There has been a resurgence of interest surrounding Moscow’s airframe arsenal amidst the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. One Soviet-era fighter platform has specifically caught the attention of aviation buffs and industry professionals - the MiG-29.
As strange as it sounds, the U.S. military actually procured 21 of these old MiG-29 jets following the dissolution of the USSR. While it may seem odd that Washington would seek out these fourth-generation fighters from Moldova, the transaction was well merited.
At the time, the U.S. was aware that Iran would purchase the Moldovan fighters if they were available. Since the MiG-29 platform could reportedly deliver nuclear weapons, Washington feared that Iran could ultimately weaponize the fighters against American interests.
Today, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) designated “Fulcrum” fighter remains in service with Russia and several former Soviet Republics. Notably, both Moscow and Kyiv have deployed the MiG-29 throughout the last fifteen-plus months of warfare.
The Evolution of the MiG-29
At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union desired a new fighter platform that could go head to head with American fourth-generation jets like the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle or the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
In the late ’60s, the former Soviet General Staff tasked engineers to develop a platform with long range, decent short-field performance, quick speed and heavy ordnance-carrying capabilities. Overtime, the MiG-29 was produced to replace the MiG-23 in the Soviet Air Force’s frontal aviation role.
The specs and capabilities of the MiG-29 met many of the Soviet’s General Staff’s requirements for a modern fighter. With a maximum speed of Mach 2.25 (around 1,300 knots), the Fulcrum is a fast platform. The Soviet-era fighter is roughly 56 feet long with a wing span of around 37 feet long.
Ordnance-wise, the MiG-29 can pack a punch. In addition to a singular Gryazev Shipunov GSh-30-1 30mm autocannon with 150 rounds, the Fulcrum can host roughly 9,000 pounds worth of weaponry including the AA-10 Alamo, AA-II Archer and the AA-8 Aphid.
As detailed by the Aviation Geek Club, the Fulcrum featured other key enhancements, including the world’s first Helmet Mounted Sighting system to achieve extensive operational use. “The USN briefly tested and deployed such in the 70s for its F-4Ns and a South African system influenced the Soviets to do the same.
These helmet mounted sights were nowhere near as sophisticated as the current JHMCS Helmet Mounted Displays. Instead, they consisted of a simple monocle which allowed MiG-29 pilots to lock their R73 Head Seekers onto any target they looked at within the gimbal limits of the missile’s seeker head.”
Buying the Fulcrums Was a Win-Win for Washington
In the mid-1990’s, Moldova informed the U.S. that it had been contacted by Iranian officials over the potential purchase of the country’s MiG-29s. Considering the MiG-29’s robust capabilities, it was in Washington’s best interest to procure available fighters in order to examine its design.
Additionally, the U.S. was able to thwart Tehran’s purchase of these jets, which would have greatly aided Iran’s aerial abilities. For this reason, the U.S. was able to buy these MiG-29s as part of the Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.