Russian MiG-31 Foxhound Shot Down Its Wingman During Disastrous Live Fire Exercise

The incident raises concerns about Russian training procedures, as well as the capabilities of the MiG-31's radar and other key systems.

Fedor Leukhin via Wikimedia

A new report, citing a leaked Russian government document, says that a crash of MiG-31 Foxhound in Siberia almost two years ago was actually the result of a friendly fire incident during a botched training exercise. In addition, the summary of the mishap suggests that there could be dangerous problems with the aircraft’s Zaslon-AM radar and Baget-55 fire control system that might increase the risk of more accidental shootdowns occurring in the future.

Baza, a relatively new Russian independent online investigative news outlet, revealed the new information on Apr. 23, 2019. The incident in question had occurred on Apr. 26, 2017, over the Telemba proving ground in Buryatia, a semi-autonomous republic within Russia that borders Mongolia. At the time, the Kremlin said that the plane had been on a training exercise, but offered no additional details about the mishap. Both of the Foxhound’s crew survived the incident.

"The plane crashed at a proving ground in an unpopulated area. Both pilots ejected themselves,” the Russian Defense Ministry had said in a statement. “They were promptly evacuated. Their life is not in danger.”

Until now, there had been no additional information about the mishap at all, which Baza’s story noted was unusual in of itself. The Russian government does not generally shy away from blaming crashes on pilot error or grounding entire aircraft fleets if an accident exposes a potential systemic issue with the plane in question.

Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia

A Russian MiG-31 Foxhound.

The report from Rosaviaprom, which oversees the country’s state-owned aviation and space enterprises, that Baza obtained does blame pilot error for the mishap. But it just so happens that they determined that the crew of the crashed plane and the craw in a second MiG-31 taking part in the training exercise were both at fault.

The investigators concluded that the crew in the plane that got shot down had improperly followed procedures, allowing them to stray into the potential line of fire during the live-fire exercise. It also faulted aviators flying the other Foxhound for turning on their Zaslon-AM’s fire control function at the wrong time, cueing an R-33 missile right at their wingman. They further blamed the pilot for firing the weapon when this individual should have known they were not engaging a target drone.

The R-33 is a very long-range air-to-air missile that can be loosely considered an analog for the American AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missile. It uses Inertial Navigation System guidance to get to the general target area after getting cued in the right direction by the launching aircraft. A semi-active radar homing system helps with initial target acquisition and then provides updated position information during the missile's mid-course flight profile. An active radar seeker in the missile kicks in during the terminal phase to guide it the rest of the way to the target.

Rosaviaprom's explanation of events isn't necessarily unrealistic. In August 2018, the pilot of a Spanish Eurofighter Typhoon accidentally fired an AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) during a training flight over Estonia. Thankfully no one was injured in that incident, which a subsequent investigation also blamed on pilot error. Video footage also emerged in 2017 showing a Russian Ka-52 alligator attack helicopter inadvertently firing rockets at observers during a training exercise.

It would also explain why Russian authorities might have decided not to publicize the cause of the 2017 crash. A steady stream of mishaps in recent years has raised questions about the readiness of Russia’s combat aircraft fleets and its aviators. A friendly fire incident during a training exercise, for any reason, is an embarrassment, in general.

But Baza uncovered a significant additional detail in its review of Rosaviaprom’s report. The MiG-31’s Zaslon-AM radar and its Baget-55 fire control computer, referred to collectively by the designation S-800, were not working properly at the time.

DOD

A MiG-31 at the Paris Air Show in 1991 with its radome removed, exposing the antenna for its Zaslon radar. Four R-33 missiles, among others, are arrayed in front of the plane, as well.

The S-800 armament control system is supposed to automatically alert the crew if they inadvertently target an aircraft with a known Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) signal. In this case, it classified the other MiG-31, which had a working IFF system, as an “alien target.”

Not only that, investigators found that personnel within the unit in question were aware of “abnormal operation” of the S-800 and that it was not necessarily uncommon. The report also blamed ground crews, who had been unable to determine the source or sources of the problem, for failing to monitor and report the issues.

But the investigation itself does not say when the problems may have first begun to present themselves, even approximately, or recommend any sort of suspension in live-fire training activities until the issue had been resolved, according to Baza. It also does not offer any explanation of what the issue or issues might have been that caused the misidentification.

MiG

A pair of MiG-31s.

Baza, citing anonymous sources, suggests that part of the issue might be the simple inability of the computer processors in the Baget-55 to handle all of the information from the massive Zaslon-AM radar. This unit is a passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar that actually consists of two distinct X- and L-band arrays working together.

The original Zaslon, which the Soviet Union developed in the late 1970s specifically for the MiG-31, holds a number of firsts, both in that country and internationally. It was the first PESA ever installed in a fighter jet and was also the Soviet Union’s first look down/shoot down radar. The original Argon-15A fire control computer associated with the radar was also the first digital computer for an airplane that the Research Institute of Computer Engineering had ever developed. 

The MiG-31 series is the only aircraft to ever carry the Zaslon, as well as its improved variants. The first improved version, the Zaslon-M, which featured a larger overall antenna.  Together with an improved version of the Argon computer, it could reportedly track up to 24 different targets and engage up to four opponents simultaneously. The Zaslon-AM further improves upon this with the more powerful Baget-55 in place of the earlier Argon types. 

The video below describes many of the capabilities of the MiG-31's Zaslon radar and associated fire control system.

There are reports that even the improved Baget-55 may not have enough power to support the plane’s massive radar. One source told Baza that the pilots had been using an “experimental” mode of operation that involved repeatedly switching the radar on and off in a sort of manually pulsed mode to reduce the workload on the fire control computer.

It is possible that this, or a severe lag in the processing of information, to begin with, might have prevented the system from recognizing the IFF signal properly. It might have also prevented that information appearing in a timely manner on the radar screens inside the cockpit. Baza says that the report it obtained does not offer any additional details in this regard.

The Baget-55 may also limit the functionality of the MiG-31’s 8TK infrared search and track (IRST) system, which the plane has an alternate means of spotting and identifying targets. Baza’s sources said that the IRST, another system with Soviet-era origins, is not 100 percent compatible with the new Baget-55 and, as a result, no longer has automated functionality. 

This all raises serious questions about the general capabilities of Russia’s premier long-range interceptor, which plays an extremely important role in defending large swaths of the country's airspace. Its high speed and long range make it ideal for dashing to meet potential threats across Russia, including its most remote areas, such as the increasingly strategic Arctic region.

The Zaslon-AM’s look down/shoot down capabilities, originally intended to spot and target low-flying American B-1 and B-52 bombers, means the planes also reportedly have the ability to shoot down low-flying cruise missiles, too. The improved MiG-31BM also has encrypted datalinks that allow it to share information from its powerful radar – when it’s working properly – with other aircraft and control centers on the ground.

Of course, if these problems are not uncommon, it raises the question about why there has only been one actual incident of friendly fire, even just since the introduction of the Zaslon-AM on improved MiG-31BM aircraft four years ago. This could mean the issue may be linked more to exactly how the crew was operating the radar in this case, whether this was an “experimental” procedure or not.

There is always the possibility that there have been other close calls that the Kremlin has kept hidden over the years, too. In this particular case in Siberia, the IFF system on the other MiG-31 may have been working, but also improperly configured for some reason and was sending out a code that would not register as friendly. The investigators might not have been able to confirm this depending on what they could recover from the crash and what other radar and IFF data was available to them after the incident.

It’s also not clear why the two planes, had they been training together, would not have been aware of each other’s relative positions. It seems curious that the pilot in the aircraft that launched the missile would not have realized the “target” was exactly where their wingman should have been and that their companion was not on the radar at all. That a friendly aircraft was ever in the potential danger area during a live shoot certainly does call into question how the exercise was structured and whether the crews followed proper procedures, as the official investigation notes.

If nothing else, the report, and Baza's analysis of its contents, underscores just how much remains unknown about the incident. Key details about the entire chain of events are absent, including the relative ranges and altitudes of the two MiG-31s, what they expected the actual mock threat to look like, the rules of engagement for the live shoot, and any of the other specific exercise parameters.

With this report out in the open now, more details may emerge in the future that will help further clarify what happened in the sky over Buryatia in 2017. But if the incident was a case of friendly fire, the Kremlin will continue to have incentives to withhold information that could not only be embarrassing, but that might call into question the capabilities of a central component of Russia's air defense network.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com