Ukraine deliberately aims ATACMS against Russian MiG-31 interceptors

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On Tuesday evening, the armed forces of Ukraine carried out a missile and drone attack on the Russian airbase Belbek in the temporarily occupied Crimea. The name of the base may be familiar to you because it is not the first time that Belbek has been the victim of a Ukrainian attack. In February of this year, the Ukrainians fired British Storm Shadow missiles at the airbase. 

Photo credit: Reddit

However, the attack on May 14 was apparently carried out with ATACMS missiles. Russian sources say at least 10 such missiles may have been used against the base. There are still no confirmed losses from the Russian side, but Ukrainian sources believe that at least two MiG-31 interceptors were destroyed on the runway. Two more S-400 launchers, as well as three suspected MiG-27 [or Su-27] aircraft, also fell victim to the ATACMS. 

If, for the average citizen, this news is another successful Ukrainian attack, for military strategists, it is more than just an attack. Because the target of the Ukrainians was most likely not the anti-aircraft launchers of the S-400 system, but the MiG-31 interceptors. They are a very serious asset of Russian combat aviation and directly influence the actions of Ukrainian aviation.

Photo credit: Russian MoD

MiG-31 and R-37 AAM

However, Ukrainian strategists undeniably aspire to confirm the purported strike on the MiG-31. The Russian Navy’s Su-27s are primarily medium-range air-to-air fighters, while the more robust MiGs operate in a long-range air-to-air capacity, wielding formidable R-37 radar-guided missiles with a range of up to 220 miles. 

The R-37, weighing half a ton, is deemed “particularly challenging to evade” by the Royal United Services Institute, and it has reportedly downed multiple Ukrainian aircraft. 

The mere presence of R-37-equipped MiG-31s in Crimea compels Ukrainian pilots to fly at lower altitudes to evade detection. This strategy significantly limits their radar visibility and their ability to engage targets with their own shorter-range missiles.

R-37 AAM

The Russian R-37 air-to-air missile is difficult to avoid primarily due to its long range and high speed. It can engage targets at distances up to 400 kilometers, which is significantly farther than many other air-to-air missiles. This extended range allows it to strike from beyond the reach of most defensive systems, giving enemy aircraft little time to react once the missile is launched. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The R-37’s high speed, reaching up to Mach 6, makes it extremely challenging for targeted aircraft to evade. The missile’s speed reduces the time available for enemy pilots to perform evasive maneuvers or deploy countermeasures, increasing the likelihood of a successful hit. 

The missile is equipped with an advanced guidance system that includes both inertial navigation and active radar homing. This dual-mode guidance allows the R-37 to maintain a high degree of accuracy throughout its flight, even in the presence of electronic countermeasures. The active radar homing capability enables the missile to lock on to and track moving targets independently in the terminal phase of its flight. 

The presence of the R-37 missile forces enemy fighters to fly at lower altitudes, often referred to as ‘flying into the treetops,’ to avoid detection and engagement. Flying at low altitudes helps aircraft stay below the radar horizon of the missile’s launch platform, reducing the likelihood of being targeted. However, this tactic comes with its own set of risks, such as increased vulnerability to ground-based defenses and reduced fuel efficiency. 

Photo credit: Medium

Ukraine wants fewer MiG-31s in the sky

Additionally, the psychological impact of the R-37’s capabilities cannot be underestimated. Knowing that an adversary possesses a missile with such a long range and high speed can influence the strategic and tactical decisions of enemy pilots, often leading them to adopt more conservative flight profiles to minimize exposure. This can limit their operational effectiveness and flexibility in combat scenarios.

Every MiG-31 that Russia loses makes the skies over Ukraine significantly safer for Ukrainian pilots. So far, there hasn’t been any confirmed loss of these aircraft in combat over Ukraine. 

Photo credit: MWM

The Russian Air Force only has about a hundred of these twin-engine, two-seat MiG-31s, and they are making extensive efforts to preserve them. When it became evident in April that Ukraine was acquiring ATACMS with a range of nearly 200 miles, Russia strategically relocated four MiG-31s from Primorsko-Akhtarsk in southern Russia, which is 200 miles from the front, to Privolzhsky, 500 miles from the front. 

However, all of Crimea falls within the range of the more distant ATACMS. This means that if Russia plans to maintain continuous air defense patrols over Crimea using MiGs armed with R-37s, they face some challenging decisions. They might have to station a small number of MiGs on the peninsula, despite the risk from ATACMS.

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