Warplanes: November 27, 2003

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Russia is still perplexed at it's inability to sell it's 19 ton MiG-29 fighter. Possessed of splendid stats and constantly providing spectacular flight demonstrations, the impressive looking MiG-29 constantly losses sales to more expensive Western aircraft.  While designed as a "two engine F-16", the MiG-29 is part of a family of  aircraft that have a dismal combat record versus American warplanes. In the early 1950s, the six ton MiG-15 was fast, rugged and resistant to damage. But the flight controls made it difficult to maneuver as effectively as "inferior" American aircraft. MiG-15s were usually the loser in aerial battles. There followed the six ton MiG-17, which corrected most of the MiG-15s faults, and added a new one; difficulty maneuvering at low altitudes. In the mid 1950s, the nine ton MiG-19 showed up, further refining the original MiG-15 idea. The MiG-19 was supersonic, but as pilots discovered, it was maneuverability, not speed, that brought victory. The MiG-19  was quickly followed in the late 1950s by the 8.5 ton MiG-21. This was a new design concept,  quite different from the previous three MiG fighters. A fearsome looking aircraft, it was shot down in large numbers by everyone. Again, poor flight controls and lousy visibility limited what a good pilot could do with this aircraft. But few good pilots flew the MiG-21, as it was built for poorly trained pilots who mainly followed instructions from someone on the ground. Then, in response to the American F-4, Russia then came out with the 17 ton MiG-23 in the late 1960s. This was an impressive aircraft, inside and out. It used swing wing technology (like the U.S. F-14 and F-111.) But, once more, the Russian flight controls were most inferior to those found in contemporary Western aircraft and the MiG-23 was also shot down in large numbers by Western warplanes. Then, in the 1970s, came the 37 ton MiG-25, that was designed to deal with the A-11 (a fighter version of the fast and high flying American SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft). But the A-11 project was cancelled and the SR-71 went on to be a recon aircraft that the MiG-25 could not reach. The Russians kept developing the MiG-25, but as a reconnaissance aircraft. After that, the MiG design bureau decided to do things the Western way, and spent over a decade developing the MiG-29. The first prototype flew in 1977, and production aircraft were available for service in 1984. Meant to replace MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters, it was too expensive to build in large numbers, perhaps because it was the most "Western" design MiG ever produced. When Germany united in 1990, East Germany had 24 MiG-29s, which were now available for NATO pilots to fly, and fly against. In the hands of a well trained pilot, the MiG-29 proved a capable aircraft. But the Russian engines were expensive (they had to be replaced much more often than more durable Western engines), and the Western electronics were better. The MiG-29 was  not superior enough to overcome the better training of Western pilots. The Russian engines wore out after a few hundred hours, making it too expensive to give Russian pilots the kind of air time that made Western pilots so superior. The MiG-29 was good, but not great. Based on their World War II experience, the Russians had always planned to substitute quantity for quality. But aerial warfare changed over the decades, and the MiG-29 was recognition of that. Unfortunately, it was too little, too expensive and too late.

 


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