A pair of Russian MiG-31K Foxhound jet fighters armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles has touched down for the first time in Syria, which is also the first trip anywhere outside of Russia for these aircraft and weapons. These converted interceptors are joined by Tu-22M3 Backfire-C bombers at Khmeimim Air Base in Syria’s coastal Latakia province, marking the second time the latter type has been deployed to the country in the space of a month. These aircraft are ostensibly in the country to take part in exercises in the eastern Mediterranean Sea that will also include other types of planes, as well as Russian warships and submarines.
The deployment to Syria of these aircraft — reportedly together with Il-38 May anti-submarine planes — comes just days after the U.K. Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth launched its first combat missions against ISIS militants in Iraq from its position in the eastern Mediterranean. According to official Russian accounts, “one of the objectives of the exercises will be to monitor the actions of the [British] aircraft carrier group.”
With the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender having broken off from providing an escort to HMS Queen Elizabeth and entering the Black Sea, where earlier this week it incurred Russian wrath for its transit off the coast of Crimea, this show of force in the eastern Mediterranean has an added resonance, providing another demonstration of Moscow’s military power projection to the United Kingdom in particular.
News of these deployments to Khmeimim first emerged earlier today, with the Russian Ministry of Defense’s official television station, TV Zvezda, posting a video showing MiG-31Ks and Tu-22M3s arriving at the base. The clip also noted that joint exercises by the Russian Aerospace Forces and Russian Navy units had already begun.
Two different MiG-31Ks are seen in the footage, with the Russian registrations on their tailfins censored, but with the individual aircraft’s codes ‘Red 90’ and ‘Red 96’ clearly visible on the forward fuselages.
A subsequent video directly from the Russian Ministry of Defense shows one of these aircraft taking off with its huge Kinzhal missile, a single example of which can be carried on the centerline. A separate official statement said that the MiGs “have begun to fulfill the tasks of mastering the airspace of the region.”
Three Tu-22M3s are also seen in the footage — aircraft ‘Red 15,’ ‘Red 28,’ and ‘Red 50’ — two of which are armed with Kh-22 or Kh-32 series long-range cruise missiles. Of these Backfires, both ‘Red 15,’ wearing the Russian registration RF-94149, and thought to be home-based at Shaykovka in western Russia, and ‘Red 50,’ RF-34091, from Belaya in the Russian Far East, participated in the previous deployment to Syria, late last month.
The Backfires have already been flying simulated combat missions, according to the defense ministry. “Airplane pilots have gained practical skills to perform missions in new geographic areas,” said the commander of Long-Range Aviation, Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash. “Tasks were carried out to destroy the conditional enemy. The tasks were completed with high quality. Aviation technology has once again confirmed its high reliability. The flight personnel gained invaluable experience.”
TV Zvezda’s reporting has outlined the Russian maneuvers, which are also said to involve five Russian Navy warships, including the Slava class guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the Admiral Grigorovich class frigates Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov, as and the Improved Kilo class submarines Stary Oskol and Rostov-on-Don. All these are from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
In one of the first elements of the exercise that apparently began today, surface warships practiced their air defense skills “to repel enemy air attack weapons,” according to the defense ministry. In this scenario, simulated enemy aircraft flew a mock attack against a frigate with anti-ship missiles.
Also reportedly taking part in the drills are Il-38 and Tu-142MK Bear-F anti-submarine aircraft, though neither type has been seen in the imagery that has been released so far. According to the same source, the aircraft in the exercise will conduct “combat training tasks to ensure the security of the Khmeimim Air Base and the Russian Navy’s Tartus logistics center.”
“During training flights, aviation technology and equipment will be tested in difficult climatic conditions, including those caused by exposure to high temperatures and the possibility of long flights over the water,” the TV Zvezda report adds. “Aircraft crews will acquire practical skills to practice training tasks in new geographic areas.”
Earlier this year, The War Zone reported on how the airbase at Khmeimim was undergoing runway extension as part of a refurbishment of the base that will help it to accommodate bombers, like the Tu-22M3. The MiG-31, too, will likely benefit from these infrastructure improvements. The basic MiG-31 requires almost 4,000 feet of runway to take off, but that figure is certainly increased when carrying the Kinzhal.
When Russia first deployed Tu-22M3s to Syria, The War Zone suggested that it might be timed to coincide with the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is the centerpiece of Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21). That turned out not to be the case, but Russia has acknowledged that the second visit of Tu-22M3s (plus MiG-31Ks) to Khmeimim will include monitoring the British-led task group as it conducts operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
As we discussed before, the Tu-22M3 offers a powerful long-range anti-shipping strike capability, although now these aircraft all serve with the Russian Aerospace Forces, not the Russian Navy. Nevertheless, the aircraft is able to launch the 38-foot Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) and the improved Kh-32. These are powered by a liquid-fuel rocket and can reach a speed of over Mach 4 for the final run-in to the target. The missiles carry either a nuclear or high-explosive warhead. The maximum range after launch from high altitude is over 300 miles for the earlier Kh-22 and reportedly over 500 miles for the Kh-32.
The Kinzhal missile, meanwhile, which is currently carried exclusively by the MiG-31K, is one of the weapons unveiled by President Vladimir Putin in 2018, at which time he said it could deliver “nuclear and conventional warheads to a range of over 2,000 kilometers [1,243 miles],” flying at a hypersonic velocity, “10 times faster than the speed of sound.” The exact performance of the missile has not been verified, but, as The War Zone was first to report, it is adapted from the Iskander ballistic missile and its hypersonic velocity likely comes during the terminal phase of its attack as it dives on its target.
The Kinzhal — which has the Western reporting name Killjoy — can be used to attack ground or naval targets, with an active radar seeker enabling it to carry out anti-ship missions. While there are plans to field the MiG-31K and Kinzhal combination in Russian Navy units, so far, it has been deployed by the flight-test unit at Akhtubinsk in Astrakhan, southern Russia. The two aircraft at Khmeimim, ‘90 Red’ and ‘96 Red,’ are known to be associated with this unit, which carries out combat tests and evaluations.
Put together, the Tu-22M3s and MiG-31Ks with the warships and submarines of the Black Sea Fleet now reportedly in the eastern Mediterranean represent a very capable anti-shipping force, capable of launching a range of hypersonic, supersonic, and subsonic anti-ship missiles. In a combat scenario, these would be used in combination in an attempt to overwhelm the air defenses of a carrier group, for example.
With tensions between the United Kingdom and Russia already heightened as a result of the controversial passage of the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender through waters claimed by Russia off the coast of Crimea, the situation in the eastern Mediterranean is likely to be similarly pressured.
Beyond the immediate vicinity, the stationing of long-range maritime strike aircraft in Syria has provided another vector from which to project Russian military power in various directions. While the current exercise focuses on maritime warfare, the MiG-31K and Tu-22M3 are also equally capable of attacking objectives on land, with enough range to put most of Western Europe as well as a considerable chunk of North Africa and the Middle East at risk.
As long as CSG21 remains in the eastern Mediterranean and long-range Russian aircraft are operating from their deployment base in Syria, the two sides are likely to carefully monitor each other during the days to come.
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