Why is Russia Equipping its MiG-31 Interceptors with New Short Range Missiles?

The Russian military has begun to integrate new  R-74M short-range missiles onto its fleet of MiG-31BM/BSM heavyweights interceptors, with the new munition representing the most advanced munition of its type in Russian service and optimising for a high foresight targeting of enemy aircraft at extreme angles. 

The MiG-31 Foxhound first entered service in the Soviet Air Defence Forces in 1981, and is widely considered the most capable aircraft in active Russian service in terms of air to air combat performance. 

The aircraft’s Zaslon-M phased array radar provides a degree of situational awareness reported to surpass that of any Russian fighter, while the Foxhound’s ability to fly and operate its weapons at very high altitudes in space, its extremely high speed and endurance, and its access to powerful R-37 missiles with 400km ranges and 60kg warheads, between them make the MiG-31 extremely potent in beyond visual range combat which is the role for which it was originally developed. 

The interceptors' focus on long-range engagements, however, have brought to question why they were prioritised to receive Russia’s latest short-range missiles. 

Although unrivalled in speed, altitude and range, the MiG-31 is a very poor performer in close range combat with almost no ability to pull tight manoeuvres. 

Its powerful sensor suite is built around a radar optimised for long-range engagements, which is of little use in a close dogfight. The R-74, however, has the potential to give the MiG-31 more than a fighting chance in close-range engagements, allowing them to engage targets at more extreme angles and more reliably without the need to point the Foxhound’s nose towards them - or indeed anywhere near their direction. This heavily compensates for the Foxhound’s poor manoeuvrability and allows the aircraft to be utilised in new ways. 

The R-74M can notably also be used against lower value targets such as helicopters, cruise missiles and drones, allowing the MiG-31 to avoid relying on its R-37s. The new short range missile is the third which MiG-31s have used since entering service, following on from the R-60 and the R-73. 

Compared to the R-73, the R-74 has seen its maximum launch range has increased from 30km to 40km, can fire on targets as near as 300m away, and can change its target during flight due to the use of a more sophisticated seeker. 

Use of new gas-dynamic rudders play an important role in allowing the R-74 to engage targets at more extreme angles with greater maximum overload and grip angles. As MiG-31s have come to be relied on more heavily, particularly in the Arctic, integration of the R-74 represents an important step towards modernising the aircraft. 

Although when it entered service the MiG-31 was highly specialised as an interceptor built for air to air combat, the wide range of new upgrades ranging from anti-satellite and ballistic missiles to cruise missiles and now a new very potent generation of IR guided missiles, have made it a highly versatile aircraft and possibly the most versatile in Russian service. 

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