It can be argued that the Cold War massively contributed to the development of aircraft and avionics and the MiG-29 Fulcrum is probably among the most impressive aircraft produced by the Soviet Union.
Both United States and the Soviet Union were highly committed to gaining the lead in the air domain. Many aircraft that were built during this era, encompassed unique designs and technology that make them relevant even in the present.
What is unique about this twin-engine fighter is the constant improvements and upgrades it received even in the earliest lines of production. The MiG-29 managed to display competitive features and capabilities, which led many countries to procure it. That is why, its operations and combat engagements take place in numerous countries and several continents.
In the late 60s, the United States threatened to establish ultimate air supremacy over the Soviet Union by selecting an advanced design of fighter aircraft (F-15 Eagle) with superior capabilities.
The Soviet Union was quick to respond by issuing a set of specification requirements for their own program, the Advanced Frontline Fighter – PFI. This program foresaw the development of an ambitious aircraft that would ensure Soviet dominance over its adversaries. The Soviet aerodynamics agency TsAGI along with Sukhoi immediately jumped into the program with design proposals.
However, two years later, with the program still ongoing, the Soviets initiated another aircraft development program namely, the Advanced Lightweight Tactical Fighter.
This came at the same time the US had initiated the Lightweight Fighter program which would eventually result in the development of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Soviets were determined to prioritize a lightweight fighter, allocating 67% of the projected fighter needs to the LPFI, while the remaining 33% of the fighter needs went to the senior PFI program.
As Sukhoi had jumped to the PFI program first, this program would result in the development of the Su-27, while the lightweight program (LPFI) would be awarded to Mikoyan. The initial design for the LPFI program was presented in 1974 and was designated MiG-29.
Only 3 years later the design underwent its maiden flight. In the mid-’80s the MiG-29 went straight into the Soviet Air Force, substituting the considerably inferior MiG-23. On the other hand, the Su-27 integration within the Soviet Air Force was more complex, as this aircraft took specific tasks.
Much of the MiG-29 was similar to Su-27, considering that they were developed in the same period of time, nevertheless, MiG-29 had its unique characteristics. This aircraft utilizes the sweep angle format on its wings with LERX elements. It integrates hydraulic control and a three-axis auto-pilot system (SAU-451) in contrast to the fly-by-wire control system employed by Su-27. This airframe is mainly composed of aluminum, however, it also makes use of other composite materials.
The MiG-29 was powered by 2 Klimov RD-33 turbofan engines, which were capable of producing 50 kN (11,000 lbf) each dry and 81.3 kN (18,300 lbf) in afterburner. The engines are placed in the rear of the aircraft with significant space between them. The arrangement generates more lift and improves the overall maneuverability of the aircraft.
To ensure long-distance flights, MiG-29 is equipped with six internal fuel tanks that can store up to 4,365 L, which translates into 1,500km of flight. It also fits external an external tank that can extend the flight distance to 2,100km. In later versions of the aircraft, the fuel capacity was increased while the most updated variants involved the inflight refueling probes.
The MiG-29 was piloted using a center stick and a left-hand throttle, while the pilot has the head-up display and a Shchel 3UM helmet display. The aircraft employs a Zvezda K-36DM ejection seat for its pilots to sit. The cockpit is covered by a spacious bubble canopy. In later versions of the aircraft, the majority of the cockpit was improved with sophisticated systems including hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) as well as a multi-function display (MFD).
The Fulcrum was also equipped with a Phazotron RLPK-29 radar and N019 Sapfir 29 radar. Later during the service of the aircraft, because of leaks of information regarding the radar to the west, the Soviets replaced the Sapfir with the N019M Topaz.
The radar systems were paired with a variety of armaments including Vympel R-27 air-to-air missiles in the inner pylons that could be substituted with rockets or unguided bombs. In addition to the R-27, the outer pylons could carry R-73 missiles for dogfighting, while the aircraft could also fit a GSh-30-1 30 m, machine gun with 150 rounds.
The operational history of MiG-29 is very diverse considering the huge number of operator countries as well as its longevity in service. The initial years in service were very discrete, with the majority of information coming from intelligence services until it was exported to other Soviet allies. The Fulcrum displayed amazing features during its initial years of service, challenging the US’s F-16 and F/A-18.
However, due to lacking a HOTAS system, its pilots had to constantly look down and were placed in disadvantageous position in terms of situational awareness. HOTAS would be introduced in later variants of MiG-29.
Though the aircraft first flew in 1977 and was introduced to Soviet service in July 1982, it didn’t take part in many combat operations. The Soviet Union displayed the aircraft to the public of the west for the first time in Finland in 1986.
This was followed by its appearance at the Farnborough Airshow (Great Britain) in 1988 and the Paris Air Show in 1989. The appearance in the latter peaked with a crash of the aircraft. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine inherited the majority of the aircraft.
The lack of financial resources to maintain and modernize, resulted in many MiG-29 crashing. In 1993, two of these aircraft collided mid-air during the Royal International Air Tattoo (Royal Air Force show in England). Following a couple of crashes over Siberia, all MiG-29s were grounded until they received clearance to take to the skies again.
The results of the investigation were not favourable for the Russian Air Force, as the majority of this type of aircraft were too old to be flown and poorly maintained. Though some of the aircraft were cleared for flights, the Russian Air Force initiated the modernization process for the aircraft, resulting in the MiG-29SMT. Considering the gigantic cost of the process, they opted to purchase thirty-five MiG-29SMTs that had been turned down by Algeria.
Additional newly produced aircraft were purchased by the Russian Air Force during the 2010s, however, their number remains considerably lower than the older variants.
Despite denial from Russia, MiG-29s have been attributed with some kills, including a Georgian Hermes 450 UAV in 2008 in Abkhazia and a Ukrainian Su-25, using an R-27T missile in 2014. The modernised version of Fulcrum has also participated in the Syrian War since September 2017. They are reported to have been used for bombing and escorting strategic bombers. Though, not in the service of the Russian Air Force, MiG-29s were also used by another Russian military force, the Wagner Group.
The other inheritor of this aircraft, Ukraine, has utilised the MiG-29 in the war against Russia and its proxies in the east of Ukraine. After the 2014 occupation of Crimea from Russia, 45 Ukrainian MiG-29 were trapped in Russian possession. Shortly after the occupation, Russia shipped these planes back to Ukraine. In order to “return the favour” Ukraine employed the same planes in the war in the Donbas region.
In 2018, Ukraine began the modernisation of these aircraft in its Lviv Aircraft Repair Facility. They would come to be used in joint training with US bombers including B-1B and B-52.
Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, MiG-29s have been constantly used to protect Ukrainian air space, especially during the capture attempt of Kyiv. Considering their vital role in Ukrainian Air Force, as of August 2022, the US supplied and integrated the AGM-88 HARM missiles into this aircraft.
In addition to the countries that succeeded the Soviet Union, the MiG-29 has also been in service of some other countries via exports. The first and major importer of Fulcrum was India, who ordered 66 aircraft while it was still in development in 1980.
These aircraft were heavily used during the Kargil War against Pakistan. India has consistently invested in these aircraft since the 90s, providing several upgrades throughout the years. India also purchased the MiG-29K variant for its Navy. In 2020, India placed the most recent order for Fulcrum, ordering an additional of 21 aircraft, restating its commitment to keep these MiGs operational in its military.
Yugoslavia also imported this aircraft from the Soviet Union, the first purchase taking place in 1987. A total of 16x MiG-29s were delivered to Yugoslavia. They first saw combat in Croatia during the breakup of Yugoslavia. However, their combat missions during the Kosovo War in 1999 are better documented.
There were a total of 6 MiG-29s shot down during this war with some additional aircraft destroyed on the ground mainly by United States F-16s. Nevertheless, the remaining MiGs along with additional donations from Russia (6 planes) and Belarus (4 planes) totaling 14 aircraft, are still in service in the Serbian Air Force. They are waiting to be modernized in the following years.
Following Yugoslavia’s lead, East Germany also procured MiG-29s from the Soviet Union. A total of 24 aircraft were delivered to East Germany between 1988 and 1989, which became the property of Germany after the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989. These planes were mainly used for training purposes during the 90s, and by 2003 Germany had “sold” 22 of those aircraft to Polish Air Force at a price of 1 euro per plane.
Other countries that possess MiG-29s in their Air Force include Peru, Syria, Iraq, Sudan United States, North Korea, Poland, Cuba, Eritrea, Bangladesh and Bulgaria.
MiG-29s are reported to have been used in combat in the Syrian Civil War, the Libyan Civil War, confrontations with Israeli aircraft (Syrian MiGs) and in the Eritrea-Ethiopia War.
There were two original variants, 29A and 29B. The 14 other variants that exist are upgrades of the original MiG-29 airframe. Another 7 variants were produced using the modified airframe including the “MiG-35”.
Considering the numerous upgrades and modernization processes that this aircraft has undergone in many countries, we can expect to see MiG-29 variants for decades to come. The latest variant MiG-35, which derives from the MiG-29M/M2 and MiG-29K/KUB, is marketed as a 4++ generation fighter. It has attracted the attention of many countries including Egypt, India, Malaysia, an Argentina, indicating that the operational timeframe of MiG-29 variant will extend long into the future.
- Crew: 1
- Length: 17.32 m (56 ft 10 in)
- Wingspan: 11.36 m (37 ft 3 in)
- Height: 4.73 m (15 ft 6 in)
- Wing area: 38 m2 (410 sq ft)
- Empty weight: 11,000 kg (24,251 lb)
- Gross weight: 14,900 kg (32,849 lb)
- Max takeoff weight: 18,000 kg (39,683 lb)
- Fuel capacity: 3,500 kg (7,716 lb) internal
- Powerplant: 2 × Klimov RD-33 afterburning turbofan engines, 49.42 kN (11,110 lbf) thrust each dry, 81.58 kN (18,340 lbf) with afterburner
- Maximum speed: 2,450 km/h (1,520 mph, 1,320 kn) at high altitude
- Range: 1,430 km (890 mi, 770 nmi) with maximum internal fuel
- Service ceiling: 18,000 m (59,000 ft)
- Rate of climb: 330 m/s (65,000 ft/min)