Warplanes: MiGs Strive to Survive


January 12, 2024: Before Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, Ukraine wanted F-16s because it had done what it could with its MiG-29s, heavy combat losses meant replacements were needed, and Ukraine would prefer to have F-16s. So would Russia but Ukraine had a better chance of getting them. Both Russian and Ukrainian fighter pilots were familiar with the superiority of the F-16 over the MiG-29 and even its major upgrade, the MiG-35. For a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russian and Ukrainian pilots had an opportunity to fly in an F-16. Western pilots had already done this with MiG-29s because some MiG-29 pilots defected to the West while flying their Mig-29s.

Since 1981 over 1,600 MiG29s have been produced and the aircraft is still produced in small quantities each year. Upgrades were added haphazardly and many of these did not work as intended. There was inadequate quality control and Russian manufacturers were not able to fix these problems. There was no uniformity in adding or maintaining upgrades. This resulted in a lot of MiG-29s with different capabilities. It was difficult just to keep track of which MiG-29 could do what and with what degree of consistency. There was also a problem with ergonomics, or ease of use. Ukrainian pilots who trained to use F-16s found the layout of the F-16 cockpit more efficiently organized and much easier to use.

MiG-29 were expensive to maintain and, without adequate maintenance, became dangerous to fly. Russian warplanes were never as durable and long-lasting as western models. Western aircraft were deigned to spend much more time in the air because western pilots received a lot more training.

Both the Ukrainian and Russian Air Forces had a difficult time recovering and rebuilding after the end of the Cold War. The Russian Air Force had over 10,000 military aircraft in 1991. The mighty Soviet Red Air Force instantly lost nearly half its strength because the 14 new states formed from the Soviet Union took possession of whatever warplanes were stationed within their borders. For both Russia and Ukraine, 1991 was followed by two decades of sharply lower defense budgets that cut maintenance and eliminated all but a few purchases of new aircraft.

There were efforts to refurbish older aircraft. After 2000 Russia steadily increased defense spending, but it was not enough. By 2015 Russia could only put into action about ten percent of the warplanes the Red Air Force could at its 1991 peak. To make matters worse, growing development problems with its new Su-57 stealth fighter meant that Russia had to depend even more on late Cold War designs which included the Su-27/30, MiG-29, and Su-25, plus some older heavy bomber and recon aircraft. Upgrades made to those aircraft since 1991 were mainly for export customers. Russian defense firms needed the cash, not another IOU from the Russian government.

Ukraine inherited 200 MiG-29s in 1991 but only kept about three dozen in service because of the high cost of maintenance. Despite that, after the Russian 2014 attack Ukraine began an upgrade program for its operational MiG-29s. The first of Ukraine’s MiG-29MU1 aircraft entered service in 2018 and, by the second time Russia invaded in February 2022, there were 18 MiG-29MU1s and one MiG-29MU2 with further enhancements available.

The air war over Ukraine was initially a tactical win for Ukraine, but that was costly, with 47 fighters or attack aircraft lost. Twenty of these were MiG-29s, four were Su-27 fighters and the rest were twelve Su-24 and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. Russia lost four Su-24s, 13 Su-25s, ten Su-34s, successor to the older Su-24 and one Su-35 (an upgraded Su-27). The Ukrainians prevented Russia from achieving air superiority and forced them to launch their airstrikes from inside Russia using air-to-ground missiles. Four of the new Su-57 stealth aircraft were also used for this and the Su-57s never entered Ukrainian air space.

Ukraine has been offered several dozen MiG-29s that were still in use, or in active storage, by NATO nations that were phasing out their MiG-29s for Western jets. Those transfers were initially stalled by disagreements within NATO about sending these MiGs or F-16s and A-10s to the Ukrainians. That hasn’t prevented less visible assistance, like supplying Ukraine with MiG-29 spare parts as well as pilot transition training programs operated by American volunteers, some of them former F-16 and A-10 pilots, who know how to obtain unclassified manuals and equipment to create flight simulators adequate for pilot transition training. Programs like this have already succeeded for other types of Western weapons Ukraine wanted and anticipated getting them by selecting and training operators in advance.

Meanwhile Russia had given up on its Mig-29s, which it had been unable to upgrade successfully. There were many upgrades available and some of them did not work.

In 2019 Russia made a desperate effort to keep the venerable MIG company, founded in 1939 as MiG or Mikoyan and Gurevich Design Bureau, in business. This was done out of a combination of nostalgia, national pride, and practicality. That last item is all about maintaining competition, in the form of having at least two firms designing and producing fighter aircraft.

Nostalgia and national pride are also important because during the Cold War the MiG organization was the primary developer of fighter aircraft. During World War II MiG was one of three, Yakovlev, Lavochkin and MiG, developers of successful fighter aircraft. One of the earliest successes was the MiG-3 fighter. After the war, Yakovlev and Lavochkin moved on to other aerospace endeavors while the Sukhoi Design Bureau, which had worked on ground attack aircraft during the war, began developing jet fighters which were competition for MiG and eventually surpassed MiG by the 1990s.

After World War II MiG was famous for developing the first two generations of Russian jet fighters. This included the first successful Russian jet fighter, the MiG-15 and several subsequent improved versions like the MiG 17 and 1919. Then came the MiG-21, the most widely used jet fighter of the Cold War. In the 1960s the MiG-23/27 showed up, along with a lot of MiG design problems. Despite that MiG manufactured most Russian jet fighters during the Cold War. For over three decades, MiG has been losing its edge and by the end of the century was in danger of disappearing. This decline continued despite efforts to turn the quality problems around.

For example, in 2019 the Russian Air Force received the first two production models of the new MiG-35 fighter. Four more followed by the end of 2019. Air force tests under operational conditions were encouraging but there were no more orders. That was largely because no export customers for the MiG-35 could be found. Bad experiences with older MiG aircraft, even after 1991, had ruined MiG’s reputation. For many potential export customers, the fact that the Russian Air Force did not order a lot of MiG-35s confirmed their fears.

The MiG-35 was designed to replace hundreds of Cold War era MiG-29s and Su-27s but the lack of export orders proved fatal to the independence of the MiG firm, which was now known as MAC, or Mikoyan Aircraft Corporation. Soon MiG became part of the UAC or United Aircraft Corporation, a state-owned firm that now controls nearly all Russian combat aircraft development and production. In June 2022 UAC dissolved its MAC division and the Mig-29/35 became just another product line, and one with no future.

The MiG-35 has been in development for nearly three decades because MiG was no longer the outstanding combat aircraft developer and manufacturer it was during the Cold War. Russia was trying to change that so that there would still be two organizations, MiG and Sukhoi developing and building fighters. The long gestation time for the MiG-35 is an example of the problems MiG has been having. The MiG-35 is basically a much-improved Cold War era MiG-29. The MiG-35 is a 29-ton, twin-engine fighter with a combat radius of 1,000 kilometers and can refuel in the air. It has an internal 30mm autocannon and nine hardpoints that can carry 6.5 tons of bombs and missiles. It has an AESA radar and a fire control system that can handle smart bombs and missiles. Max altitude is 19,000 meters and the MiG-35 can reach that altitude in about a minute. Max speed is 2,400 kilometers an hour at high altitude and 1,400 at sea level. It is a very maneuverable aircraft meant to provide superior performance in combat. Air force tests of these new capabilities against the latest Su-30 models revealed that the new MiG was not worth the expense.

The Russian air force was not optimistic about the MiG-35 because its experiences with new MiG aircraft in the previous decade were disappointing. For example, in January 2016 the air force received the last of 16 MiG-29SMT jet fighters it ordered in early 2014. The Russian Air Force paid $30 million for each of these MiGs but really didn’t want them. The government insisted in order to keep the MAC 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-35 fighters. Because of development problems the MiG-35 was delayed from 2016 to 2018 and finally showed up in 2019. You could see where this was going. Cancellation of the billion-dollar MiG-35 order put MAC in a financial bind and the best solution seemed to be purchasing more of the existing MiG-29SMTs. 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. It could carry 4.5 tons of bombs and missiles. All that was not enough.

Meanwhile, MAC was running out of time, cash, and options. It had orders for some MiG-29Ks, for use on aircraft carriers and upgrades to Indian MiG-29s. Serbia was close to placing an order. MAC could not expect much more help from the government which was dealing with a major cash shortage as a result of record low oil prices and trade sanctions because of Russian aggression in Ukraine that began in 2014.

This was not the first time Russia 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 crisis was triggered when Algeria told Russia that it was canceling their 2007 $1.3 billion order for 28 MiG-29 fighters 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 were still around, and it was suspected in the Russian aviation community that some of these older parts were used to build the Algerian aircraft. These were 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 convicted senior executives who presided over widespread fraud in the aircraft components industry.

MiG hoped that the new MiG-35 would save the company. Described as the equivalent of the American F-35, the MiG-35 would be the low-end to the high-end Su-57, seen as the Russian F-22 stealth fighter. The Su-57 was no F-22, and the MiG-35 was no F-35. The MiG-35 is a considerably redesigned MiG-29. The MiG-35 was originally designed to carry a 30mm autocannon and up to five tons of bombs. The big selling point for the MiG-35 was its offensive and defensive electronics, as well as sensors for finding targets on land or sea. All this looked very impressive on paper, but the Russians have long had problems getting the performance to match promises. This is particularly the case with the advanced electronics of the MiG-35, which was running into problems because the competing F-35 electronics set a very high bar. The MiG-35 has little stealth capability and first flew in 2007. Russia had hoped to buy a hundred or so MiG-35s after 2016 but the reality of MiG-35’s poor performance halted any purchase plans.

The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983. Some 1,600 MiG-29s were produced, 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, the early 80s, Russia expected MiG-29s to fly about a hundred or so hours a year. Reality was different. India, for example, flew them at nearly twice that rate, as did Malaysia. Russia offered to upgrade the airframe so that the aircraft could fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This was not easy to do, as the MiG-29 had a history of unreliability and premature mechanical and electronic breakdowns. It was also more expensive to maintain than comparable Su-27/30 and foreign fighter jets.

Ukraine made the most it could out of its MiG-29s with its own upgrades. But early in the 2022 war Russian missiles damaged the Lviv facility, the only place equipped to carry out upgrades. Ukraine needed more fighters and, like most long-time MiG customers, wanted anything but more MiGs.




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