Conceived to fill the technological gap between Russian and U.S. fighters, the MiG-29 has been one of the last cutting edge fighters produced by the then Soviet Union.
The Fulcrum was sold in large numbers to former Warsaw Pact air forces to replace their ageing MiG-23 Floggers and twenty four of them were also delivered to East Germany. The East German Jagdgeschwader (JG) 3 took delivery of its first MiG-29 in 1988, and on Oct. 4, 1990, the Wing operated 24 Fulcrums, equipping two squadrons.
A follow-on batch was on order, but the aircraft were never delivered. After the end of the Cold War and following the re-unification of Germany, the Luftwaffe inherited some of these fighters making them as much “NATO-compatible” as possible.
Among the pilots that amassed experience at the controls of the Luftwaffe Fulcrums, there was the Oberstleutenant (the Luftwaffe rank equal to Lieutenant Colonel) Johann Koeck who, after flying the F-4 Phantom, became commander of the only Luftwaffe MiG-29 squadron.
“With the re-unification JG 3 became Evaluation Wing 29 on 1 April 1991. On 25 July 1991 the decision was taken to keep the aircraft and integrate them into the NATO air defense structure. JG73 was activated in June 1993, and the MiG-29s assumed a National (Day Only) QRA(l) commitment over the former East Germany. The MiG-29s moved to Laage in December 1993 and on 1 February 1994 the unit gained a NATO QRA(l) commitment.”
Being an experienced Fulcrum driver, Koeck can tell which were the weak and the strength points of the MiG-29.
The most obvious limitation of the MiG-29 was the aircraft’s limited internal fuel capacity of 3,500 kg (4,400 kg with a centerline tank). The MiG-29 had no air-to-air refueling capability, and its external tank was both speed and maneuver limited.
If a mission started with 4400 kg of fuel, start-up, taxy and take off took 400 kg, 1,000 kg were required for diversion to an alternate airfield 50 nm away, and 500 kg for the engagement, including one minute in afterburner, leaving only 2,500 kg of fuel.
Koeck explains that “If we need 15 minutes on station at 420 kts that requires another 1000 kg, leaving 1500 kg for transit. At FL 200 (20,000 ft) that gives us a radius of 150 nm, and at FL 100 (10,000 ft) we have a radius of only 100 nm.”
The Fulcrum’s limited range conditioned also how the aircraft could perform a specific mission: in fact the MiG-29s didn’t possess the range to conduct HVAA (High Value Airborne Asset) attack missions, and they were effectively limited from crossing the FLOT (Front Line of Own Troops).
This limited station time and lack of air-to-air refueling capability ruled the MiG-29s out of meaningful air defense missions.
Another limitation of the aircraft was its radar that, as Koeck explained, was at least a generation behind the AN/APG-65, and was not line-repairable: if a MiG-29 experienced a radar problem, the aircraft went back into the hangar.
The radar had a poor display, giving poor situational awareness, and this was compounded by the cockpit ergonomics. 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.
Due to these limitations the integration in the NATO environments of the Luftwaffe MiG-29s was really hard and restricted to only few roles: as adversary threat aircraft for air combat training, for point defense, and as wing (but not lead) in Mixed Fighter Force Operations.
Nevertheless the onboard systems were still too limited, especially the radar, the radar warning receiver, and the navigation system. These restrictions brought to several problems that the Fulcrum pilots faced in tactical scenarios, such as a poor presentation of the radar information (which led to poor situational awareness and identification problems), a short BVR weapons range and a bad navigation system.
But despite all these limitations, once the furball started, the Fulcrum was the perfect fighter to fly. In fact thanks to its superb aerodynamics and helmet mounted sight, the MiG-29 was an exceptional fighter for close-in combat, even compared to aircraft like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18.
As Koeck recalls “Inside ten nautical miles I’m hard to defeat, and with the IRST, helmet sight and ‘Archer’ (which is the NATO designation for the R-73 missile) I can’t be beaten. Even against the latest Block 50 F-16s the MiG-29 is virtually invulnerable in the close-in scenario. On one occasion I remember the F-16s did score some kills eventually, but only after taking 18 ‘Archers’ (Just as we might seldom have got close-in if they used their AMRAAMs BVR!) They couldn’t believe it at the debrief, they got up and left the room!”
Moreover with a 28 deg/sec instantaneous turn rate (compared to the Block 50 F-16’s 26 deg) the MiG-29 could out-turn them: in fact the Fulcrum retained an edge over its adversaries thanks to its unmatched agility which was reached combining an advanced aerodynamics with an old-fashioned mechanical control system.
After one of the German Fulcrums was sold for evaluations to the U.S. in 1991, the remaining 22 MiG-29s served until 2003, when they were sold to Polish Air Force for the symbolic sum of 1 Euro each.
Those Mig-29s were then upgraded and they currently provide Baltic Air Policing duties against the Russian threat in northern Europe.
In a conversation with The Aviationist, Filip Modrzejewski who is the editor-in-chief of the foto.poork website, said that the organization of an air-to-air photo-shoot is quite challenging. First of all, the track needs to be placed at a proper altitude, and it needs to be planned in detail, which would make it possible to achieve high level of safety. Second, the weather conditions need also to be taken into account – since photography is very much weather-dependent.
Pre-flight briefing is equally important – during such shoots there is no place for spontaneous maneuvers – both the photoship (Lithuanian C-27J Spartan in this case) and the fighters need to know exactly what flight-path will be used. Formation flying skills are equally important.
Safety of the pilots is one thing – safety of the photographers should also be taken into equation. Each of the photographers uses a special safety harness, in order not to fall out of the photoship during the shoot. When it comes to the photo-taking process itself – it may be challenging due to the fact that people on board may be subjected to g-forces.
Camera batteries are also an issue here, due to the low temperatures. It is not recommended for the photographers to switch the lenses or memory cards during the flight, for safety reasons.
Here’s a backstage photo, depicting the tough work conditions on board of the Spartan.
Fortunately, the mission was flawless and the results, amazing!
So far, the Polish Air Force has not sent its F-16 on a single combat deployment beyond the Polish borders. Some of the journalists have asked the question – why?
Back in September 2013, as rumors that the backbone of the Polish fighter force was to be deployed to Syria, we explained that one of the main flaws of the “Jastrząb” (Polish name for the F-16) was that the aircraft lacked AIDEWS (Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite ) capabilities.
On Sep. 1. 2014, in an interview to madmagazine.pl defense outlet, General Gocul, the chief of the Polish Armed Forces General Staff, claimed that keeping the Vipers at home is justified both technically, as well as economically.
First of his arguments referred to the known FOD (Foreign Object Damage) sensitivity of the F-16. Gocuł claimed that the fighter’s engine is particularly prone to damage, and that Poles would be forced to expand the BAP (Baltic Air Policing) operation with runway cleaning equipment which may be expensive should the Polish Air Force deploy the F-16s to Lithuania to provide air policing of the Baltic States. In case of the MiG-29 Fulcrums (regularly taking part to BAP rotations), the air intakes are designed so as to prevent the threat of FOD – this is a fact, as the intakes feature a special flap system, which is closed when the aircraft is taxiing. However, it has been shown that this obstacle can be easily removed as Siauliai airbase has been a home for NATO F-16 jets before (for example the Portuguese F-16s).
The second argument provided by General Gocuł dealt with the operative costs associated with the F-16: the MiG-29 is cheaper to operate than the Fighting Falcons hence, deploying the Fulcrums is a way for not burdening the taxpayers. Apparently, cost of one flight hour of the MiG-29, according to various sources (exact data is unknown), is shaped at around 5,500 USD. In case of the F-16 the amount is as much as 7,700 USD.
But again, Gen Gocuł stated in an interview for the January issue of the Polish “Lotnictwo” magazine, that the Polish MiG-29s clocked 300 flying hours during May-August 2014, which is approximately 75 hours per aircraft. This provides a rough estimate of how much the Poles spent on its MiG-29s operational activities. This figure stands at around 1.7 million USD per fleet compared to 2.3 million USD it would cost to utilize the F-16s.
These arguments seem to be vague, as the nature of the Polish AF resistance towards sending the Block 52+ F-16 fighters abroad may stem from different reasons. Another point that has been made by Mad Magazine was that the Polish AF is not willing to expose the combat capabilities possessed by the Vipers to the Russians, by operating the F-16 in close vicinity of the forces of the potential adversary.
However, in the opinion of Konrad Muzyka, working for IHS Jane’s, there may be a third reason. When asked about the Final Operational Capability (FOC) of the F-16, Muzyka provided us with the following statement:
The issue pertaining to the operational capabilities of the Polish F-16s is a curious one. The Ministry of National Defence has never officially confirmed whether the aircraft possess AIDEWS thus raising questions if the F-16s are at FOC. This comes despite the fact that the contract was concluded as far back as in 2008. Naturally, it is in the Warsaw’s interest not to shed any light on the capability of the Polish Vipers, but the fact that they have never been operationally deployed abroad is concerning.
Officially, the Polish Vipers do maintain the combat ready status. They are regularly involved in exercises such as Red Flag or NATO Tiger Meet. Nonetheless, there are some questions to be asked: is it really the cost of operation that stops Poland from deploying the F-16s abroad?
Ukrainian Air Force Mig-29s are being painted with a trendy digital camouflage
In the last few months, aircraft enthusiasts spotting military jets operating at the Lviv State Aircraft Repair Plant have taken photographs of at least three Mig-29 Fulcrum fighters (two single seaters and a two seater Mig-29UB) sporting a trendy “pixelated” camouflage.
The three aircraft are among the airframes that were dismantled at Belbek airbase, near Savastopol, and relocated to the mainland Ukraine, when Russian forces invaded Crimea.
It’s hard to say how many aircraft the Ukrainian Air Force has lost.
Some reports, especially those on the pro-separatists side seem to be a bit exaggerated but, as Ainonline website reported, on the basis of Ukrainian and British sources, the Ukrainian Air Force has lost 22 aircraft throughout the crisis.
Ukrainian military aviation had not been in a very good shape before the hybrid-conflict with the separatists started, and any losses may be considered to be severe.
In total, the UAF conducted 740 sorties during the operation, which is dubbed by the Kiev government to have an “anti-terrorist” character.
Starting from losses within the group of combat planes, one Su-24 Fencer, six Su-25 Frogfoots and two MiG-29 Fulcrums have been lost, where one of the Fulcrums was reportedly shot down by a Russian MiG-29.
The cargo planes which have been lost include single examples of An-26 Curl, An-30 Clank and Il-76 Candid. The Curl was reportedly hit by a Buk missile system; the same type of anti-aircraft system behind the downing of MH17 flight (according to most analysts). The Il-76 mentioned above was shot down in Luhansk, and it was a Candid in a flight of three such planes landing at Luhansk at the time. The first Candid made a safe landing, while the crew of the last one aborted landing.
The British sources state that lack of proper flight experience and intelligence data was the main reason for the incurred losses. The ECM systems on the Ukrainian jets have been made in Russia, which means that they were easy to overcome. According to the Polish outlet altair.com.pl, the Western countries were asked to supply new electronic countermeasures, however in fear of these being intercepted by the Russians, they were never delivered.
In the light of the analysis of the potential of the Ukrainian Air Force conducted by Dr Sean Wilson, which has been published in the Polish “Lotnictwo” magazine last year, the above losses may be considered to be significant.
According to Wilson, Ukraine, back in 1992, inherited 3,600 aircraft, including 850 helicopters, out of which 285 assault choppers and 2,750 aircraft, out of which 1,650 were combat planes. Back in 2013 the estimated data suggested that out of these numbers only 200 combat aircraft were in active service and about 70 were combat capable.
Reports claim that 80 Frogfoots remain in active service and at least 14 are combat-capable. Which may be a significant notion, as the number is almost as high as the number of Frogfoots which were to be withdrawn.
Ukraine also had 66 examples of Su-27 Flankers, respectively 40 Su-27S Flanker-B’s (which are capable of conducting air-to-ground sorties), and 26 Su-27P Flanker-B’s (interceptor variant) and Su-27UB Flanker-C’s (two-seater). 36 of these were to remain in active service, while 16 were to be fully operational.
All of the Flankers are being currently used as interceptors. Modernization of these has been planned, and some examples have been updated before the conflict started.
When it comes to cargo planes, Ukrainians inherited 180 Candid-B transport aircraft, however, not many of these remained active. Two examples of An-30 Clanks were said to be still flying within the Open Skies program. About 20 Il-78 air tankers have been also a part of the post-Soviet inheritance; nonetheless the refueling equipment on these has been removed and maximally 8 of them remained active back in 2013 in a cargo role.
When it comes to the qualitative side of the analysis, the Ukrainian AF undertook several modernization programs for both fighters and attack aircraft. The modernizations included new avionics and navigational systems based on both GPS, as well as on its Russian counterpart – GLONASS.
Still, the Ukrainian Air Force suffered considerable losses during such a limited conflict a sign that the weapons in the hands of the separatists have been extremely effective against Kiev’s combat planes and helicopters so far.