Warplanes: Another MiG Rescue Mission


May 7, 2014: Russia recently signed the contract to buy 16 MiG-29SMT jet fighters for $30 million each. The Russian Air Force does not really want these MiGs. The government insists on making the purchase to keep the MAC (MiG Aircraft Corporation) from going bankrupt. That became a possibility in 2013 when it was revealed that Russia would not order 37 of MAC’s new (and still in development) MiG-35D fighters. Because of development problems, this order will now be delayed until 2016. Cancellation of this order put MiG in a financial bind and the best solution seemed to be the purchase of more of the existing MiG-29 models. The 22 ton MiG-29SMT is an upgrade of the original MiG-29 with improved avionics, a more powerful engine and the ability to use smart bombs and missiles against ground targets. Thus it can carry 4.5 tons of bombs and missiles.

This is not the first time Russia has purchased MiGs mainly for financial, not military reasons. In 2006 Russia agreed to buy 28 MiG-29 fighters to prevent the MAC from going bankrupt. That crises was triggered when Algeria told Russia that it was cancelling the 2007 purchase of 28 MiG-29 fighters (for $1.3 billion) and returning the ones already delivered. Algeria insisted that there were quality issues and that some of the aircraft were assembled from old parts. The accusation turned out to be true and Russian prosecutors tried and convicted several MAC executives for passing off defective, or used, aircraft parts as new. Many of these parts made their way into MiG-29 jet fighters that were sold to Algeria.

The MiG-29 has been in service since the 1980s, but stocks of Cold War era spare parts are still around, and it was suspected in the Russian aviation community that some of these older parts were put to use to build the Algerian aircraft. These are supposed to be "new" aircraft but some of their components were definitely not. Some MiG employees were very unhappy with the corrupt practices involving aircraft parts. This sort of crime often extends to parts for airliners. The MiG employees felt personally responsible for any defective aircraft leaving their plant and didn't want to be flying in an airliner containing fraudulent parts either. Russian prosecutors, already involved in an anti-corruption program underway for several years, jumped on these allegations and quickly found senior executives presiding over widespread fraud in the aircraft components industry.

MiG hoped that the new 29 ton MiG-35 would save the company. Described as the equivalent of the American F-35, the MiG-35D would be the low-end to the high end T-50 (the Russian F-22). The T-50 is no F-22 and the MiG-35D is no F-35. The MiG-35D is a considerably redesigned MiG-29. The MiG-35D is armed with one 30mm autocannon and can carry over (by how much is not yet clear) five tons of bombs. The big selling point for the MiG-35D is its offensive and defensive electronics, as well as sensors for finding targets on land or sea. This stuff looks very impressive on paper but the Russians have long had problems getting performance to match promises. This is particularly the case with the advanced electronics of the MiG-35D, which are running into problems because the F-35 electronics set a very high bar. The MiG-35D has little stealth capability and first flew in 2007. There are currently about ten prototypes being used for testing and development work. The MiG-35D is expected to enter service some time before the end of the decade. The MiG-35D will sell for less than half of what the F-35 goes for (currently over $120 million each). Russia hopes to be able to buy a hundred or so MiG-35s after 2016.

The 27 ton American F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs), plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. All sensors are carried internally, and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.

The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983. Some 1,600 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with about 900 of them exported. The original MiG-29 was a 22 ton aircraft roughly comparable to the F-16, but it depends a lot on which version of either aircraft you are talking about. Russia is making a lot of money upgrading MiG-29s. Not just adding new electronics but also making the airframe more robust. The MiG-29 was originally rated at 2,500 total flight hours. At that time (early 80s), Russia expected MiG-29s to fly about a hundred or so hours a year. India, for example, flew them at nearly twice that rate, as did Malaysia. So now Russia is offering to spiff up the airframe so that the aircraft can fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This won't be easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic).






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