Why Russia’s MiG-29 Fighter Never Lived Up to the Hype
NATO feared this jet in the last days of the Cold War but it never seemed to reach its potential. Why?
Flown by everyone from the current President of Bulgaria to the Mongolian Air Force, the MiG-29 (NATO reporting name Fulcrum) remains among the most prolific fighters in the world. However, the Fulcrum suffers from a raft of technical shortcomings and design flaws that have made it an increasingly tough sell over similarly-positioned western and Russian alternatives.
The design foundation for the Mikoyan MiG-29 was conceived in the early 1970’s, in part, as the Soviet response to the emergence of the U.S. F-15 Eagle. The core concept was simple, yet convincing: the Soviet Air Force needed a modernized, cost-effective, workhorse multirole fighter to perform an eclectic mix of roles across the many proxy theaters of the Cold War. The MiG-29 seemed poised to fill this role with its 1982 introduction, boasting a swept back wing layout, long and thin fuselage, and ubiquitous bubble canopy. The MiG-29’s design prioritized high sustained top speeds—the original MiG-29 could reach a speed of Mach 2.5—and supermaneuverability, notably being one of a handful of 1980’s fighters capable of executing the technically demanding Pugachev’s Cobra maneuver.
There is little question that the MiG-29 did offer some tangible advantages over its F-15 rival. For one, it was arguably more maneuverable than its U.S. counterpart— particularly at slow speeds, and in the hands of an experienced pilot. It also boasted a helmet-mounted display, allowing it to fire its highly capable R-73 “Archer” missiles off-boresight; that is, the MiG-29 pilot is able to target enemy aircraft simply by looking at them within a specific range of view. It would take until the early 2000’s for the US Air Force to acquire parallel capabilities with the AIM-9X.
But the MiG-29 was held back by a host of crippling deficiencies. For one, the base model’s avionics package was woefully lacking. The MiG-29’s radar, navigation, and radar warning systems were anemic, potentially resulting in serious situational awareness issues. Former East German MiG-29 pilot Johann Köck noted that “the radar had reliability and lookdown/shootdown problems, hence its poor discrimination between targets flying in formation, and moreover it couldn’t lock onto the target in trail, only onto the lead.”
Unlike its higher-end Su-27 counterpart, the base MiG-29 configuration lacked a fly-by-wire system. The MiG-29 also boasted relatively low fuel capacity (resulting in a shorter range) and as little as six hardpoints, limiting its operational value in long-range and high-intensity combat missions. Even if these issues could have been overlooked in light of the MiG-29’s budget cost, the fighter has also incurred reliability concerns over the years—dozens of MiG-29 crashes and technical malfunctions have been reported in the prior decades, occasionally throughout entire export batches.
The MiG-29’s dozens of specialized variants have attempted to fix some of these problems, introducing more robust radars, a fly-by-wire system, aerial refueling, more sophisticated avionics, and additional hardpoints. The 2005 MiG-29M revision incorporated many of these improvements into a redesigned airframe.
Mikoyan is currently working on a deep MiG-35 modernization, adding more powerful RD-33MK engines, sophisticated ECM capabilities, greater range, and LCD display technology integrated throughout the controls. The first few serial MiG-35 units were delivered in 2019, with over a dozen more reportedly planned over the coming years.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.