Do MiG Combat Jets Have a Future? Space Interceptors May Become Mikoyan's New Niche

Throughout the Cold War the aircraft of the Mikoyan Design Bureau were synonymous in the eyes of the world with the Soviet Union’s finest jet fighters and interceptors build for air to air combat. The aircraft first made a strong impression during the Korean War, when the MiG-15 was consistently assessed in the West to have surpassed the Western Bloc’s most capable fighter the American F-86, and left all other Western fighters obsolete. At the time the Soviets had deployed the more capable MiG-17, which would have enjoyed an even more comfortable advantage, but refrained from committing it to the Korean front. The MiG-21 which entered service from 1959 saw combat across much of the world, from North Korean MiG-21 units which downed many American fighters in skirmishes during the 1960s both in Korea and in Vietnam, to major battlefronts in the Middle East where they were deployed primarily by Iraq, Egypt and Syria. Its successor the MiG-23, which entered service in 1970, had a troubled early history but quickly evolved into a contender for the title of the world’s most potent single engine fighter with speeds and operational altitudes and sensors that had few rival from within it weight range. 

The first fourth generation MiG aircraft, the MiG-29 medium weight twin engine fighter and MiG-31 heavyweight interceptor, entered service in 1982 and 1981 respectively and were both important pioneers in world aviation. The design bureau was set to outdo itself with revolutionary new aircraft in the 1990s, most notably the MiG 1.42 fifth generation fighter program and the MiG-31M interceptor, although the Soviet collapse ultimately prevented these from materialising. MiG has produced no clean sheet fighter or interceptor designs since then, due to the much poorer state of post-Soviet Russia’s industrial base and general economy, but has invested in modernising Soviet era designs which are still depended on heavily by Russia and its clients. These include in the Russian Air Force the MiG-31 and MiG-29, which have both seen numbers in service decline sharply since the 2000s in favour of derivatives of the Flanker heavyweight fighter developed by the Sukhoi design bureau, as well as a token unit of half a dozen MiG-35 jets which entered service in 2019. 

While Sukhoi Flanker aircraft are currently in production at three separate factories, MiG aircraft are produced at a single facility the Sokol aviation plant which manufactures MiG-29M fighters for export to Egypt and Algeria and previously their navalised counterpart the MiG-29K for India and the Russian Navy. The same production line also manufactures the MiG-35, which is closely deviated from the MiG-29M with an airframe difficult to differentiate. The MiG-29M is itself an extensive modification of the MiG-29 with entirely new avionics, sensors and armaments, more powerful engines, an improved fuel capacity and an airframe manufactured using more modern composite materials. The bulk of the Sokol plant’s work on the MiG-29, however, has been on modernising the extensive inventory of Soviet era MIG-29A airframes, many of them not yet assembled, for use by export clients across the world. 

While the Russian Air Force itself abandoned early plans for deep modernisation of its MiG-29 fleet, much of which is now obsolete, the lower cost of these older airframes which there are large surplus quantities of has made them highly popular on export markets. The MiG-29SMT and UPG upgrade packages have been the most ambitious, with near identical avionics to the MiG-29M and the same engines as well as an increased fuel capacity, and have been sold in considerable numbers to India and given as aid to Syria and Libya. The future of MiG-29 production at Sokol remains in question despite the boosts it gained from Egyptian and Algerian exports, with the unveiling of the S-75 Checkmate stealth fighter in 2021 expected to compete directly against the MiG-29M/35 and coming from the same weight and price ranges. 

Beyond the MiG-29 aimed primarily at export markets, the Sokol plant has received the bulk of its domestic contracts for the modernisation of the MiG-31 Foxhound which remains the fastest and heaviest fighter or interceptor of its generation. The Foxhound pioneered the integration of electronically scanned array radars for air to air combat, doing so over 20 years before any other serial production aircraft, and is relied on heavily by thee Russian Air Force particularly for defence of the Arctic. The aircraft is considered the most capable in the Russian fleet in terms of air to air performance despite its age, due to extensive modernisation of its avionics, sensors and armaments. The MiG-31B and BS variants have been modernised since the early 2010s to the MiG-31BM and MiG-31BSM standards, which include integration of the Zaslon-M radar considered among the most powerful in the world. The radar is powerful enough to form target locks on cruise missiles and other small targets from extreme ranges, and can also guide R-37 air to air missiles against targets at the limit of their 400km ranges. 

Modernisation of the MiG-31 has also included life extension upgrades and development of new variants, including the MIG-31K which entered service in late 2017 and is designed to delivery hypersonic ballistic missile strikes, and an unnamed variant designed for anti satellite warfare. These variants capitalise on the interceptor’s high speed and altitude ceiling and its ability to carry very heavily payloads. Work on the MiG-31 fleet is expected to continue into the 2030s, while Mikoyan is expected to produce its first genuinely new post-Soviet aircraft over the coming decades under the ambitious PAK DP interceptor program to succeed the MiG-31. The PAK DP interceptor program, otherwise know informally as the MiG-41, is expected to be able to fly at hypersonic speeds and be more focused on intercepting targets in space and destroying satellites. With the MiG-29’s future in doubt, and no signs of other MiG fighter programs, the possibility remains that MiG’s future in manned combat aviation will be focused heavily if not entirely on heavyweight interceptor programs. The MiG-41 itself, like its predecessor, could produce multiple derivatives including possibly specialised anti satellite, missile defence and strike variants that could provide significant development opportunities for MiG. Where the Soviet Union had produced several revolutionary aircraft, the much smaller post-Soviet Russian defence sector’s ability to produce such an ambitious aircraft remains highly uncertain, and the possibility remains that the new interceptor could be less of a revolutionary improvement over the MiG-31 than initially expected. 

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