In From the Cold on Russia’s delivery of the first of five M-31E Foxhound fighters to Damascus: No Cause for Alarm
While the Foxhound represents an upgrade for the Syrian Air Force, it’s hardly a world-beater, as implied by the Israeli daily. In terms of overall capabilities, the MiG-31 is roughly equal to the F-14 Tomcat, recently retired by the U.S. Navy. The Foxhound was the first Russian fighter with a true lookdown/shootdown capability, allowing it to find low altitude targets amid ground clutter, and engage them with a long-range missile, the AA-9 “Amos.” It’s cutting edge technology, circa 1982.
Like the older MiG-25, the Foxhound and its missiles are not optimized for dog-fighting. The MiG-31′s powerful radar (nicknamed “Flashdance) and the AA-9 were designed to engage non-maneuvering stand-off targets (like the B-52) and penetrating cruise missiles. Against a maneuvering, fighter-sized target, the AA-9 is much less likely to score a hit, despite its range and large size (the missile weighs over half a ton). In a dogfight against Israeli F-15s and F-16s, the MiG-31 would actually be at a disadvantage, given the “fire and forget” capabilities of the IAF’s AMRAAMs.
No doubt some MO readers will scoff at the idea that the MiG-31 is “roughly equal” to the F-14, but before you blow a gasket, remember that we’re talking about specifications on paper. In real-world performance, Russian-built hardware often (usually?) doesn’t live up to expectations even with skilled crews. It’s safe to say that Syrian flight crews, ground crews, and other assorted support personnel like controllers and mission planners aren’t exactly top-notch.
The ‘E’ model of the MiG-31 is an export variant with some systems downgraded from front-line Russian planes, though I don’t know which systems they are or how much the changes will affect capability. The planes are reworked aircraft from the Russian reserves, not new builds, and are being offered to customers as a replacement for MiG-25s. This is the first MiG-31E sale.
In From the Cold also notes that Syria will have to establish a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) program because they currently operate single-seaters almost exclusively.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Iranian “advisers” turn up at Syria’s Foxhound base; the Iranians have long experience with two-seat fighters, operating both the F-4 and F-14, and could provide some assistance in such areas as crew coordination, and the tactical “division of labor” between the pilot and WSO. However, the tactical proficiency of Iranian crews has also declined in recent years, so it’s debatable if Syria would gain anything from Iran’s WSO cadre.
What? Syria-Iran cooperation? Say it ain’t so!
Anyway, while Israel is completely justified in being concerned over any Syrian upgrades, MiG-31s aren’t going to have a significant impact on the balance of power, particularly since there will only be five of them.