Russia is considering grounding its entire fleet of Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors because a lack of pilot flight hours is making the aircraft dangerous to fly.

Col Gen Victor Prudnikov, chief of Russia's air-defence force, says that, at the present level of annual flying, it is "shameful and criminal" to allow the Foxhound to remain in service. The MiG-31 is notorious for its demanding characteristics, with a tendency to depart from controlled flight at high altitude. Several aircraft have been lost in the past four years.

Prudnikov warns that"-if we don't succeed in improving the level of MiG-31 operations, I will prohibit the type from being flown". He adds that, while the Foxhound is a capable air-defence aircraft, it is "very complicated".

Prudnikov wants aircrew to record around 100 flight hours a year on the type. In 1996, air-defence-force interceptor crews flew an average of only 19h, because of a lack of funding. Along with a desperate shortage of crew hours, MiG-31 units are also pushed for spares.

Aircraft availability is poor, with some units having only 10-20% of their strength flyable at any one time. Perm Motors, which supplies the Foxhound's D30F-6 engine, has refused to sign a service contract for spares support and engine overhaul because it is already owed more than $17 million by the defence ministry and other Government departments.

Grounding several hundred Foxhounds would curtail the air-defence force's combat capability, leaving it reliant on Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers as its primary interceptor aircraft. The Foxhound is also the only aircraft which carries the Vympel R-33 (AA-9Amos) long-range air-to-air missile.

An upgraded variant of the MiG-31, the MiG-31M Fox-hound B, has been under development for around a decade, but is unlikely to ever to enter service.

The future of the air-defence force as an independent combat command is in doubt, with the likelihood that it will be absorbed into the Russian air force. Prudnikov says, however, that the air-defence force could form the core of an air and space-defence force.

Source: Flight International