Winning: Last Chance For MiG

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July 30, 2019: Russia is making what appears to be a final effort to keep the venerable (founded 1939) MiG (Mikoyan and Gurevich Design Bureau) in business. This is being done out of a combination of nostalgia, national pride and practicality. That last item is all about maintaining competition, in the form of having at least two firms designing and producing fighter aircraft. Nostalgia and national pride are also important because during the Cold War MiG was the primary developer of fighter aircraft. During World War II MiG was one of three (Yakovlev, Lavochkin and MiG) developers of successful (MiG-3) fighter aircraft. After the war, Yakovlev and Lavochkin moved on to other aerospace endeavors while the Sukhoi Design Bureau, which had worked on ground attack aircraft during the war, began developing jet fighters which were competition for MiG and eventually surpassed MiG by the end of the Cold War. After World War II MiG was famous for developing the first two generations of Russian jet fighters. This included the first successful Russian jet fighter (MiG-15) and several subsequent improved jets. Then came the MiG-21, the most widely used jet fighter of the Cold War. In the 1960s the MiG-23/27 showed up, along with a lot of MiG design problems. Despite that MiG manufactured most Russia jet fighters during the Cold War. But over the last three decades, MiG has lost its edge and now is in danger of disappearing.

In mid-2019 the Russian Air Force received the first two production models of the new MiG-35 fighter. Four more are to follow by the end of 2019. If air force tests under operational conditions prove satisfactory, the six will stay and more may be ordered. The MiG-35 is intended to replace hundreds of Cold War era MiG-29s and Su-27s. At least that is still the plan. The MiG firm (formerly MAC) is now part of the UAC (United Aircraft Corporation), a state-owned firm that currently controls nearly all Russian combat aircraft development and production.

The MiG35 has been in development for nearly three decades because MiG is not the outstanding combat aircraft developer and manufacturer it was during the Cold War. Russia is trying to change that so that there are still two organization (MiG and Sukoi) developing and building fighters. The long gestation time for the MiG-35 is an example of the problems MiG has been having. The MiG-35 is basically a much improved Cold War era MiG-29. The MiG-35 is a 29 ton, twin-engine fighter with a combat radius of 1,000 kilometers and can refuel in the air. It has an internal 30mm autocannon and nine hardpoints that can carry 6.5 tons of bombs and missiles. It has an AESA radar and a fire control system that can handle smart bombs and missiles. Max altitude is 19,000 meters (62,000 feet) and the MiG35 can reach that altitude in about a minute. Max speed is 2,400 kilometers an hour at high altitude and 1,400 at sea level. It is a very maneuverable aircraft meant to provide superior performance in combat. The air force will be testing all these capabilities against the latest Su-30 models to see if further orders are justified and to decide if MiG is to continue as a separate entity.

The air force is not optimistic because the experience with new MiG aircraft in the last decade has been disappointing. For example, in January 2016 the air force received the last of 16 MiG-29SMT jet fighters it ordered in early 2014. The Russian Air Force paid $30 million for each of these MiGs but really didn’t want them. The government insisted in order to keep the MAC (MiG Aircraft Corporation) from going bankrupt. That became a possibility in 2013 when it was revealed that Russia would not order 37 of MAC’s new (and still in development) MiG-35 fighters. Because of development problems the MiG-35 has been delayed from 2016 to 2018 and finally showed up in 2019. You could see where this was going. Cancellation of the billion-dollar MiG-35 order put MAC in a financial bind and the best solution seemed to be the purchase of more of the existing MiG-29SMTs. The 22 ton MiG-29SMT is an upgrade of the original MiG-29 with improved avionics, a more powerful engine and the ability to use smart bombs and missiles against ground targets. Thus it could carry 4.5 tons of bombs and missiles. But it was not enough.

Meanwhile, MAC was running out of time, cash and options. It had orders for some MiG-29Ks (for use on aircraft carriers) and upgrades to Indian MiG-29s. Serbia was close to placing an order. MAC could not expect much more help from the government which was dealing with a major cash shortage as a result of record low oil prices and trade sanctions because of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

This was not the first time Russia purchased MiGs mainly for financial, not military reasons. In 2006 Russia agreed to buy 28 MiG-29 fighters to prevent the MAC from going bankrupt. That crisis was triggered when Algeria told Russia that it was canceling the 2007 purchase (for $1.3 billion) of 28 MiG-29 fighters and returning the ones already delivered. Algeria insisted that there were quality issues and that some of the aircraft were assembled from old parts. The accusation turned out to be true and Russian prosecutors tried and convicted several MAC executives for passing off defective, or used, aircraft parts as new. Many of these parts made their way into MiG-29 jet fighters that were sold to Algeria.

The MiG-29 has been in service since the 1980s but stocks of Cold War era spare parts were still around, and it was suspected in the Russian aviation community that some of these older parts were used to build the Algerian aircraft. These are supposed to be "new" aircraft but some of their components were definitely not. Some MiG employees were very unhappy with the corrupt practices involving aircraft parts. This sort of crime often extends to parts for airliners. The MiG employees felt personally responsible for any defective aircraft leaving their plant and didn't want to be flying in an airliner containing fraudulent parts either. Russian prosecutors, already involved in an anti-corruption program underway for several years, jumped on these allegations and quickly found senior executives presiding over widespread fraud in the aircraft components industry.

MiG hoped that the new 29 ton MiG-35 would save the company. Described as the equivalent of the American F-35, the MiG-35 would be the low-end to the high-end Su-57 (the Russian F-22). The Su-57 is no F-22 and the MiG-35 is no F-35. The MiG-35 is a considerably redesigned MiG-29. The MiG-35 was originally designed to canny a 30mm autocannon and up to five tons of bombs. The big selling point for the MiG-35 was its offensive and defensive electronics, as well as sensors for finding targets on land or sea. This stuff looks very impressive on paper but the Russians have long had problems getting the performance to match promises. This is particularly the case with the advanced electronics of the MiG-35, which was running into problems because the competing F-35 electronics set a very high bar. The MiG-35 has little stealth capability and first flew in 2007. There are currently eight prototypes used for testing and development work. The MiG-35 was expected to enter service sometime before the end of the decade. The MiG-35 would sell for less than half of what the F-35 goes for (currently over $120 million each). Russia hoped to buy a hundred or so MiG-35s after 2016.

The 27 ton American F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs), plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. All sensors are carried internally, and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.

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 original MiG-29 was a 22 ton aircraft 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. Reality was different. India, for example, flew them at nearly twice that rate, as did Malaysia. So Russia offered to upgrade the airframe so that the aircraft could fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This was not easy to do, as the MiG-29 had a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic). It was also more expensive to maintain than comparable Su-27/30 fighters and foreign competition.

 


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