The end of the Cold War in the 1990s, and the former Soviet Union’s free and easy export of armaments, led to some utterly bizarre events. One of these is the surprising fact that the US Navy operated an advanced Soviet missile until 2007.
The Kh-31 anti-shipping missile terrified the US navy, skimming across the sea at close to Mach 3 and packing a 200-Ib high explosive warhead it had the potential to make mincemeat of the US Navy. The far slower (Mach 0.92) Exocet missile had wrought havoc on the Royal Navy in the 1982 Falklands War, so the Soviet Kh-31 was an extremely credible threat.
To develop counter tactics and test defensive weapons the Navy needed a target drone that could accurately simulate the weapon’s attack profile and performance. The Martin Marietta AQM-127 Supersonic Low-Altitude Target (SLAT) began test flights in 1987, but the project proved a joke – with only one of the initial test flights going to plan. Martin Marietta went back to the drawing board for twenty two months, before test flying a new improved SLAT in November 1990, however this test also failed – as did another attempt in 1991. While this was happening, the US’ traditional ‘cold’ enemy, the Soviet Union had disintegrated.
In the chaos that followed, the cash-strapped republics and individuals sold everything that could be sold, and made unlikely alliances (the fruits of one of these collaborations — the F-35B’s propulsion system — can be observed today). So it was that the US Navy bought the best possible system to portray the Kh-31, the Kh-31 itself!
In 1995, a contract was awarded to McDonnell Douglas for evaluation of the Kh-31 in the Supersonic Sea-Skimming Target role, this was an FCT (Foreign Comparative Testing) programme, which would evaluate a version of the Zveda-Strela Kh-31A missile as a target drone.
The Kh-31 was fitted with a US tracking beacon, telemetry and self-termination systems — and suitable suitable interfaces for fitment on the QF-4 Phantom II (the F-16N was also considered). Designated MA-31 for US service, the first launch of the missile took place in August 1996. It was evaluated against an improved MQM-8, and unsurprisingly proved superior. A contract for 34 missiles was placed in 1999.
The MA-31 targets were expended by the end of 2007. With the Duma now refusing export clearance, Boeing’s further upgraded proposal rejected and the arrival of the new GQM-163 Coyote – the MA-31 was retired.
— Special thanks to Thomas Newdick
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