Or just misunderstood?
The MiG-29 is one of the world’s most prolific fighter jets. It currently serves in both NATO and CIS air forces. It’s the fifth most common combat aircraft in the world, even the current president of Bulgarian used to fly them.
Despite its popularity, the design has been considered to have some significant flaws and has seen a checkered combat record when it has gone up against Western designs. As Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation attempts to modernize and push the MiG-29 for sale again, under the new name “MiG-35,” it begs the question: Can the MiG-29 be saved?
When the MiG-29 first entered the scene in the 1980s, it was conceived as a “lower-end” air-superiority fighter which could be procured in greater numbers at a lower cost, in contrast to the Su-27, which was considered to be the high-end solution.
While the Su-27 Flanker didn’t see any exports until the waning years of the Soviet Union, the MiG-29 was already earmarked for export when it was still in development. As such, the MiG lacked many advanced systems found in the Su-27.
While the Su-27 featured an advanced computerized fly-by-wire system that allowed for an aerodynamically unstable airframe, the MiG-29 despite a similar layout of engine and wings did not have this, instead relying on a traditional system of hydraulically controlled control surfaces. The MiG-29 also packed a less powerful radar and had much less internal fuel relative to the Sukhoi.
However, the two aircraft were similar in many aspects. Both had a focus on heat-seeking weaponry, with bulbous InfraRed Search and Track (IRST) sensors on the nose of both aircraft. These were integrated with the advanced thrust vectoring R-73 missile, which could be slaved to a helmet mounted sight which allowed a pilot to lock onto a target just by looking at it. This could make the MiG-29 very hard to beat in a close-in dogfight.
Despite these similarities, the lower-end nature of the design limited the MiG-29’s capability to conduct combat at beyond-visual-range (BVR). The lower power radar limited the plane’s ability to search for and lock targets at a range, and the plane only featured six weapons hardpoints. This initial version of the MiG-29 can be called the 9.12 version and was exported to Warsaw Pact countries.
Later versions of the MiG-29 resolved some of these issues. The MiG-29S (9.13), built for domestic use featured an enhanced radar that could shoot the R-77 active-radar homing air-to-air missile and increased the number of weapons hardpoints to eight.
Around the same time that these updates were being completed, the MiG-29s reputation was about to take a beating. While exact numbers are uncertain, the Iraqi MiG-29s (9.12s) didn’t fare well against coalition air power during Operation Desert Storm. Eight years later, Yugoslavian MiG-29s (also 9.12s) also suffered significant losses when facing down NATO air power over the Balkans.
While Russia scored a second wave of exports to African and Asian countries in the 1990s, mostly of the MiG-29SE type, a downgraded MiG-29S for export, the future of the MiG-29 around the world appears to be in danger.
Most of the old Warsaw Pact MiG-29s are now in the hands of NATO countries, so naturally, they have no future in the service. Poland has kept their MiGs in service largely by developing their own cottage industry, which does overhauls and repairs. But even now Poland is looking to withdraw the MiG from service and will probably replace it with F-16s. The entire fleet was recently grounded after a fatal crash.
For other export customers, the MiG’s biggest rivals are variants of the Su-27. While so called “second-generation” MiG-29s such as the MiG-29M and MiG-29SMT (MiG-29M technology applied to 9.13 airframes) brought the level of avionics up to that of contemporary Su-27 variants, these updates have not come cheap. In addition, the SMT upgrades have mixed reviews of quality. Notably, the Algerian Air Force canceled its order of MiG-29SMTs in favor of more Su-30MKAs.
Therein lies the problem for the MiG-29. While it can reach the same level of features as the Su-27, the cost of upgrading them to that level makes the unit cost approach that of upgraded variants of the Su-27.
The cost of a Su-30MK2 was estimated to be around $35 to $37 million in 2013, and the cost of a MiG-35 is around $46 million. While recent variants of the Su-27 (such as the Su-35) have price tags around $80 million, these variants have AESA radars and advanced thrust vectoring engines, features which are removed from the MiG-35 for cost reasons.
In combat, the Su-27 has consistently bested the MiG-29, going 5:0 against the type during the Eritrean-Ethiopian war. With roughly equal unit costs and similar capabilities, it’s a fairly simple decision to go with the aircraft that was designed from the outset to be better than the other and has proven it in combat.
While the MiG-35 has won one large order with Egypt and a smaller one with Iraq, these numbers are dwarfed by the number of Sukhoi sales that have occurred within the same time period. This trend seems likely to continue into the future.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami .
This first appeared in January.