Russia’s Fearsome New MiGs Could Be Lemons

MiG-29SMT is a huge upgrade of the classic Cold War fighter—or second-hand junk in disguise

Moscow has placed an order for new, highly upgraded MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters. But they actually might not be new at all. The planned acquisition of the twin-tail, twin-engine MiG-29SMTs is a window into bizarre and possibly suspect Kremlin practices that could boost Russian air power … or undermine it.

Time was when foreigners referred to almost any Soviet- or Russian-built jet fighter as a “MiG.” While other design bureaus may have been making fighters for the Eastern bloc and its allies, the products of the company named for Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich were the most prolific.

The ubiquity of the plane-maker was a reflection of both the popularity of the MiG jets and the official favor the communist regime afforded the company.

How times have changed. Since the demise of the Soviet empire, the rival Sukhoi company has been the preeminent supplier of Russian fighters, for home and foreign use.

MiG’s fortunes, meanwhile, tell a sad story of botched export campaigns, high-profile technical issues, embargoes and a failure to capture any of the meager pickings on offer from Moscow’s Defense Ministry. Time and again, promising—and arguably more capable—MiG designs have been axed in favor of keeping Sukhoi’s production lines busy.

In recent years, things have begun to pick up for the Russian air force, and the Kremlin is once again ordering badly-needed new fighters. But from Sukhoi, not from MiG. The Moscow-based firm has muddled along with a handful of export orders and modest upgrades for foreign fleets.

Chief among these have been development of the modernized MiG-29UPG fighter for the Indian air force and a carrier-based MiG-29K for the Indian navy.

The success of the MiG-29K for the Indian navy’s much-delayed carrier Vikramaditya in turn prompted the Russian navy to order the same model for its own carrier air wing. And now, as Vladimir Putin’s Russia begins to flex its muscles, the Russian air force is finally ordering MiGs again. Just like in the good old days of the Cold War.

But the story behind the MiGs on order is a complex one. As with so many things in Russia, all might not be what it seems.

On April 15, Russian news media reported that the Kremlin has inked a deal with MiG—officially, the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG—covering the supply of 16 MiG-29SMT fighters. Under the deal, said to be worth $473 million, the first fighters are to be delivered to the air force by 2016.

While that could happen, exactly what kind of aircraft will be delivered remains open to question.

The MiG-29SMT has had a checkered career so far. Indeed, for a period it represented an embarrassing failure for the Russian arms industry.

The SMT variant of the ubiquitous MiG-29 was originally drafted as little more than a warmed-over version of the basic MiG-29 — around 1,600 of which have been built in all versions, according to the manufacturer.

Intended as an upgrade to wring service life out of the Russian air force’s fleet of roughly 250 aging MiG-29s, it was some way from the top-shelf MiG-35 that the company has also been offering. Rather than the exotic lightweight alloy airframe of the genuine advanced MiG-29 derivatives, the MiG-29SMT retains that of the original Cold War-era MiG-29.

But while the MiG-35 remains locked in a protracted development, the MiG-29SMT looks like it could be a good-value stopgap.

For the Russians, at least. The Algerian Defense Ministry might tell a different story. Back in 2006, Algeria ordered the MiG-29SMT as part of a huge defense sale from Moscow, supposedly worth $7.5 billion. The Algerian air force would get 28 single-seat MiG-29SMT fighters and six upgraded twin-seat MiG-29UB trainers.

Deliveries of the first aircraft began before the end of 2006, but the Algerians soon noticed that something was very wrong. The “new” fighters weren’t that new at all. The SMTs had been assembled using old, unsold airframes from old MiG-29s that had been languishing in open storage at the Lukhovitsy factory.

They may even have used airframes built for Iraq, way back in the late 1980s.

This was in breach of the contract, and Algeria ordered deliveries to be suspended. When deliveries resumed in 2007, the same situation was apparent. Algeria refused to pay, and instead demanded multi-role Su-30MKA fighters from Sukhoi.

It got them, reportedly at the same price as the MiGs.

After Algeria cancelled the MiG contract in 2007, the 15 or so MiG-29SMTs that had been delivered to North Africa returned to Russia, which duly paid for them in 2008. After a brief inspection, the Russian air force accepted 30 of the jets and gave them to the 14th Fighter Aviation Regiment.

They arrived at the unit’s base at Kursk, in central Russia, from early 2009. Refurbished, wearing new colors and codes, the MiG-29SMTs now represent the most capable Fulcrums in Russian service. The four remaining MiGs from the abortive Algerian order can be found with the air force test center at Lipetsk.

The coup de grace for the Algerian deal occurred last summer, when the final defendant in a criminal case relating to the contract received a four-year suspended sentence in Moscow. This defendant was the former general director of a company that had sold MiG outdated equipment using forged certification.

Three Russian businessmen involved in the fraud were previously convicted in May 2012.

All along, Russia refuted the Algerian allegations of “poor manufacturing quality,” insisting the use of refurbished airframes in the MiGs was in line with the contract—and that the price had been adjusted accordingly. It was of little consolation to MiG, however, which received no money for the jets until they found a new owner in the Russian air force.

Arguably, the induction of the ex-Algerian fighters was more about saving MiG from potential financial disaster than it was about revamping the Russian air arm. Despite this, there is little doubt that their new operator is happy with the acquisition.

The MiG-29SMT may not be as capable as the MiG-35, pictured above, or even as good as Russia’s advanced versions of the heavyweight Su-27—the Su-30M2, Su-30SM and Su-35S. But it’s certainly very useful.

The original MiG-29 was always dogged by its short range, which made it suitable for little more than point defense of key installations and infrastructure. The MiG-29SMT addresses this with an additional fuel tank housed in a bulged spine, almost doubling the mission radius.

An in-flight refueling probe is also fitted. The avionics suite includes an upgraded, multi-mode radar, a digital cockpit, improved navigation equipment, and an expanded array of weapons. Up-rated engines offer greater thrust and extended service life—rectifying another MiG-29 bugbear.

In fact, the recently ordered MiG-29SMTs might only differ from the MiG-35 in using the older airframe. The result would be a fighter with advanced N041R mechanically scanned radar and a sophisticated weapons suite.

With the Algeria story in mind, we’ll have to wait and see if the “new” SMTs for Russia are genuinely new-build, as has been suggested, or if they will be revamped “white tail” airframes that were built for other potential export clients, but never delivered. The exact specifications of the avionics and weapons also remain to be seen.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov pitched the idea to buy another batch of MiG-29SMTs way back in August 2013. At the time, the Kremlin viewed the SMT model as a useful gap-filler pending the arrival of the newer MiG-35. In November 2013, air force commander-in-chief Viktor Bondarev complained that the MiG-35 was still not ready.

UAC—the umbrella corporation of which MiG is a component—remains confident it can sell Moscow the MiG-35. But the new-build fighter is still waiting in the wings, and the company only expects an order for around 100 aircraft in 2016.

The order for more MiG-29SMTs is also interesting since it suggests that the Russian air force continues to see value in a mixed “high/low” force of heavier, more potent Sukhoi-made fighters complemented by lighter jets from the MiG stable.

And beyond the MiG-35, MiG is hopeful of securing interest in a follow-on lightweight fighter—a potential “MiG-29 for the future.” The exact status of this aircraft, known as LMFS, or Lightweight Multi-function Aircraft, remains unclear.

Respected Russian aerospace observer Piotr Butowski has suggested that Moscow might drop the LMFS project altogether in favor of the more modest MiG-35. But when it comes to Russian defense procurement, we should be careful to rule out anything.

While the LMFS currently exists only on paper, it should draw heavily upon MiG’s 1990s-era 1.44 advanced fighter demonstrator—a planned F-22 Raptor rival. It will, however, be smaller than both the 1.44 and the Sukhoi T-50, the latter providing the heavy fighter within a potential high/low force.

Last year, when Alexander Zelin, the former boss of the Russian air force and current assistant to the defense minister, presented plans for aircraft acquisitions by 2025, the stealthy LMFS was marked in red, indicating that the program was not yet approved and therefore uncertain.

However, depending on the progress—and the T-50’s price tag—the LMFS might yet emerge as an attractive and significantly cheaper option … and one with more potential on the export market.

If that happens, MiG just might rise again.

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