Warplanes: What Is Worse Than Cheap Russian Crap

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March 13, 2012: Three years ago Myanmar bought 20 MiG-29 fighters from Russia, for $35 million each. China offered the similar FC-1 for less than half the price. Yet Myanmar chose the more expensive aircraft. What was odd about this was that both aircraft have questionable reputations.

This sale earned Russia some criticism because Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a military dictatorship with a very bad international reputation. But Russia is desperate to keep the MiG-29 from fading away. To that end, Russia also ordered 24 MiG-29Ks for its sole aircraft carrier, to replace the Su-33s that currently serve on the ship. However, most of the current news about the Mig-29 has been bad.

Malaysia, for example, admitted that it got rid of its MiG-29 fighters because the aircraft were too expensive to maintain. It costs about $5 million a year, per aircraft, to keep them going. Most of the MiG-29s provided satisfactory service. Malaysia was a long time user of U.S. aircraft, so they were able to compare Russian and American warplanes. The Russian aircraft cost less than half as much as their American counterparts. The Malaysians find that an acceptable situation, even though they face better trained pilots flying F-16s in neighboring Singapore.

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 22 ton aircraft is 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 offers to spiff up the airframe so that the aircraft can fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This wasn't easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic).

Russia grounded its MiG-29s several times recently, in order to check for structural flaws. Compared to Western aircraft, like the F-16, the MiG-29 is available for action about two thirds as much. While extending the life of the MiG-29 into the 2030s is theoretically possible, actually doing so will be a real breakthrough in Russian aircraft capabilities. The Indians took up the Russians on their upgrade offer. But the Malaysians are going to go with the more highly regarded Su-30. Algeria, and several other nations, have turned down the MiG-29, which has acquired the reputation of being second rate and a loser. Russia, however, wants to preserve MiG as a brand so it is not solely dependent on Sukhoi for its jet fighters. At this point it looks like an uphill fight. MiG and Sukhoi are now both divisions of a state owned military aircraft company (United Aircraft). Technically, the MiG division is bankrupt. Sukhoi is profitable.

Meanwhile there's the problem with China selling the FC-1/JF-17, which goes for $15 million or less. This is about what a second hand F-16 goes for. There are still hundreds of used F-16s available, for under $15 million each. The U.S. still has about 1,300 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units), over 4,200 were produced and America has hundreds in storage. The end of the Cold War in 1991 led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 will be replacing all U.S. F-16s in the next decade. So the U.S. will continue to have plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and these remain a cheaper and more effective aircraft than the J-10 or FC-1. But if a country cannot buy F-16s (because of embargos or similar problems), J-10s or FC-1s would provide a respectable, if more expensive, substitute.

 F-16s are still produced for export and these cost as much as $70 million each (the F-16I for Israel). Some nations, like South Korea, build the F-16 under license. A used F-16C, built in the 1990s, would go for about $10 million on the open market. The 16 ton F-16 has an admirable combat record and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs it is a very effective bomber.

The Chinese made FC-1 is exported to Pakistan as the JF-17 and offered to several countries (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Burma, Iran, and Sri Lanka) as inexpensive alternatives to American and Russian fighters. There were few takers. Hundreds of JF-17s are also going to be built in Pakistan, mainly using Chinese parts.

When the first JF-17 fighter arrived in Pakistan six years ago, it ended over twenty years of development for what was first called the Super 7 fighter. The JF-17 was developed by China in cooperation with Pakistan, which originally only wanted to buy 150 of them. All this came about because Pakistan could not get modern fighters from anyone else, so they turned to China. At the time, China had nothing comparable to the early model F-16s Pakistan already had.

The 13 ton JF-17 is considered the equal to earlier versions of the F-16 but only 80 percent as effective as more recent F16 models. The JF-17 design is based on a cancelled Russian project, the MiG-33. Originally, Pakistan wanted Western electronics in the JF-17 but because of the risk of Chinese technology theft, and pressure from the United States (who did not want China to steal more Western aviation electronics), the JF-17 uses Chinese and Pakistani electronics.

The JF-17 can carry 3.6 tons of weapons and uses radar guided and heat seeking missiles. It has a max speed of nearly 2,000 kilometers an hour, an operating range of 1,300 kilometers, and a max altitude of nearly 18,000 meters (55,000 feet). China has not yet decided on whether it will use the FC-1/JF-17 itself. This is apparently because China believes its own J-10 (another local design) and J-11 (a license built Russian Su-27) are adequate for their needs. The J-10, like the JF-17, did not work out as well as was hoped but that's another matter.

 


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