Let’s talk airplanes, and let’s be brief about it.
War, whether it’s hot or Cold, seems to make for really rapid advances in technology. We’ve seen that in our discussions of the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and General Dynamics (now Lockheed) F-16 Fighting Falcon. I think it’s been interesting to discover how each mark sort of led to the next. The F-15 was the be-all, end-all air superiorty fighter, but its expense meant a cheaper variant would be needed for true mass sproduction. Enter the F-16, one of the most capable multi-role fighters in the world.
But the U.S. Air Force didn’t corner the market on forward thinking. Our Cold War opponent didn’t sit idly by. The Soviets had built the MiG-25 Foxbat, which looked to be a fighter of awesome potential (and directly led to creation of the F-15). Reality found it to be a straight-line, flat-out, high-speed interceptor…and little else.
But Soviet intelligence was picking up signals that the U.S. was working on a “stealthy” supersonic bomber (what turned out to be the gorgeous B-1 Lancer) and low-altitude, high-subsonic-speed guided missiles (the now-famed cruise missiles that can be launched from numerous and varied platforms). Foxbat was good at altitude, but it couldn’t fly well at low altitude and its technology was outdated.
So the Soviets created the MiG-31 Foxhound, which is sort of the “son of Foxbat” while simultaneously being the bigger brother. The new mark featured bigger engines, a bigger fuselage, bigger wings, and way bigger fuel tanks. First flown on September 16, 1975, it was labelled as an “air superiority” aircraft (like the Eagle), but in truth was just a larger, badder interceptor with a little better maneuverability. To its merit, its performance “on the deck” was vastly improved. Stronger wings meant the Foxhound could now achieve supersonic speeds at low altitude, a nice feature when trying to close the distance on a cruise missile.
And oh, by the way, it only possessed the most powerful radar ever seen in an aircraft that didn’t have a large, rotating dish on top of it. If you ever needed to burn holes in stuff, the Zaslon S-800 could probably fill the bill. Most radar systems of the day were fine for scanning the skies, but when the radar was tilted toward the earth, ground clutter made it nearly impossible to find low-flying objects. The Foxhound’s look-down, shoot-down radar (the first of its kind in any plane) was powerful enough to burn through the noise and find the target.
A B-1 at 60,000 feet? No problem. A low-altitude penetration using F-111 Aardvarks? The Foxhound had it covered. A cruise missile? I see it…I got it.
Ok, that’s some of the detail. What the Soviets really had with the Foxhound was a slightly slower (and much heavier) Foxbat with a better overall performance envelope holding a truckload of fuel and a killer radar. When the SR-71 Blackbird was retired in the early 1990s, the Foxhound took over as the high-speed king. But by then, the Soviets were looking at bankruptcy and building aircraft, particularly those of a 1970s design and a 1950s mentality, just didn’t make sense. Foxhound production was limited to a couple hundred examples.
Many are still flying in the Russian air forces and have been updated considerably. They’re expensive to fly and maintain, but it’s still a capable aircraft, due more to the improved radar technology and superb missiles they carry than to the airframe itself.
That wasn’t very brief…