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.
Image credit: Russian Air Force / MiG-31 Facebook page
Love this articles! Keep ’em coming!
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?
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.
The SR-71 did not need to slow down in a turn as it was thermal, not thrust, limited.
The Swedes couldget a lock on it because since it repeatedly flew the same mission near their airspace tranisting to and from the objectve, they’d know once they first saw it exaclty where and when it would be at a given point and how high. No evasive tactics or countermeasuers were employed by the SR. As Swedn’s airspace is concerned, the normal divert point was Norway, so for a mechanical they might have to divert through Swedish airspace, but we could get them on the phone real quick to get permission, depending on where the SR was when the abort decison was made. Who knows, we may even have had an agreement in place
Aslo getting a lock on against an SR flying a known course, speed and altitude and taking no defensive action does not indicate any real capability against the Blackbird.
Doesn’t this plane have a +100mile turning radius at Mach 3? Given that they had to follow certain wave points, I would assume that they would have had to slowdown to avoid flying off course? Especially over Europe where airspace boundaries are much closer?
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.
No, the decision was made because after the 1960 U-2 incident the U.S. promised the USSR it would never overly it. IIt was honoring that promise that kept the Blackbirds out of its airspace.
Aaaaaand the Blackbird had nearly 100 SAMs fired at it during the course of it’s flights ‘around’ Soviet airspace… and not one of them ever came close. I seriously doubt the MiG-31 would have ever been able to intercept the SR-71. By the time it was scrambled and made it up to 40k feet, the Blackbird was already long gone. It’s a pipe dream to think you can actively intercept any object moving at mach 3 at nearly 100k feet using another aircraft.
EXACTLY. The Foxbat would have needed to get off the ground and to altitude long before the SR-71 was ever detected, and since it was pretty stealthy (for the time) that was impossible. The MiG-25 was developed merely as a deterrent against something like the XB-70, which of course was cancelled. Besides, the Foxbat could really only touch mach 3 for a very short period of time, it wasn’t designed to continually cruise at mach 3+ like the SR-71 was. They were two totally different animals, in every measurable way.
I believe in a documentary the Russians began dumb firing sams at these guys based on positions they disappeared from and scrambled the radars. Some pilots recall seeing these missiles flying by them out cockpits
Today a satelite move faster and higher than any object that flew above on earth, and yet it can easily shot down by missiles
You’re not thinking rightly.The mig didnt have to chase the blackbird, it only had to meet it at a certain point(or more correctly close enough to engage with it’s missile).Thus the explanation of critical timing by the mig pilot in the article.
it NEVER “met” a Blackbird, period. Not that they didn’t try, every time
Met it on a regular basis and did simulated shoot downs
Then I guess as part of a rescue cap mission on alert for a week at a time in Bodo, Norway for SR71s coming over and out of Russian air space in 1967 and 68 I was part of some sort of hoax or false narrative. After all these years it’s good to know.
“The SR-72 should be quite safe”
I’m not holding my breath for even a prototype of the SR-72.
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).
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.
Skyflash electronic was completely unreliable, worst than the first aim9 from the 1950’s..
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…
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..