious?

    The US doesn’t have a “May Day” (appropriately named BTW) like the Russians do. Please!

    The Russians are constantly harping about how they this weapon to counter some American weapon. They are NEVER first at ANYTHING!

    The Russians can barely pay the ‘Army’ they have now!

    As much as I like Russia, and I do, the people are friendly etc. They are a shell military not unlike the Iraqis in 1990. Except they would certainly fight better if an invading force tried to play badass with them.

    • Alexander Strigin

      I am happy u think so.. its always better to underestimate than overestimate ur potential enemy for that enemys good.. one of the crucial points in global strategy my friend, keep pushing ur shit will ya

    • Alex_Murphy

      Never first at anything? Lets see…lets take tank technology….first to use sloped armor, first to use smoothbore gun, first to use composite armor, first to use ERA, first to use heavy ERA, first to use APS, first to use casemate turrets, first to use autoloader….need I go on?

    • Jorge Picabea

      …who’s flying our astronauts to space today ?

  • Love the way this fantasy article keeps talking about ‘interceptions’ of an SR-71.

    Oh wait a second … how about this one: “There was no practically chance the aircraft could avoid an R-33 missile.”

    During the late 60’s and early 70’s when air-to-air missiles were pitifully unreliable?

    Now you’re just embarassing yourself.

    • Alex_Murphy

      And you defy fact and actual events. The Mig-31 became operational in 1981 so your talk of 60s and 70s is irrelevant. You embarrass yourself.

      • RegnansInExcelcis

        Whatever happened to the regime that developed and flew the Mig-31? The makers of the SR-71 are still around and kicking.

  • darknesscrown

    The MiG-31 is fast, but it can’t sustain speeds. Is the author actually suggesting that hitting a moving target traveling at Mach 3-3.2 at 85,000 feet with a missile something that could feasibly be done? If so, that’s absurd.
    First, a MiG-31, on its best day, could not keep pace with an SR-71. It’s airframe and engines wouldn’t allow it. A MiG-31, at best, could achieve velocities that fast for no more than a few seconds to a couple minutes…tops. And not without paying a heavy price in wear and tear on the the airframe and power plants (let alone fuel consumption).
    Secondly, the SR-71 has never “officially” overflown Soviet airspace.

  • Alex_Murphy

    Just because you worked on the SR-71 doesn’t mean you know everything about all the operations conducted. Russian aircraft did not use inferior material. They used what was necessary. The titanium that was used on the SR-71 actually came from the USSR because the US didn’t have the metallurgical ability. What was that about inferior material again?

    • Anthony Lorenzo

      Titanium is abundant in Russia but the technology to use Ti alloys was invented by Lockheed. Availability of the metal doesn’t equate into the use of the technology to machine, weld, forge, etc. Beside who was dumb enough to sell a valuable strategic metal like Ti to the CIA?

  • David D

    The Russians lost the Cold War. Get over it commies!!!

  • Jorge Picabea

    …”you” never heard… The Swedish have radar tapes that show not a 31 but a Mig 25 flying 3 miles behind the 71over the sea…

  • Jorge Picabea

    I saw on TV an ex 71′ pilot that stated: ” We never penetrated Russian airspace” No need to… so no “Overflights”

  • Aivar Krisenko

    Mofo, reading your comments here and wanted to add something. “They have always been right on the money when it comes to Russians.” Really? You seriously believe this? Here’s the list of recent events that have been completely missed by your guys ( I guess you are referring to the US intelligence community ). A brief deployment of the Russian Backfire bombers to Hamadan air base to Iran a week ago. Russian deployment to Hmeimim air base and military involvement in Syria in September 2015. Russian takeover of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. An Arab Spring in the Middle East in 2011. And I’m not even talking about the biggies, such as WMD’s in Iraq in 2003, 9/11 attacks in 2001, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet Invasion in Afghanistan in 1979, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Tet Offensive in vietnam in 1968, the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and many others. So if I were you, I wouldn’t be so optimistic.