Exactly 30 years ago a new combat aircraft appeared in the skies over Russia. Without firing a missile, the MiG-31 achieved what Soviet air defence had been attempting for years – send the SR-71 spy plane into early retirement.
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.
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.
Why Was MiG-25 unable to Intercept SR-71?
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.
MiG-31 Foxhound Russia Answer to SR-71 Blackbird
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.
When Captain Mikhail Myagkiy Achieved a RADAR lock on SR-71
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 an 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 practical 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 the 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 a 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 spy plane, 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.