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The Problems with the MiG-29 Fighter Jet

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

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Decades ago, the MiG-25 “Foxbat” scared the west a lot. When it was first uncovered, military planners thought they were looking at an air superiority fighter. They were convinced that those wing designs were meant for agility, and to add to the horrors it could streak at Mach 3. But after a Soviet pilot defected with a fully functional jet later in the Cold War, it was revealed that the Foxbat was a less agile interceptor, and not for air superiority. It was still an amazing piece of hardware, yet the plane could render its engine inoperable when it zoomed at Mach 3.

On the bright side, the shock that the Foxbat induced helped the west developed an even deadlier fighter jet. To combat what they presumed to be a potent Soviet weapon, the F-15 Eagle was developed. It was made from the ground up to fight the Foxbat toe to toe. Since they assumed the MiG-25 was an air superiority fighter with blinding speed and maneuverability, the Eagle was designed for both high speed and agility. And what a fighter it became!

After that, the Soviets was faced with a problem. The fear they induced enabled the west to gain a technical edge, and they had to catch up. So, they scrambled to develop a fighter to face the F-15, and the newly developed F-16. And two of the most well-known combat jets rolled off from their production line.

Both developed a fearsome reputation. The heavier Su-27 Flanker would handle longer range, and its claim to fame is its amazing supermaneuvrability. Together is the lightweight MiG-29, known as the “Fulcrum.”

Today, those twin dogfighters are in wide use among many air forces. And years after its development, one of the two fighters have a problem. The MiG-29 is not as effective as presumed.

Development

The US F-15 Eagle. What triggered the Soviets to develop new fighters.

The US F-15 Eagle. What triggered the Soviets to develop new fighters.

After the F-15 made its appearance, the Soviets realized that the west was gaining a technical advantage in terms of air power. And the Eagle was just the beginning. The US introduced the “Lightweight Fighter” program, resulting with the highly agile F-16. Because of this, the Soviet responded with two fighter programs of their own that mirrored the western structure of the F-15 and the F-16. One was an advanced frontline fighter, and the other is a lightweight fighter. The result was the Perspektivnyy Frontovoy Istrebitel (PFI, translated as "Advanced Frontline Fighter"), which was assigned to Sukhoi and led to the birth of Su-27. Supplementing the PFI was the "Advanced Lightweight Tactical Fighter" (Perspektivnyy Lyogkiy Frontovoy Istrebitel or LPFI) assigned to Mikoyan, the maker of MiG planes.

And on October 6, 1977, the MiG-29 first took flight.

We could say that the F-15 influenced much of the designs of future Soviet jets. Visually on the outside, The MiG-29 shares a lot with the Su-27, and even with the western made Eagle. It received a NATO codename “Fulcrum A.” A name that Soviet pilots found flattering, that eventually led to its unofficial adoption.

Capabilities

A MiG-29 demonstrating the "Cobra" maneuver.

A MiG-29 demonstrating the "Cobra" maneuver.

The MiG-29 is sleeker than previous Soviet fighter and made to outmaneuver any NATO combat planes. In fact, it was designated as “supermaneuverable” and said to be capable of sharp turns like the “cobra” and high angles of attack. In low speed at close range dogfight, it is very nimble, said to be more agile than the F-16.

It was armed with the most advanced weapons and equipment of that time and powered by Klimov RD33 turbofan engines. The wide spacing between the engines reduced wing loading, hence improving agility. The engines also gave it excellent acceleration, and it could boost the fighter to a speed of Mach 2.25. Faster than the F-16. Armaments include autocannons and missiles, and its short-range R-73 could be aimed by helmet mounted sight.

Another beauty of the Fulcrum is that it could operate from unprepared airstrips, with its intake protected from debris by meshes.

With these capabilities, the MiG-29 should be a force to reckoned with. But actual battlefield assessments, not to mention prolonged usage tells a different story.

The Poor Fight Record

Wreckage of an Iraqi MiG-29.

Wreckage of an Iraqi MiG-29.

If there is one thing to describe the Fulcrum’s record, is that it was poor. In fact, its first engagement was not something to boast. Back on June 2, 1989, two MiG-29 belonging to Syria was shot down by Israeli F-15C. It didn’t fare well in the Persian Gulf War either. Five MiG-29 fell victims to F-15s, though they did damage an F-111 and B-52, and even brought down a British Tornado. But except for the F-111 (which managed to return to base), those claims cannot be verified.

The Fulcrums did better during the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflicts, where it claimed an SU-25, a MiG-21, and an unidentified aircraft. But five MiG-29s were lost to the Ethiopian Su-27. And the MiG-29 kept getting shot down during the NATO intervention in the Kosovo War. Of the six that were lost, the F-15s were responsible for the three. The rest were by F-16s. Unfortunately, the Fulcrums failed to score a single kill.

It’s not hard to see how the Fulcrums underperformed in its combat missions. People wondered if it failed to deliver what it was designed for, which is to outmatch the NATO air superiority fighters. Though billed as more agile than the F-16, the combat record showed the contrary. One might ask what went wrong, or if the Fulcrums got a fatal design flaw that need to address.

As it turns out, it’s flawed indeed.

Problems

The MiG-29 in flight.

The MiG-29 in flight.

The MiG-29 was designed in a way that it reflects the Soviet doctrine of closely directing pilots from ground control. The plane is also a classic example of Soviet era equipment, a type of hardware for rugged handling. And what made it attractive to various air force is its low price. It could be an entry grade air superiority fighter for nations that couldn’t afford the more expensive western combat planes.

Nevertheless, its billed advantage also became its downsides.

When western pilots managed to get their hands-on MiG-29s, they noted that with its awesome supermaneuvrability, it got handling problems. Being built on Soviet air combat doctrine deprived the plane with modern electronics. Situational awareness was not a priority when all the pilot did was listen to ground control. Hence it never had modern displays, controls and other avionics featured in western jets. And what does it mean when a fighter doesn’t have a good cockpit display? Western pilots got the Head’s Up Display, which allowed them to monitor the cockpit instruments while staying alert. Fulcrum pilots without such display had to bow their heads down to stare at their instruments, affecting their concentrations to their surroundings and rendering them vulnerable.

The range is also a problem with the Fulcrum, with its flying time less than nine hundred miles, further worsened by the fact that it cannot be refueled by air. Then there are the inferior sensors that gave it less accurate range.

And being a Soviet technology built on Soviet doctrine meant that MiG-29s can’t age well. It was not intended for long service life and its airframe tend to deteriorate quickly.

These limitations affected the overall performance of the Fulcrum. It was indeed intended as an entry grade fighter for less wealthy nations looking for domestic defense and not for long range frontline fighters. But for nations aiming to upgrade their armed forces, the answer is simply no. This plane is not for them.

References

1. Sotham, John (September 2014). "The Truth About the MiG-29." Air & Space Magazine.

2. Roblin, Sebastian (March 25, 2020). "Russia's MiG-29 Had Too Many Problems To Be a Good Fighter Jet." National Interest.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.