MiG-29 vs. Su-27: The Soviet Union's Two Top Fighters Went Head to Head in an East African Air War

The MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker entered service in the Soviet Air Force in 1982 and 1985 respectively as two of the country’s four fourth generation combat aircraft, and were developed in parallel with the specific goal of providing superiority over the latest generation of American fighters. The MiG-29, as a lighter aircraft with lower operational costs, was developed for deployments closer to the frontlines and with combat against lightweight F-16s and F-18s in mind, while the heavier Su-27 was designed to be able to tackle the heavyweight F-15 Eagle which was the top fighter fielded in any NATO air force. The two were considered highly successful and were widely seen to have surpassed their American rivals, with multiple leading U.S. officials highlighting the Su-27’s superiority over the F-15 from the 1990s after the capabilities of the Russian fighters became well known. The Su-27 and its more versatile derivative the Su-30 both managed to consistently win overwhelming victories over F-15s in mock engagements during multiple exercises, with MiG-29s also proving impressive against lighter Western jets when tested. Although the two Soviet aircraft were built to complement one another, the Su-27’s first and so far only air to air engagements have been against its lighter counterpart during the Ethiopian-Eritrean War.  

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, but territorial disputes led to a protracted border conflict from 1998-2000 during which both invested in acquiring the most capable combat aircraft available. After Eritrea acquired six Russian MiG-29s Ethiopia quickly signed contracts to purchase the Su-27SK and UBK, with both sides relying on Russian or Ukrainian mercenary pilots and support crews allowing them to deploy the aircraft to the frontlines more quickly. The MiG-29 had been widely exported from 1985, although the much more costly Su-27 had been reserved for the Soviet Air Force and Air Defence Force only and was only sold abroad after the Cold War ended. The MiG-29 benefited from a faster climb rate and advantages in some aspects of manoeuvrability, but was otherwise in a poor position to tackle the heavier Su-27.

Although MiG-29s had previously seen combat against U.S. Air Force F-15s in the Gulf War, those sold to Eritrea were very considerably more capable than those of the Iraqi Air Force having been taken directly from the Russian reserves. Furthermore, there was no discrepancy in pilot quality and support aircraft working agains the MiG-29 in East Africa as there was when they had gone up against the U.S. Air Force. Nevertheless, the Su-27 remained a far more dangerous opponent than the F-15 with very significant performance advantages over both its American rival and particularly over the lighter MiG-29. This included a more powerful sensor suite, access to more capable and longer ranged R-27ER/ET missiles, and an overall superior flight performance including a higher allude ceiling and better high speed manoeuvrability. A long range engagement between the MiG-29 and Su-27 would thus have been one sided, with the Su-27’s missiles having an 85 percent longer range than either the shorter ranged R-27 variants used by the MiG-29, or the AIM-7 and AIM-120A/B used by the F-15.

On February 21, 1999, two Eritrean MiG-29s saw their first engagements against Ethiopian Flankers, attacking from a low altitude of around 6km. The Su-27 pilot deployed an R-27 missile from a range of around 45 km but failed to gain a hit, with the MiG-29s subsequently turning away to return to base. The Su-27 continued to approach and destroyed a MiG-29 at a closer 10km range. The Flanker reportedly then came under attack by aa second the MiG-29, but its higher altitude and supersonic evasion allowed it to evade the attack. The following day Eritrean MiG-29s ambushed the same Su-27, which again prevailed firing two R-27s which neutralised a single MiG and killed its pilot. The second MiG again returned to its airfield. The MiG-29 pilots had sought to catch the Su-27 on patrol shortly before it needed to return to base and when running low on fuel, although the Flanker had the highest endurance of any in the world meaning this was far more difficult than if Su-27s were trying to catch the lighter MiGs in the same position. The Flanker's superiority was key to preventing Eritrean aircraft from supporting ground units and contributed to providing Ethiopian force with an advantage. The relatively small size of both air forces meant that only a small number of engagements, in which four MiG-29s were lost for zero Su-27s, effectively decided the course of the air war.

The Su-27 and MiG-29 remain widely operated across the world today, and their successors remain in production as over half a dozen differed Flanker derivatives in Russia and China (most notably Su-30SM/SM2, Su-34, Su-35, J-11D, J-15, J-16, J-16D) and as the MiG-29M and MiG-35 produced in Russia for export. The Russian Air Force has made very few investments in MiG-29 acquisitions since the Cold War’s end, with the contraction of its fleet and budget leading to a focus on a smaller number of higher end heavier aircraft. Nevertheless the MiG-29’s low operational costs and ability to operate from short runways with little maintenance, has made it popular on export markets, and when modernised the fighter remains highly formidable. The MiG-29’s disadvantages in beyond visual range combat have largely been compensated for with avionics and armaments, with the MiG-29M, K, SMT, and UPG variants using a new generation of sensors and having access to the modern R-77-1 active radar guided missile which is the same munition as that relied on by Russian Flankers. The MiG-29M and MiG-35 were the first Russian fighters to be offered for export with active electronically scanned array radars, and are also reportedly compatible with the latest air to air missiles including the K-77M and R-37M providing 200km and 400km engagement ranges. 

Shortly after the Ethiopian-Eritrean War Eritrea itself acquired Su-27s from Ukraine to bridge the performance gap, as well as four more Russian MiG-29s to replace the four shot down during the conflict. While relations between the two East African countries have improved, the possibility of MiG-29s fighting Flankers has hardly disappeared with the two fielded on opposite sides of multiple conflicts. Poland, Bulgarian, Slovakia and Ukraine all currently rely on the MiG-29 and perceive Russia as their leading potential adversary, with Ukraine also fielding Su-27s which could see combat against Russian or Belarusian MiGs in the event of a conflict between them. Bangladesh and Myanmar previously both depended on the MiG-29 as their most capable fighters, but Myanmar’s orders for Su-30SM fighters derived from the Su-27 are expected to provide its fleet with a significant advantage as tensions with its neighbour are often high. 

The Sudanese Air Force relies on the MiG-29 as its primary fighter, and has ongoing often heated border disputes with both Ethiopia and Egypt the former which now deploys a much larger Su-27 fleet and the latter which placed orders for more advanced Su-35s in 2018. Egypt also relies heavily on the MiG-29M, which is currently considered its most capable fighter in air to air combat, and continues to perceive Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project as a threat leading multiple analysts to call for strikes to be considered in which the MiG-29M would likely play a leading role. Most often, however, the MiG-29 and Flanker have flown on the same side either as part of the same air force, as seen in Russia, India, Belarus and Eritrea among others, or in allied air forces where they often fly alongside one another. Syrian and Belarusian MiGs, for example, frequently fly alongside Russian Flankers, while North Korea which remains China’s treaty ally and would likely fly its MiG-29s on the same side as Chinese Flankers in the event of a regional war. 

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