Procurement: Death Watch For MiG

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December 24, 2009: Myanmar is buying twenty MiG-29s from Russia. Myanmar bought its first twelve MiG-29s in 2001. This new sale will earn 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 is getting rid of its MiG-29 fighters because the aircraft are too expensive to maintain. It costs about $5 million a year, per aircraft, to keep them in flying condition. Three years ago, Malaysia bought two more MiG-29s, in addition to the 18 it got in the 1990s. Two of those were lost due to accidents. Malaysia has since ordered 18 Su-30 fighters, and will apparently order more to replace the MiG-29s. Malaysia also bought eight F-18Ds in the 1990s, and is getting rid of those as well. Russia has offered better prices on maintenance contracts for new Su-30s, in addition to bargain (compared to U.S. planes) prices.

Most of the MiG-29s provided satisfactory service. Malaysia was long a users of U.S. aircraft, so they have been 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 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).

In the last year, Russia grounded has grounded its MiG-29s several times, 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 are going to go with the more highly regarded Su-30. Malaysia expects to have all its MiG-29s out of service in about a year. If they can't be sold, they will simply be scrapped. 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.

 

 


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