Here’s why the MiG-29 could defeat the best western fighters in close air combat, despite its limitations

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.

Here is what Koeck recalls in Jon Lake’s book “How to fly and fight in the MiG-29 (Jane’s At the Controls)”:

“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.  

Mig-29 GAF air-to-air

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.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force



  1. Russians manufacture aircraft superior to the Western ones in aerodynamic performance (Mig-29 > F-16, Su-27 > F-15) yet their inferior electronics will ensure their quick demise in the battle field. The lopsided achievements of the Russians – great in aerodynamics and hardware but very poor in electronics is inexplicable!

  2. Iraqi Versions and Serbian versions were all A models/export versions of A models.
    Serbian Migs-29 were plagued with malfunctions and they were blind. You choose very bad comaprison. Add awacs into the equation and poor pilot training…they did not had a chance.
    Imagine confronting F-16 first model against modern Russian flown Mig-29 with complete Russian air superiority and electronic warfare – would it stand a chance? NO!

  3. Iraqi Versions and Serbian versions were all A models/export versions of A models.
    Migs-29 were plagued with malfunctions and they were blind. You choose
    very bad comaprison. Add awacs into the equation and poor pilot
    training…they did not had a chance.
    Imagine confronting F-16 first
    model against modern Russian flown Mig-29 with complete Russian air
    superiority and electronic warfare – would it stand a chance? NO!

  4. I sometimes wonder at the logic Western armed powers work. Except for the Cold War / Soviet threat of yesteryear, mostly brought upon by a dictator, such as Stalin, and perhaps even Khrushchev and Breshnev, things have changed quite considerably in Russia.
    Despite being a bit Nationalists (and who isn’t, really?), modern Russians have never dreamed to invade Europe.
    The only real threat is indeed NATO, with its stupid psychotic maneuvers to contain the “Russian Bear” in its borders.
    In fact, Russia these days is surrounded on the Western front by NATO allies and forces, and may I say, almost strangled by them.
    The threat, if ever, comes from this factor: the West, wanting to be predominant throughout the world (does this ring a bell?).
    Napoleon and Hitler, both wanted to conquer Russia and make it their own territory, not so much to bring a fresh air of freedom and brotherhood, but rather because both were greedy in regards of the riches that Russia possessed.
    Mind you, this had and still has nothing to do with true politics.
    Some may comment to this, that Russia invaded Ossetia and tend to so conveniently forget, that it was the Ossetians that called them for help.
    Afghanistan was indeed a great blunder, and any Russian soldier would freely admit that this was their own “Vietnam” outcome.
    Chechnya is another matter.
    What the Western press never really wanted to reveal, and anyone who is a bit informed about that region may tell you, is that Russia had given Chechnya their own independence, but alas, some Western secret services had the stupid idea that by reinforcing the Muslim component in this region, also partially helped by some drug dealing with some underground organizations, we now freely call “terrorists”, for our own convenience, they might hold Russia at bay and would manage to influence Russian internal affairs.
    Just to ease Western industries into Russia and have a firm foot on Russian soil.
    It is not a surprise then, to see that the majority of Russians are still firmly siding with their legitimate President, Vladimir Putin.
    Most Europeans, as well as many unaware Americans forget that Russians are, by nature, very proud to be Russians first, exactly as American citizens have a sacrosanct right to be about their own Nation.
    So, what makes Russians so very different from Europeans and Americans?
    I wonder…
    Besides, if someone would really go a bit deeper in History and analyze how Russia, as we know it today, was born, he would immediately recognize a deep Viking influence and yes, ultimately also cultural dominance in that territory.
    And who were then these legendary Vikings? If not partially Danes and Norwegians, if not other Nordic components?
    And do we have problems with Danish people these days? Or with Norwegians?

    So, why do we have problems in accepting the Russian/European component of Russia these days?
    Or do we have problems, knowing that behind the Urals there are Asians?
    Let’s face it.
    It is still an ancient fear regarding the Tartar, Vandal and Hun invasions that are still making us paranoid these days.
    There is absolutely no real threat coming from Russia.
    The only true threat is, if ever, should a Western ally, or even NATO set foot across the Russian border.
    In that case, Russians would really come together and unite in a formidable strike force to repel the invaders.
    After all, they managed to repel German Teutonic Knights, the Imperial French Forces, and the Nazis in World War II.
    Why shouldn’t they be able to repel the Western world?
    The will to sacrifice themselves to be what they are, Russians above all, is their own right, and no one will ever be able to change that.
    Their pride, their dignity and their honor would be at stake, but above all, their unconditional love for their own Homeland, which they identify as “Mother Russia”.
    And who, among us, would like to see one’s mother vilified, abused and violated?
    Ask yourselves this question and you will have, in essence, the true spirit that leads the average Russian to defend what is his.
    And make no mistake. Never, ever, dismiss the military capacities of the Russians, or underestimate the technology they possess.
    Unlike we dumbbells, who always advertise our might and power throughout the world, just to play God everywhere, Russians are a bit more subtle.
    They do not expose everything they have to anyone who wants to know their true military strength.
    And if you argue that our Secret Services know very well what Russians are producing, in view of the misguided information they managed and still continue to manage to deliver in regards of terrorist organizations, not having as yet solved the problem completely, but instead claiming that the threat is a continuous one and no one can do anything about it (very reassuring indeed! – and propaganda material for those hoodlums), especially after having promised to wipe them off the face of the Earth, I wouldn’t be so sure, whether or not they really know what Russia is indeed capable in producing.
    Now, a last word about Crimea, and I stop.
    Crimea was taken from a totally corrupt Nation, which in the past, during World War II, partially sided with Adolf Hitler.
    And mind you, they were not forced into the Third Reich, but rather were enthusiastically helping Germans to wipe out anyone they deemed not to be “real” Ukrainians, and not as one may assume, just Jews, but anyone, including other Baltic people and Russians.
    This might be explainable in part, by the attitude Stalin had in their regards in the Thirties, by starving them to death.
    But there is absolutely no excuse for the massacres they did in return, siding with Nazi Germany.
    Alas, there are still such unsavory components still ruling the Ukraine to this day, and believe me, some of them are common murderers, violent thugs and outlaws, and yet, Western Europe, as well as the United States helps them, ignoring completely the past as long as they do what they are told.
    Is this the core of Democracy these days?
    Methinks not.
    Crimea was a region the Ukrainians never really considered as being truly theirs, but was merely considered a commodity.
    People there lived in peace, but were considered “lesser” people than the rest of the Nation.
    No small wonder then, that these people were fed up with their statute of “B” class citizen.
    This is where Russia came in.
    And no, not militarily at first, since they too had a problem with it, as many have argued, but just with some military observers and counselors.
    This is also confirmed by the fact that the first thing the Ukrainian defense forces did, was to limit themselves to barricade themselves into their own compounds, in order not to have a bloody battle at their hands.
    I am talking about legitimate Ukrainian Army Forces, not those thugs who followed them, and who are just a Fascist Militia, composed of all sorts of low lives.
    Legitimate or not, there are some very serious historic facts that the West has just decided to royally ignore for their own convenience, just like when Saddam Hussein (another dictator put in the power seat by the West) abruptly decided to invade Kuwait.
    Even there, history should have played a role, but the Western world instead, decided to ignore it completely, since they, themselves, had re-written history as they pleased, especially after World War II.
    So please, do not judge everything by hear-say or simply reading “official” history, usually written by the victors.
    It is usually a very convenient tale, generally told by an idiot.
    If one would take the time to dig deeper than just the surface, he would soon be aware that there is always another side of the coin that might emerge.
    OK. That’s it.
    You may agree or not.
    It is not my place to impose my views unto others, nor is it my intention.
    My only concern is to make people aware that just because official sources state something, it doesn’t forcibly have to be the truth, nor a well established fact.
    As Albert Einstein said, although in a completely different context: “Everything is relative.”

  5. I see no “Russian threat” in reality ? It is USA who invades countries wordlwide not Russia. Since the WW2, USA had invaded ( mostly illegal, without UN permission or ivitation by legaly elected officials of targeted country ) more than 50 sovereign countries all over the world , while Russia did it just 2 or 3 times. You can’t deny that

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