Murphy's Law: MiG-29 Misery Continues

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September 9, 2010: The tiny state of Moldova (east of Romania) used to be part of the Soviet Union, and inherited 31 MiG-29 fighters when it became independent in 1991. In 1997, 21 of the most modern MiG-29s were sold to the United States (for training, technical analysis and because these were advanced models wired to deliver nuclear weapons) for about $2 million each. Four others were sold to Yemen, for an equally low price. Now, Moldova wants to get rid of the six MiG-29s it still has. These aircraft are not in good (or flyable) shape and are being offered for the bargain price of $1 million each. A new MiG-29 can cost $40 million or more. But these 1980s era fixer uppers might be attractive to someone looking for jet fighter bargains.

Then again, maybe not. In late 2008, Russia offered to sell Lebanon ten MiG-29 fighters, at a "large discount" (less than $5 million each). Lebanon declined. Part of the reason was the expense of keeping these aircraft operational. It costs about $5 million a year, per aircraft, to keep them in flying condition. Russia offers better prices on maintenance contracts for new Su-30s, mainly because the Sukhoi aircraft are more reliable and easier to maintain.

The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983, as the answer to the American F-16. 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.

Meanwhile, 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 is offering to spiff up the airframe so that the aircraft can fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This won't be easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic). The MiG-29 has become a very unpopular aircraft.

Several times in the past few years, Russia grounded all of its MiG-29s 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 real breakthrough in Russian aircraft capabilities. The Indians are going to take up the Russians on their upgrade offer. But the Malaysians went with the more highly regarded Su-30, and sold off their MiG-29s. Algeria, like Lebanon and several other nations, have turned down the MiG-29, which has acquired the reputation of being second rate and a loser.

 

 


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