Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich developed the MiG-31 “Foxhound,” a supersonic interceptor aircraft, at the height of the Cold War. She was the successor and replacement of the MiG-25 “Foxbat,” sharing similar elements of the latter but better, particularly in speed. Taking off her maiden in 1975, she was initially commissioned into the Soviet Air Force in 1981, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, most of its units fell under the Russian Air Force, and over two dozen were operated by the Kazakh Air Force.

But like a fine wine, the MiG-31 aged well and remains among the fastest combat jets in history. The Russian Defense Ministry expects the MiG-31, now in her forties, to continue flying for another 2-3 years, if not longer. There are plans for developing its successor, known as the MiG-41, but little is known about her and much of what we do know may be hype.  The MiG-41 is way behind schedule in terms of its first test flights and the current war in Ukraine is not likely to make that happen any sooner.

MiG-31 General Specs

General specifications of a two-seater MiG-31 include two D-30F6 engines, which are responsible for the aircraft’s incredible Mach 3 at high altitudes and contribute to its base range of 1,900 miles. It also has an SBI-16 Zaslon fixed-phased array antenna radar for long-range and high-altitude air defense and can carry a Gsh-6-23 23mm cannon and a variety of long- and short-range missile combinations.

A photo of Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-31. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The MiG-31 has undergone numerous upgrades and modifications over the years, with the most successful being the MiG-31B, MiG-31BM, and MiG-31BSM, which will be the focus of this article.

MiG-31 BSM, F-22’s Worthy Opponent

BSM is an upgraded BS version with similar aspects to the BM standard, considered “the most capable active Russian jet in air-to-air combat.” It’s also among the heaviest in the world and, to some, a worthy opponent of the F-22. In contrast to the MiG-31 BS, the BSM has an air refueling probe and an upgraded aircraft canopy that enables her to go extensive distances at a cruise speed of 3,000 km/h without suffering damage.  That damage would be the heat generated by these high speeds melting the canopy.

While both versions carry powerful radars that can “detect stealth fighters at far greater ranges,” BSM has a new, faster central computer in addition to the multi-functional displays its pilots can operate. A rear-view periscope is another feature of BSM that is absent from BS standard, which is located above the front cockpit canopy.

According to a 2020 Military Watch Magazine report, the Foxhound appears to dominate the F-22 Raptor, especially with BSM. As mentioned, over the years, MiG-31 continues to improve better and better, while the F-22 performance, on the other hand, has ostensibly diminished—having to suffer from its “aging computer architecture,” “a scarcity of parts, and serious difficulties incorporating upgrades,” and the growing challenges it faces in the fleet’s maintenance. Early retirement for the Raptor is even on the table since the early 2020s.

The main advantages of the MiG-31 over the Raptor are its more powerful radar that would allow it to detect the Raptor well beyond the ranger of the Raptor’s missiles combined with the longer range of the MiG-31’s missiles. The Russian R-37 long-range air-to-air missiles can reach out twice as far as those on the Raptor at a hypersonic speed of Mach 6, while the US-made AMRAAM tops out at Mach 4.  The MiG is also faster which would allow it to maintain standoff range against an adversary.

Of course, this technical comparison does not take pilot skill and experience into account, and US pilots are far and away the best trained and most capable in the world, but tangling with a bunch of MiG-31 would be challenging to say the least.

In June this year, the House Armed Service Committee (HASC) insisted on upgrading the Raptor to at least “Block 30/35 mission systems, sensors, and weapon employment capabilities” rather than the initial proposal of the US Air Force to retire its 33 oldest units. Expensive to maintain, the USAF instead utilizes most of the Raptor for training. However, it’s “increasingly mismatched to the combat-coded versions,” having her as a training platform is somewhat useless. In addition, an Air Force official said upgrading these jets would cost roughly $1 billion.

The MiG-31 doesn’t dwell on similar issues, with retirement improbable. Not to mention that Russia is keen to keep the interceptor for at least the next ten years or until they finish developing a future generation aircraft that meets all of the standards of the Kremlin. The MiG-31 is Russia’s primary interceptor and they have some 370 of them in service.  Replacing them would be very expensive.

How About Vs. F-35?

It’s a different story, though, if we’d be pitting the MiG-31BSM against the mighty F-35A “Lightning II,” because for one, the former is undoubtedly no stealth fighter, and two, them crossing paths in combat would be unlikely. Yes, F-35 can definitely detect MiG-31 on her highly-advanced radar, but catching up on the latter would be a challenge since the Foxhound still has the speed advantage—which would be its best option if she doesn’t want to be shot down by the Lightning. This would put the MiG-31 in a defensive posture having to maintain high speeds to be able to thwart the F-35 from getting into position to fire a missile at her but will burn up fuel at a much faster rate and shorten her operational range.  Though it’s worth noting that F-35 is not purpose-built for dogfighting, but uses stealth to approach and shoot down a target while remaining undetected itself. Dog fighting is the job of her older sister, F-22.

Among the disadvantage of the F-35A is its costly maintenance, compared to the lost-cost upkeep of the MiG-35BSM. However, the fifth-generation platform recently announced that it has observed a steady decline and become more affordable for over a decade. On-going revamping of its equipment is also underway, including expanding its array of weapons, boosting its offense capabilities—becoming more lethal than ever.

While MiG-31 may be aging like a fine wine four decades after its first flight, this doesn’t guarantee its invincibility. The USAF may have been going through some rough patches to improve its combat jets, but they are still much newer than the venerable MiG-31 and are manned by pilots of unmatched skills.