The Russian Air Force has inducted a new class of strike fighter into operational service, with the MiG-31I representing the latest variant of the MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor and the second to be designed for strike roles. The newly announced aircraft is a successor to the MiG-31K which first entered service in 2017 and was designed to carry the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air launched hypersonic ballistic missile. Little is known about the new MiG-31 variant, which also carries the Kinzhal missile, other than that it has integrated new electronics and has an improved flight performance. Some insight into the new fighter was provided by test pilot Igor Malikov who stated: “Any aircraft is constantly being improved. The new car, I think, will be much better in terms of reaching the given parameters. The electrical remote control system manages all processes. The computer receives all the data: speed, altitude, information from the Earth. All this makes the pilot’s work more comfortable. The system is constantly being developed specifically for this product, because it is large.” The designation MiG-31I was notably previously used in the 1980s to denote a proposed Foxhound variant for use launching spacecraft, which would have capitalised on the airframe’s very high speed and carrying capacity and its ability to conduct launches above the Armstrong Limit.
The MiG-31I was unveiled at Russia’s Victory Day parade in April, and again show at the Army 2020 arms exhibition from August 15. Three days later three of the new aircraft were deployed near NATO’s borders in the Kaliningrad enclave, Chkalovsk Airfield, where MiG-31Ks had first been deployed in February. The deployment was made “as part of additional strategic deterrence measures,” according to the Russian Defence Ministry, and “will be on round-the-clock combat alert at the Chkalovsk Airfield.” The aircraft trained to increase interoperability with fighter jets of the 6th Air Force and Air Defense Army and with the Baltic Fleet’s naval aviation, which was recently reinforced with new Su-30SM2 fighters. While it remains uncertain whether the MiG-31I airframes were upgraded from MiG-31Ks previously in service, or were newly brought into service from Russia’s very large reserves of Foxhound airframes in storage, the latter appears more likely considering that it was announced the MiG-31K will remain in service alongside the new fighter class.
The MiG-31K and Kinzhal missile first saw combat in March when launching strikes on Ukrainian military targets near the Polish border, although the Kinzhal missile is prized for its ability to engage much better defended targets including surface ships and command posts and airfields well protected by air defences. The missile’s high manoeuvrability and speed and very long 2000km range have made it particularly prized, although a lighter derivative designed to provide options for equipping MiG-31s with more missiles is reportedly also under development. Hypersonic tactical missiles have played a key role in allowing Russian to confront NATO forces asymmetrically despite the far smaller size of the country’s armed forces.