45 years after its first flight, why the Soviet-made MiG-29 is still the main fighter of the Ukrainian Air Force, even though they also have a more modern heavy fighter, the Su- 27?
October 6, 2022 marks 45 years since the maiden flight of one of the Soviet Air Force’s most iconic fighters before its disintegration, the MiG-29. Ironically, the aircraft is now being used in the conflict between the two former Soviet republics.
The MiG-29 was one of four Soviet fourth-generation tactical fighters and was used as a medium fighter to comfortably outmaneuver rivals such as the F-16 and F- 18, as well as to challenge the US Air Force’s leading heavyweight competitor, the F-15 Eagle.
The MiG-29, when it joined the Soviet Air Force in 1982, revolutionized flight performance with unparalleled maneuverability and climb speed. It also complements this by integrating the R-73 air-to-air missile, which is capable of destroying targets from a distance, giving it a distinct advantage over all Western aircraft staying within sight.
The R-73 missile allows the aircraft to hit targets, without the need to point the aircraft’s sights on the target, and the missile captures the target according to the scope mounted on the pilot’s helmet. That is, just a “turn of the head” of the pilot, was able to lock the target of the enemy.
This particularly revolutionary feature of the R-73 missile, was quickly copied by the Western Air Force, after the first MiG-29s joined the Unified Luftwaffe in the 1990s. Remember then the rivals of MiG-29 fighters like the F-15, F-16, F-18 and even the stealthy F-22, still didn’t have this technology.
Another particularly notable feature of the MiG-29 is its ability to take off from short or field runways, making it the ideal front-line fighter to face NATO forces. And after the armies of some Warsaw Pact countries were merged into NATO, the MiG-29 continued to be used and this aircraft later became the backbone of the Ukrainian Air Force.
After the Russian-Ukrainian conflict broke out, when attacks on Ukrainian airports and tight supplies made it difficult for Kiev to use Su-27 heavy fighters and Su-24M attack aircraft, then the MiG-29 was considered ideal, as it can take off and land on makeshift runways.
In addition, the supply of components and possible delivery of more MiG-29s in the near future by the former Warsaw Pact NATO members, is also key to keeping Ukraine’s MiG-29 fleet able to operate.
However, Ukraine’s fleet of MiG-29s has not been upgraded much since it was produced in the 1980s, making it almost obsolete against the Russian Air Force.
Experts from Ukraine and NATO successfully integrated the US AGM-88 anti-radar missile on the country’s MiG-29 fighter; contributed to the destruction of many Russian radars and anti-aircraft missile systems in the Ukrainian battlefield. This can be said to be an “unthinkable” public improvement for Ukraine.
In addition, according to US officials, it is possible that Ukraine can buy more modern MiG-29s, through its Egyptian partner, which is currently equipped with MiG-29 models with good avionics and 21st century weapons and completely new aircraft and engine materials; but this is very unlikely to happen.
The MiG-29 is still produced in Russia today, but the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact military bloc and then the Soviet Union, followed by the near collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s, resulted in a significant contraction of the MiG-29. of the MiG-29 squadron, making the Russian Air Force prefer the Su-27s.
The Su-27 was developed as a heavier counterpart to the MiG-29 and entered service in 1985. Consequently, the bulk of the Soviet fleet of 800 MiG-29s (as of late 1991), which Russia inherited, has been modernized and exported as a low-cost fighter; the rest is put into long-term storage.
The success of the Su-27, which made it considered by many experts to be the most capable fighter in the world, outperformed the F-15 in testing in the US.
As a result, the MiG-29s in the service of the Russian Air Force tend to be deployed to unimportant units located far away from potential hot spots. Instead, the Russian Air Force used modernized versions of the Su-27 such as the Su-30SM, Su-34 and Su-35 in combat.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is still having difficulty using their Su-27s, so it is expected to continue to rely on the MiG-29; in which mainly uses MiG-29 equipped with American AGM-88 radiation missiles to destroy Russian air defense systems, not to gain air superiority.
In Russia itself, production lines and modernization projects for Soviet-made airframes (currently in storage) are expected to continue, to meet customers demand. While the MiG-35, a modernized version of the MiG-29M has also begun to be offered for export.
The development of the next-generation fighter, the fifth-generation Su-75 Checkmate stealth fighter, could lead to the cessation of MiG-29 production near 2030.