Air Weapons: Making A MiG Smarter

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November 15, 2018: On November 2nd one of the new Egyptian MiG-29M fighters crashed during a training flight. The pilot was able to eject safely. Apparently, there were problems with the flight controls and Russia is sending a tech team to help with the investigation. This particular model of the MiG-29 has a lot of new tech and Russia is hoping the Egyptians will find it useful and employ all the new ground attack features in their ongoing war with Islamic terrorists.

Russia had also recently delivered Kh-31 air-to-surface missiles for the MiG-29M which is equipped (using a Russian targeting pod) to deliver guided missiles and smart bombs. Egypt ordered 40 of the Russian T220/e targeting pods. The MiG-29M also has high-tech air-combat equipment including an IRST (Infrared Search and Track) system which enables passive (without using radar signals) detection of enemy fighters via heat. Thus while most IRST systems can detect a jet fighter at least 50 kilometers away, the detection distance nearly doubles if the target is flying away from you thus providing more heat to detect because the engine exhaust is unobstructed. The latest Russian IRST system in the MiG-29M presents the data on the radar display along with an estimate of what type of aircraft it is. The MiG-29M also has a radar with a detection range of 120 kilometers. The pilot has a smart helmet with “look and shoot” capability. The pilot also uses a glass cockpit dominated by two large and one smaller flat screen displays. The MiG-29M also has upgraded engines that are smokeless, hide some of their heat exhaust and are more powerful and efficient. As a result the MiG-29M can fly 2,000 kilometers on a ground attack mission and return. Using drop tanks this can be extended to over 3,000 kilometers and if the in-flight refueling capability is used the aircraft can go 6,000 kilometers to hit a target. In short, the MiG-29M is a very competitive (with Western tech) aircraft and Egypt realizes that Egypt and Russia benefit if all the tech performs as intended.

The 25 ton MiG-29M has a 30mm autocannon and 150 rounds along with nine hardpoints for carrying 5.5 tons of missiles, bombs, targeting pod or drop tanks. The aircraft has internal ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) and can also carry an EW (Electronic Warfare) pod. The MiG-29M is very similar to the MiG-35, which is basically a MiG-29 with all the latest gear and capabilities. That justifies the price ($55 million each) of the aircraft although that price also includes training and tech support.

The Egyptian sales are also essential to the survival of a key part of the Russian defense industry. Russia has been taking desperate measures to keep the MiG company in business and their main product, the MiG-29, in production. The problem is that the MiG-29 is generally outclassed by the rival Su-27/30 aircraft from Sukhoi. Even foreign users have openly complained that the MiG-29 is too expensive to maintain. It costs about $5 million a year, per aircraft, to keep them going. The M model is supposed to have addressed that problem as well. Most of the MiG-29s provided satisfactory service but nations that also operate Western aircraft, like the F-16, are able to compare Russian and American warplanes. The Russian aircraft cost less than half as much as their American counterparts but require highly trained pilots to perform anything like Western fighters.

Apparently, the Egyptians were attracted to the MiG-29M because of its range and ability to operate as a bomber. Russia has already delivered some of its Kh-31 guided missiles for the MiG-29M. These 600 kg (1,300 pound) high-speed missiles are mainly used for anti-ship work but can also hit land targets and there is a HARM (high-speed anti-radiation) version to destroying enemy radars. Russia also manufactures other ground-to-air guided missiles and smart (GPS guided) bombs. Many of these were heavily used in Syria but they are mainly meant for export customers because the Russian defense budget cannot afford stockpiles of such weapons for heavy use in wartime. Apparently, only the United States and China can afford to maintain such emergency war stocks of smart bombs and missiles. Egypt prefers these more accurate, and expensive, bombs and missiles because when fighting Islamic terrorists there are often civilians nearby. Killing these civilians, even inadvertently, reduces support for the Egyptian counter-terrorism efforts.

Egypt ordered 46 MiG29M fighters in 2015 and the first of them arriving by the end of 2017 with deliveries to be completed by 2020. Russia could have begun deliveries earlier but there were problems with financing. Egypt is broke and dependent on gifts of cash and oil from the Arab oil states just to keep going. Apparently, Saudi Arabia or some other Gulf Oil state helped arrange the $2.5 billion to pay for the MiG-29s in a deal that includes training and maintenance support. This is actually a favor to Russia but the Russians have been trying to get closer to their Cold War era Arab arms customers and this sort of thing helps.

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 basic 22 ton MiG-29 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 1980s), 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). To counter that reputation Russia is sending the latest model of the MiG-29 to Egypt. This one has a more powerful and reliable RD-33MK engine and improved electronics including updated radar and flight controls.

The Egyptian Air Force currently has over 200 F-16s, a hundred French Mirage 5 and 2000 fighters and 24 new Rafale fighters. There are still about fifty Cold War era MiG-21s flying for Egypt but these are being phased out and the few still around are listed as “in reserve.” Egypt has been pleased with the performance of the Mirage and F-16 aircraft so Russia has quite a challenge ahead of it.

 


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