Why Russian MiG-31K Jets with Mach 10 Hypersonic Missiles Just Made Their First Ever Deployment to Syria

The Russian Air Force has deployed MiG-31K Foxhound heavyweight combat jets to Khmeimim Airbase in Syria, its most active military facility outside the former USSR, following an expansion of the base’s runways in 2020. This follows the first ever deployment of Tu-22M supersonic bombers to the facility in May, with the longer runways being key to hosting such aircraft. Russian state media outlet RT referred to the MiG-31K as interceptors, and showed footage of them flying without their standard armament of Kh-47M2 hypersonic ballistic missiles - indicating that they may be deploying with air to air missiles as well such as the long range R-37. Interceptor variants of the MiG-31, the MiG-31BM and MiG-31BSM, are considered the country’s most capable aircraft in terms of air to air capabilities fielded at squadron level strength. Syria was reported to have previously shown an interest in acquiring the aircraft, which are prized for their unrivalled speed and engagement range and the very high degree of situational awareness provided by their Zaslon-M radars. 

The MiG-31K entered service from 2018, and alongside the Tu-22M it is one of just two aircraft in the Russian Air Force capable of deploying Kh-47M2 missiles. The Kh-47M2 has no near peer competitors outside Russia, and benefits from very high precision, a Mach 10 speed and a 2000km range. The missiles are prized for being able to engage both warships and ground targets, and for having the ability to deploy both conventional and nuclear warheads. Their speed combined with high manoeuvrability makes them almost impossible to intercept. 

Khmeimim Airbase was established in August 2015, shortly before the Russian military intervention in Syria, and initially deployed aircraft needed to support Syrian counterinsurgency efforts such as Su-25 ground attack jets and Su-24 strike fighters. These were reinforced from November 2015 with air superiority fighters such as the Su-27SM3 and later the Su-35. More recently, with the outcome of the Syrian War effectively decided, Russia has deployed longer ranged weapons systems which provide it with options to strike targets across Europe from NATO’s more vulnerable southern flank. The high endurance and very long engagement ranges of the Tu-22M and MiG-31 - the two heaviest combat jets ever deployed to Khemeimim - makes them ideal fo such missions.

The deployment of the MiG-31K closely follows the deployments of a joint British and American carrier strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean not far from Syria’s coast, and comes amid a spike in tensions between Moscow and London. An official statement said that the Foxhounds “have begun to fulfil the tasks of mastering the airspace of the region” indicating a role beyond air to ground strikes. The deployment may be intended to familiarise personnel with operating Foxhounds from the airbase, with more MiG-31s intended to follow, and could in the long term potentially also familiarise the Syrians with operating the advanced combat jets which may eventually be chosen to replace the ageing MiG-25 Foxbats that currently form their air force's elite.

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