On March 18 Russia’s newest strike fighter the MiG-31K saw its first combat mission supporting the country’s war effort in Ukraine with a strike on a Ukrainian arms depot near the Polish border. The attack came as facilities in western Ukraine have increasingly been targeted in a number of precision strikes, and as open hostilities between the two Soviet successor states approach their first month after having begun on February 24. The MiG-31K itself has been in service for little over four years, having joined the Russian Air Force in late 2017 and been officially unveiled in March the following year. Other than heavy bombers, it is the heaviest combat jet fielded anywhere in the world and has played an increasingly central role in Russia’s defence since 2017. The aircraft is a modification of the MiG-31 heavyweight interceptor, which was designed exclusively for air to air combat and entered service in the Soviet Air Force in 1981 – although it is still widely considered the most capable aircraft in the Russian Air Force in terms of air to air performance. The MiG-31K capitalises on the aircraft’s very large airframe, high carrying capacity and high endurance to integrate a large ballistic missile, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, which due to its size cannot be carried by lighter aircraft and can only be carried one per airframe.
The MiG-31K is hardly the only modification of the Foxhound to operate in roles other than air to air combat, with the airframe also used for anti satellite warfare initially under the MiG-31D program. The Kinzhal missile which was used by the aircraft in its combat operation in Ukraine is in many respects the world’s most capable tactical missile, and combines a hypersonic Mach 10 speed with high manoeuvrability and a long 2000km range sufficient to reach targets across Europe other than the Iberian Peninsula without the launching aircraft leaving Russian airspace. The missile provides an asymmetric means of tackling the much larger forces fielded by NATO, with strikes on airfields, troop concentrations and other key targets in a war’s early stages potentially doing enough damage to partly compensate for Russia’s immense material disadvantages. The missile is also highly capable in an anti shipping role, allowing MiG-31K jets to threaten enemy warships well beyond retaliation range across much of the Atlantic and Western Pacific and potentially much further still if refuelling in the air. The employment of the missile in Ukraine on a target near the Polish border represents an important show of force to NATO, and comes as Russian after redeployed MiG-31K jets to its westernmost bases in Syria and Kaliningrad shortly preceding the commencement of its operations. The aircraft have also previously been deployed to the increasingly contested Arctic region, with the Foxhound airframe well optimised for operations in such conditions.