Despite efforts to keep it secret, details of a 2017 training accident got out after one Russian MiG-31 fighter shot down another MiG-31 with a radar-guided air-to-air missile. The reason for the secrecy was that it was embarrassing for the Russian Air Force, especially since there were so many safety measures in place to make it difficult for such friendly fire losses to occur in combat. But having this happen during training was particularly upsetting because of additional safety measures and a less stressful atmosphere.
The accident report document was leaked by persons unknown and that report made it clear what went wrong. The incident took place at a Siberian air force facility in a thinly populated area where aircraft could use their weapons. Drone aircraft were used as targets for training that involved firing air-to-air missiles at a real target. Two MiG-31s were operating together, as they would in combat. One MiG-31 was to fire an R-33 air-to-air missile at the target drone and destroy it. The other MiG-31 was the “wingman” providing protection for the other. In this case, the main task of the wingman, which was shot down during the exercise, was to stay out of the line-of-fire of the missile firing MiG-31.
The wingman was shot down because he got between the missile firing MiG and the target drone at the wrong time. Instead of waiting for instructions from the training exercise commander on the ground, who was monitoring the position of both MiGs and the drone, the navigator in the MiG carrying the missile allowed the MiG 31 fire control radar to designate the wingman as the target rather than the target drone. The pilot of the Mig, who always decides when to launch, then launched the R-33 missile without double checking, as he was supposed to do during a training exercise, that the aircraft fire control system was locked on to the correct target. The R-33 guidance system uses a radar signal detector. The firing aircraft turns on its fire control radar and indicates to the missile before launch which, of many aircraft the radar can see, is the target. The R-33 then goes after the target by using location data from the firing aircraft and what the R-33 radar detector detects bouncing off the designated target aircraft. No one in the air or on the ground seemed to notice that the R-33 was headed for the other MiG-33 and not the target drone until it was too late. Fortunately for the pilot and navigator in the targeted MiG-31 their aircraft was not immediately destroyed when the R-33 went off near them. Both were able to eject and land safely while their heavily damaged aircraft crashed. Since everyone involved survived and the entire incident was tracked by ground radar, it was soon clear what had gone wrong. The incident was not reported as a training accident involving an R-33 missile, but rather a MiG-31 running into technical problems on a training flight that caused the aircraft to crash. There were certainly technical problems, but with the way Russia trains and supervises its pilots.
The Russian government wanted to keep details of this incident secret because there have been several embarrassing “accidents” like this since the 1990s. During these incidents, high-tech aircraft and warships were lost due to sloppy performance by the crews. For example in 2000 a new nuclear sub (the Kursk) was lost when sailors had problems with a torpedo that was to be used for training. While still submerged some crewmen removed the torpedo from the torpedo tube. They then began examining the torpedo and the torpedo exploded, destroying the Kursk and its 118 man crew. Eight years later another nuclear submarine suffered 20 dead when, while submerged, one of the crew turned on part of the fire suppression system which killed or injured 61 people on board.
The Mig-31 incident was rare but not unique. Before long-range radar-guided air-to-air missiles became common there were jet fighters shot down by their own cannon shells. This happened because as jet fighters became faster, the possibility of an aircraft running into its own shells became possible and in 1956 there was the first recorded instance of it. An American aircraft builder (Grumman) was testing its first supersonic fighter, the F-11 Tiger. On a test flight, the pilot fired a long burst of shells from its four 20mm autocannon. The F-11 then descended and increased speed. The 20mm shells were also descending and rapidly losing speed. The F-11 caught up with some of these shells, which were ingested by the air intake and caused the engine to fail. Others hit the pilot canopy and killed the test pilot. The aircraft crashed but, when it was recovered and the wreckage reconstructed, it was clear what had happened. Ever since then pilots are warned about accelerating in the direction of just fired 20mm shells. There have been a few subsequent incidents of pilots getting hit by their own cannon shells, but none as dramatic as the F-11 incident.
There have been other accidents with the 20mm autocannon still used by many warplanes but now mainly for ground attack. In early 2018 two soldiers driving a rented SUV about five kilometers from an air force live firing range in Utah got hit by some friendly fire. It was at night, and an F-16 that thought it was firing at something in the live fire area, lit up the nearby (driving just outside the firing range) SUV instead. The two soldiers survived, as did the SUV (sort of, it was hit six times). For months nothing was heard about the F-16 pilot and how he managed to screw up. Eventually, details of how it happened surfaced.
The F-16 pilot was carrying out night training at a Utah Test and Training Range. The SUV was hit because the pilot was momentarily distracted while closing in on a target about 2.5 kilometers from where the SUV was moving down a road just outside the training area. Only 70 20mm rounds were fired. That was why the two people in the SUV were only injured. Both were cut by flying glass and the passenger got a dislocated shoulder as he rapidly exited the vehicle when it quickly turned off the road and stopped after being hit.
The pilot, a veteran of over 800 flight hours in F-16s, was immediately grounded. The pilot was wearing night vision goggles, which are notoriously tricky to use. ("Like looking through a straw" is the most typical user description.
The wingman in a nearby F-16 was using a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, which is preferred, but costs a lot more (as in about a million dollars) than the night-vision goggles. So pilots train with both but prefer the targeting pod. The wingman had illuminated the correct target with the pod's laser designator. But flying low enough to strafe at night requires that the pilot pay close attention to altitude and the ground. One F-16 was lost in Iraq when it came in low at night to use the 20mm cannon and hit the ground. The pilot died. As a result, the air force has encouraged pilots to train more for these kinds of operations.
The 20mm fire is appreciated by ground troops because it can be very accurate, especially in an urban environment, with lots of innocent civilians close by. The terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan like to hide out among civilians, and often the only solution for that (if you can't send in some troops) is to put a few dozen 20mm shells into the room where the bad guys are.
"Training errors" are normally not something a pilot gets punished for. That's what training is all about. Making mistakes and learning to do it right. But the shot up SUV and two shaken soldiers bring back memories, especially among infantry and marines, of the many friendly fire incidents there have been since 1945. Not so much anymore, thanks to smart bombs and GPS. But the memories fade slowly and there are still opportunities for friendly fire.