|MiG-31, obsolete aircraft... But not obsolete concept.|
Recently, Russian officials have admitted to developing a MiG-31 replacement. This sparked some interest from aviation enthusiasts who have long believed the MiG-31 "Foxhound" was little more of a remnant of the Cold War and would see retirement as the PAK FA and Su-35 became the prevalent fighters in the Russian inventory.
Why does this seem odd? Because in this age of "multi-role" jet fighters, when even the F-22 Raptor is equipped for ground attack, The Foxhound is decidedly single purpose: Interception.
Before the time of ICBMs, interceptor aircraft were all the rage during the Cold War. The concept was simple enough, aircraft built to engage invading enemy bombers as quickly and from as far out as possible. Speed, range, and time-to-climb were the ultimate benchmarks of an interceptor's performance. Powerful radars were needed to detect and lock on to hostile threats. Since bombers are rather ungainly, maneuverability was a secondary concern.
|The F-14, last of the Western interceptors?|
So why is Russia so keen on replacing a single purpose interceptor like the MiG-31? For one thing, Russia's sheer size means that a long-range, high-speed interceptor makes sense. Another reason is to ensure a platform capable of launching long-range "AWACS killer" missiles like the Vympel R-37. With the retirement of the F-14, the U.S. military has lost its capability of launching the similar AIM-54 Phoenix, now relying on variations of the AIM-120 AMRAAM.
|RAF E-3 Sentry AWACS.|
Needless to say, these AWACS make tempting targets, and their physical size and considerable radar emissions make them easy to detect and lock on to. Fighter escorts are pretty much standard procedure, but fast, long-range missiles (like the Mach 6 R-37) can be fired from almost 400km away, far enough away for a fast interceptor like the MiG-31 to safely launch its missile and escape at near Mach 3 speeds.
How big of a tactical advantage is this? Consider a 2008 Rand report that painted a bleak picture of US forces against a hypothetical air war against China in the south Pacific. Even assuming superiority for American F-22s and F-35s against Chinese fighters (12:1 kill ratio), US fighters would run out of missiles before they ran out of targets, and the supporting AWACS and aerial tankers would likely be lost. More realistically, the Chinese forces would be much closer to American F-22s and F-35s in performance and kill ratios.
As more details of the Chinese J-20 are revealed, it is beginning to look more like the aircraft will also be more than capable of the intercept role. Plenty of internal missile space, along with an abundance of fuel, could give it superior range and payload to the F-22 or PAK FA, whilst sacrificing agility. No doubt about it, a stealthy, long range interceptor armed with "AWACS killer" missiles would give any invading force pause.
|The "Canadian Foxbat" the Avro Arrow.|
Is the interceptor concept due for a comeback? Will supercruising, long-range, high-altitude jets fitted with extremely long-range missiles make a return with the Asia-Pacific shift?
If so... Should Canada look into its own "Foxhound"?