Murphy's Law: MiGs That Earn Their Keep

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August 22, 2007: Sri Lanka was looking for more than low price when they bought eleven MiG-27 fighter-bombers. The MiGs were not only cheaper than the more capable (on paper) Israeli Kfirs they had also purchased, but the MiGs were cheaper to maintain and, because of their swing-wing design (similar to the U.S. F-111) able to hit targets more accurately at low altitudes. The MiGs were also better at avoiding, or absorbing, enemy ground fire. That's what the MiG-27 was built for. Moreover, at the 300 kilometers ranges the aircraft had to operate (flying from bases in the south to enemy targets in the far north), the Migs could carry more bombs (usually eight half ton bombs) than the Kfirs.

The 20 ton MiG-27 is a ground attack version of the MiG-23 (which was the Russian successor to the MiG-21, and influenced by the American F-4 and F-111). The MiG-27 carries a 30mm cannon (with 300 shells), and up to four tons of bombs or missiles. Sri Lanka also has a dozen Israel Kfir fighter bombers (an Israeli design based on the French Mirage 5). Israel stopped using the Kfir in the 1990s and has been selling them off cheap. The Kfir is a 14 ton aircraft with two 30mm cannon (with 120 shells each), and can carry up to five tons of other weapons (at short range). Sri Lanka has been using the Mig-27s and Kfirs to attack LTTE rebel base camps and artillery positions. The MiG-27s proved to be decisive weapons, given their ability to get down low, survive enemy fire, and accurately deliver bombs.

But how did Sri Lanka get their MiG-27s so cheap (about $2 million each, versus $3 million for a Kfir). Ukraine had lots of old, Cold War era, MiG-27 fighter bombers. These were well worn aircraft, with only about a thousand flight hours left on them. But the Ukrainians were willing to sell them cheap, and, as a bonus, offer inexpensive refurbishment services, that would add 2-3,000 flight hours to the aircrafts life. The first batch of seven MiG-27s (one was a trainer version) were bought between 2000-2003, for an average $1.72 million each. The aircraft performed well, even though two crashed and one was destroyed on the ground. In 2007, another four, of more recent vintage, were purchased, for $2.5 million each.

Ukraine had inherited thousands of warplanes (including hundreds of MiG-27s) in 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved. The dissolution deal had military equipment belonging to whatever new country the stuff was in, when the Soviet Union broken into 15 new countries (including Russia, and Ukraine). For decades, Ukraine had been the major staging area for a possible invasion of Western Europe. Thus lots of warplanes were parked there. Ukraine had no need for most of these, and there was not a big market for second hand Russian warplanes in the 1990s. But some of the better stuff was kept in decent shape, so Sri Lanka was able to get some proven combat aircraft at a fraction of what any alternatives (new or used) would cost.

That said, Ukraine could have sold the aircraft for less, and still come away with a profit. These aircraft were headed for the recycling facility in a few years anyway. And the refurbishing contracts meant months of well paid work for hundreds of Ukrainians.

 


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