Russia’s Old MiG-29 Fighter is Still a Strong Seller: Fulcrum Exports Continue Worldwide

The MiG-29 Fulcrum twin-engine medium-weight aircraft is the oldest Russian fighter class still in production today, with the class having first entered service in 1982 and production lines remaining operational today. 

The fighter program has been overshadowed by the successes of the Su-27 Flanker series and its successors the Su-30, 33, 34, and 35, three of which are in production simultaneously today. 

While the Su-27 was a heavyweight fighter that first entered service in 1985, the MiG-29 was designed to be lighter, deploy from shorter runways, be produced in larger numbers, and have lower maintenance needs and operational costs. Both fighters were developed parallel and both saw their first flights in 1977. 

The MiG-29 program suffered from the collapse of the Soviet Union as domestic orders were almost totally halted, the bulk of the fleet of around 800 aircraft was placed in reserve storage, and investment in modernizing the design was cut as modernization of the Su-27 and its derivatives were prioritized. 

The MiG-29 nevertheless saw a number of improvements made, most notably for the development of the MiG-29M which was expected to enter service in the hundreds in the 1990s before the Soviet collapse terminated such plans. 

The MiG-29M represents the most radical and ambitious iteration of the Fulcrum fighter and saw the airframe redesigned to optimize performance. Its service life was increased to 4000 hours, and maintenance was made easier and operational costs were lower relative to older variants. 

The fighter’s RD-33MK engines ensured superior flight performance, while the integration of the Zhuk-ME radar provided much greater situational awareness. Integration of the MSP-418K active jammer pod built to spoof radar-guided missiles, and the T220/e targeting pod to increase precision for air to ground strikes, were major improvements. 

Missiles such as the Kh-35 cruise missile and R-77 air to air missile, were important improvements. The MiG-29M was redesigned as a lighter more durable aircraft using new composite materials, with extensively redesigned air intakes and an internal fuel capacity which was increased. Along with in-air refueling capabilities, this provided a much higher endurance. 

While the MiG-29M is the only variant of the fighter in production today, older variants have been kept disassembled in storage and have been built and modernized for export - with many of the upgraded variants using technologies developed for the MiG-29M. 

Technologies developed for the MiG-29M heavily influenced other modernization efforts such as the MiG-29SMT, with the offering of an SMT upgrade package allowing countries to field many of the capabilities of the M variant without needing to acquire newly built post-Soviet airframes. This was particularly important due to the sheer numbers of MiG-29s built during the Soviet era. 

The most notable parts of the upgrade package are the integration of the RD-33MK engines and Zhuk-ME radar, as well as dorsal fuel tanks to increase the fighter’s endurance. Russia currently offers both newly built MiG-29M airframes for export, as well as several of these cheaper aircraft based on the MiG-29A airframe but modernized with such ‘4+ generation’ features. 

Recent clients for the MiG-29M have included Egypt and Algeria which respectively purchased 46 and 14 airframes in 2015 and 2020. The Algerian purchase was notably made to replace older Cold War-era MiG-29 airframes, with the newer variants having both superior performance and a lower operational cost. Both countries purchased them alongside higher-end and heavier fighters - Algeria the Su-30MKA and Egypt the Su-35. 

Two countries that showed an interest in the MiG-29M, but ended up acquiring lower-end variants based on the older MiG-29A airframes in storage, were Serbia and Syria. Serbia’s interest in the MiG-29M was reported in 2012, although economic difficulties prevented the purchase from going through. 

The country instead received modernized six second-hand MiG-29s from Russia in October 2017 as aid. It had previously received surplus MiG-29s from Belarus. Syria reportedly placed an order for two squadrons of MiG-29Ms in the late 2000s, alongside S-300 air defence systems and possibly MiG-31 heavy interceptors, although this was canceled due to the outbreak of a Western-backed insurgency in the country in 2011. 

The country received MiG-29SMTs in 2020, which were modified MiG-29A airframes with MiG-29M avionics, sensors, engines, and weaponry but which used the older airframe. It has been speculated that these were received at a very favorable price and could be acquired in larger numbers to rebuild the country’s air defense capabilities and counter ongoing airspace violations by Israel and Turkey. 

A leading client for the MiG-29, and its largest foreign operator, remains the Indian armed forces which was the first export client for the jets and currently operates over 150. 

India placed orders for MiG-29UPG fighters in February 2019, and again in July 2020, which closely resembles the MiG-29SMT but is modified to meet the country’s requirements. India first ordered the MiG-29A in 1985 and has modernized many of these old airframes. 

The fact that these are based on the older MiG-29A airframe means that they can be assembled quickly and modernized from Russian reserves, and can be supplied faster than newly built MiG-29M airframes could be. India also deploys the MiG-29K airframe, which is based on the MiG-29M but is modified for the country’s Navy and is capable of deploying from aircraft carriers. This is the most capable MiG-29 variant in Indian service, and further orders are expected for the country’s expanding carrier fleet. 

Other recent orders have come from the Libyan National Army, which received new airframes in May 2020 of unknown designation which is reportedly flown by Russian military contractors. A dozen fighters are reportedly in service in Libya. 

Another possible client which is rumored but not confirmed to be receiving new MiG-29 airframes is North Korea, which has fielded the MiG-29A since the late 1980s and purchased a production line to assemble the fighters in the 1990s. While a UN arms embargo has banned any sales of new fighters to the country, it has been speculated that unassembled airframes have been supplied and assembled in the country. 

If so, this would make North Korea a seventh recent client for the MiG-29. Despite failing to generate the publicity of sales of higher-end fighters such as the Su-30 or Su-35, the MiG-29 has sold abroad in larger numbers than any other Russian fighter class over the past 5-6 years with the MiG-29SMT and UPG variants being the cheapest fourth-generation aircraft the country offers for export. 

The MiG-29M and its close derivative the MiG-35 are expected to remain in production for several years to come, while modernized fighters based on the MiG-29A airframe are expected to continue to be offered for export as a cheaper option for many years to come with countries such as Syria and Serbia expected to continue to make purchases. 

Post a Comment

If you have any doubt comment me.

Previous Post Next Post