MiG-31K Jets Deploy to Kaliningrad: ‘Dagger’ Hypersonic Missiles Pointed at the Heart of Europe

The Russian Air Force has made its first ever deployment of MiG-31K Foxhound aircraft to Kaliningrad, marking a significant expansion of its tactical strike capabilities in the region at a time of rising tensions between the country and the NATO alliance. Kaliningrad lies on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania, and is isolated from the Russian mainland further east. Deployments of missile systems to the territory allow Russian forces to reach far further into NATO territory, with Foxhounds in Kaliningrad able to engage targets across Europe excluding only Spain and Portugal without leaving the territory's airspace using the 2000km range of the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal 'Dagger' hypersonic ballistic missile. The MiG-31, although designed as an interceptor airframe, was developed into a strike fighter as the MiG-31K specifically to deploy the Kinzhal which, due to the missile’s extreme weight, can only be carried by such large aircraft. The aircraft first entered service from late 2017. 

The Kinzhal missile has a Mach 10 speed and high manoeuvrability, making it effectively impossible to intercept and thus providing a reliable means of delivering both nuclear and conventional strikes with precision against targets over a wide area. Should MiG-31s leave the safety of Kaliningrad’s airspace, they will be able to engage targets far out across the Atlantic Ocean combining their own high combat radii with the long ranges of their missiles. The MiG-31’s deployment follows a prior deployment of Iskander tactical ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad from December 2014 after tensions with NATO escalated that year, with the Iskander similarly being designed to be difficult to intercept but having a much shorter 500km range. It also follows the deployment of MiG-31K jets with Kinzhal missiles to the Arctic in growing numbers from the late 2010s, to Russia's northwestern borders with NATO in December 2020, and to Syria from June 2021 as the jets are prioritised for key frontline positions with high tensions. The number of MiG-31K aircraft in service, and the number intended for commissioning, remains uncertain, but the aircraft represent a wholly unique asset in the Russian arsenal with unmatched speeds and altitudes and a weight heavier than any combat jet other than bombers. 

The deployment of MiG-31K jets follows prior deployments of more capable Russian weapons systems to Kaliningrad, including the first Su-30SM2 ‘4++ generation’ fighters just a few weeks prior. With Russian forces overwhelmingly outnumbered and outspent by NATO in Europe, the Kinzhal missile provides an asymmetric means of tacking adversaries allowing Russian forces to neutralise targets such as airfields and command centres in a war’s opening stages. The fact that no Western country fields a comparable missile, nor a viable defence against attacks by manoeuvring Mach 10 ballistic missiles, makes the Kinzhal an area of technological strength which Russia can benefit from capitalising on. In parallel to strengthening forces at Kaliningrad, Russia has also redeployed S-400 defence systems and Su-35 fighters from its Far Eastern regions to reinforce its sole ally on the European continent Belarus. It remains uncertain how tensions in Europe may affect the Russian Defence Ministry’s acquisition plans, or whether they could stimulate budget increases and more funding for asymmetric programs such as the MiG-31K over the coming years. 

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