No Cause for Alarm
Israeli officials are expressing concern about Russia's delivery of MiG-31 Foxhound fighter jets to Syria. AFP, citing a Russian newspaper report, says the transfer of five Foxhounds to Syria has begun, and the deal should be complete by the end of the year. Russia also plans to sell an unspecified number of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters as part of the package, although there was no word when those aircraft would be delivered. Syria already has a small number of Fulcrums in its inventory, and was an early recipient of the MiG-25 Foxbat, forerunner of the Foxhound.
Israel's largest Hebrew-language daily, Yediot Aharonot, is sounding the alarm about the MiG-31 deal, complete with an inflated estimation of the Foxhound's capabilities, and dire warnings from a member of the Parliament:
The MiG-31, considered one of the best fighters in the world, can carry guided missiles with a range of more than 200 kilometres (125 miles) and is capable of striking 24 different targets simultaneously, the paper stated.
"This information is more concerning when put in the context of massive armaments purchases made recently by the Syrians," Yuval Steinitz, an MP from Israel's right-wing opposition Likud party, was quoted as telling the daily.
"If Syria acquires the MiG-31 we can no longer rule out the idea that this country is preparing for war," said Steinitz, a former chairman of Israel's defence and foreign affairs parliamentary committee.
While the Foxhound represents an upgrade for the Syrian Air Force, it's hardly a world-beater, as implied by the Israeli daily. In terms of overall capabilities, the MiG-31 is roughly equal to the F-14 Tomcat, recently retired by the U.S. Navy. The Foxhound was the first Russian fighter with a true lookdown/shootdown capability, allowing it to find low altitude targets amid ground clutter, and engage them with a long-range missile, the AA-9 "Amos." It's cutting edge technology, circa 1982.
Like the older MiG-25, the Foxhound and its missiles are not optimized for dog-fighting. The MiG-31's powerful radar (nicknamed "Flashdance) and the AA-9 were designed to engage non-maneuvering stand-off targets (like the B-52) and penetrating cruise missiles. Against a maneuvering, fighter-sized target, the AA-9 is much less likely to score a hit, despite its range and large size (the missile weighs over half a ton). In a dogfight against Israeli F-15s and F-16s, the MiG-31 would actually be at a disadvantage, given the "fire and forget" capabilities of the IAF's AMRAAMs.
Syrian pilots are also hampered by limited flying time (which reduces tactical proficiency) and a rigid command-and-control system that stresses ground control of intercepts. Without the ground controller to literally "guide" them through a tactical engagement, Syrian fighter pilots are typically clueless, making them easy meat for their IAF counterparts, who are among the best in the world.
In fact, there's a certain irony the Syrian Air Force's decision to acquire the MiG-31. With its on-board radar (and a weapons system operator or WSO in the back seat), the Foxhound crew can actually perform the tasks typically assigned to ground controllers. But "running" their own engagements would place Syrian pilots in an environment for which they are unprepared and untrained, leaving them at a severe disadvantage against the IAF.
Damascus also faces the challenge of essentially creating (or greatly expanding) a WSO training program, since most of its current fighters are single-seat models. It wouldn't surprise me to see Iranian "advisers" turn up at Syria's Foxhound base; the Iranians have long experience with two-seat fighters, operating both the F-4 and F-14, and could provide some assistance in such areas as crew coordination, and the tactical "division of labor" between the pilot and WSO. However, the tactical proficiency of Iranian crews has also declined in recent years, so it's debatable if Syria would gain anything from Iran's WSO cadre.
It's also significant that Damascus is not getting SU-27/30 Flanker airframes, easily the best Russian fighter currently on the world market. Syria has a heavy debt from past arms purchases from Moscow, and likely can't afford Flankers at this time. That gives Moscow a convenient pretext for offering the MiG-31 to Damascus, a jet they've tried to peddle in the past (with no success) in locations ranging from Malaysia to South Korea.
The Foxhound isn't a bad fighter. It's extremely fast, has a very capable radar, and long-range missiles. But it's hardly the optimum solution for a client (Syria) that faces tactically advanced adversary across the border in Israel. Against the IAF, five MiG-31s won't make much of a difference, although they will impress Bashir Assad as they streak overhead at the next military day parade.
As for the Israeli pundits and politicians, they'd be better occupied by concentrating on threats that really matter, namely Syria's growing missile arsenal, the long-range menace from Iran, and those rocket launchers in Gaza and southern Lebanon.