The lessons learned from the Vietnam War proved to both military personnel and aircraft designers around the world that the bid on BVR air-to-air engagements was very unrealistic. Engagements still occurred at visual range and only the agile fighters emerged victorious.
By the late 1960s, it was obvious that the need was for fighters that would carry the latest in Sensors technology to allow pilots to engage enemies from beyond visual range and be able to outmaneuver them in close combat.
The west at that time observed that the Soviets have developed aircraft of their own that would excel in both areas (BVR and close combat). The Soviets had both the MiG-23 and MiG-25 (complemented by their aging but agile MiG-21). Those aircraft with their speed, radar, armament and design were capable of outperforming any western aircraft. The west needed to develop something that would encounter such a threat from the Soviets.
Design on the first western 4th generation fighters began in 1968 when both the US Air force and Navy started requesting designs for aircraft that would replace their current fleet of F-4 Phantom II fighters. The aircraft proposed were the F-15 Eagle for the US Air force and F-14 Tomcat for US Navy.
Both aircraft excelled over any existing Soviet fighter at the time in every aspect. Range, armament, radar, sensors, speed, you name it. But they had one major drawback and that was cost. That was one area in which the Soviets always excelled. Lower cost meant more aircraft can be ordered thus giving more striking power and more aircraft to cover losses endured in combat.
Requests were issued for having lightweight fighters that are cheaper and thus could be produced in larger numbers. General Dynamics won the bid for the USAF with its F-16 Fighting Falcon. McDonnell Douglas on the other hand won the contract for the Navy's lightweight fighter the F/A-18 Hornet.
The Soviets could not stand still watching the US develop all of these fighters with such superb qualities. The Soviet Air force decided to produce their own aircraft to counter America's long range and front-line fighters.
In 1969, the Soviet General Staff issued a requirement for an "Advanced Frontline Fighter" program (called PFI). Specifications were extremely ambitious, calling for long range, good short-field performance, excellent agility, Mach 2+ speed, and heavy armament. The Russian aerodynamics institute TsAGI (Russia’s NASA) worked in collaboration with the Sukhoi design bureau on the aircraft's aerodynamics.
By 1971, however, Soviet studies determined the need for different types of fighters. The PFI program was supplemented with an “Advanced Lightweight Tactical Fighter" program (called LPFI). The PFI fighter was assigned to Sukhoi, resulting in the Sukhoi Su-27, while the lightweight fighter went to Mikoyan. Detailed design work on the resultant Mikoyan Product 9 (designated MiG-29A) began in 1974, with the first flight taking place on 6 October 1977.
The workload split between PFI and LPFI became more apparent as the MiG-29 filtered into front line service with the Soviet Air Forces in the mid-1980s. While the heavy, long range Su-27 was tasked with the more exotic and dangerous role of deep air-to-air sweeps of NATO high-value assets, the smaller MiG-29 directly replaced the MiG-23 in the frontal aviation role. Features such as rugged landing gear and protective intake grates allowed MiG-29 operations from damaged or under-prepared airstrips that Soviet war planners expected to encounter during a rapid armored advance.
The MiG-29’s design was based on an integral layout which was composed of:
Though the Su-27 and F-16 incorporated fly-by-wire control systems, the MiG designers decided not to follow suit as they believed that fly-by-wire technology was not yet perfected to enter service on Soviet jets. Instead, the MiG designers went for an aircraft design that was aerodynamically stable with excellent instantaneous and sustained turn performance, high-alpha capability, and a general resistance to spins. The aircraft’s control however had limiters to prevent the pilot from exceeding its g and alpha limits.
It is interesting to note that by the 1970s Western aircraft were starting to use lightweight composite material in construction of their airframe. This was another feature that the MiG-29 fell behind in early models as it was not yet perfected in the Soviet Union. However, in later models, composite materials made a huge percentage of the overall material used to manufacture the aircraft's air frame as show below in the latest MiG-29K photo.
The MiG-29 has two widely spaced Klimov RD-33 turbofan engines, each rated at 50.0 kN dry and 81.3 kN in afterburner. The engines are fed through intake ramps fitted under the leading-edge extensions (LERXs), which have variable ramps to allow high-Mach speeds. As an adaptation to rough-field operations, the main air inlet can be closed completely and alter using the auxiliary air inlet on the upper fuselage for takeoff, landing and low-altitude flying, preventing ingestion of ground debris.
The MiG-29 has a ferry range of 1,500 km without external fuel tanks, and 2,100 km with external tanks. The internal fuel capacity of the original MiG-29B is 4,365 liters distributed between six internal fuel tanks, four in the fuselage and one in each wing. For longer flights, this can be supplemented by a 1,500-litre centerline drop tank and two 1,150-litre underwing drop tanks. In addition, a small number have been fitted with port-side inflight refueling probes, allowing much longer flight times.
The cockpit of the MiG-29 features a conventional center stick and left hand throttle controls. It has conventional dials, with a head-up display (HUD) and a Shchel-3UM helmet mounted display. Upgraded models introduce "glass cockpits" with modern liquid-crystal (LCD) multi-function displays (MFDs) and true HOTAS (Hands on Throttle and Stick) controls.
More advanced MiG-29SMT cockpit with MFDs and HOTAS controls
MiG-29 pilots sat in the respected Zvesda K-36D zero-zero (meaning zero altitude zero speed) ejection seat.
Judging by accidents we have seen in air shows that involved the MiG-29 and other Soviet/Russian fighters that utilized this seat, there are no doubts that the seat provides an impressive escape system. One notable accident was that in the 1989 Paris air show when a MiG-29 suffered from engine failure and the pilot had to eject second before the plane crashed at very low altitude.
The baseline MiG-29B has a Phazotron RLPK-29 radar fire control system which includes the N019 Sapfir 29 look-down/shoot-down coherent pulse-Doppler radar and the Ts100.02-02 digital computer. Tracking range against a fighter-sized target was only about 70 km in the frontal aspect and 35 km in the rear aspect.
The MiG-29 also incorporates the S-31E2 KOLS, a combined laser rangefinder and IRST in an "eyeball" mount forward of the cockpit canopy. This allows the MiG-29 to acquire and engage targets at acceptable ranges without emitting any radar signature.
Armament for the MiG-29 includes a single GSh-30-1 30 mm cannon in the port wing root. This originally had a 150-round magazine, which was reduced to 100 rounds in later variants. Original production MiG-29B aircraft cannot fire the cannon when carrying a centerline fuel tank as it blocks the shell ejection port. This was corrected in the MiG-29S and later versions.
Three pylons are provided under each wing (four in some variants), for a total of six (or eight). The inboard pylons can carry a 1,150 liter fuel tank, one Vympel R-27 (AA-10 "Alamo") medium-range air-to-air missile, or unguided bombs or rockets. Some Soviet aircraft could carry a single nuclear bomb on the port inboard station. The outer pylons usually carry R-73 (AA-11 "Archer") dogfight missiles, although some users still retain the older R-60 (AA-8 "Aphid").
The MiG-29’s BVR capabilities were very limited due to its relatively small radar, which in turn did not allow for its medium range R-27 missiles to be used with their full range. However, the fighter’s close combat capabilities were superb because of its R-73 missile.
The R-73 is an infrared homing (heat-seeking) missile with a sensitive, cryogenic cooled seeker with a substantial "off-bore sight" capability. The missile’s seeker can detect targets up to 40° off its centerline. It can be targeted by a helmet-mounted sight (HMS), allowing pilots to designate targets by looking at them. Minimum engagement range is about 300 meters, with maximum aerodynamic range of nearly 30 km at altitude.
This weapon was certainly years ahead of its time. It later promoted the development of a number of western air-to-air missiles including the AIM-132 ASRAAM, IRIS-T, MICA IR, Python IV and the latest Sidewinder variant, the AIM-9X which entered squadron service in 2003.
Like the MiG-15, the MiG-29’s combat records are not as impressive as those of its western counter parts though its potential and capabilities suggests otherwise. The reasons behind this could be the following:
The most notable conflicts that involved the MiG-29 were the Gulf War and the Kosovo War.
Although the MiG-29 never enjoyed a good combat-record, it did earn much of its respect from its outstanding performance in air shows all around the world. Aerobatics performed by teams such as the Russian Swifts and Ukrainian Falcons demonstrated the aircraft’s agility and maneuverability in front of audiences worldwide.
I never saw the MiG-29 but I do own 3 diecast models for it. Two models from Witty Sky Guardians and one from Maisto. I also own a model of the MiG-35 Super Fulcrum (picture at the end of the post).
The MiG-29 hasn’t seen any major upgrades to the design of its airframe since its introduction in the 1980s. This is a great testimony to its ingenious design that was first proposed in the 1970s and still continuous to serve in the 21st century.
The MiG-29 currently serves in 24 countries. Mikoyan is looking forward to sell its latest variants to countries that want to upgrade their air forces but can’t afford buying or developing 5th generation fighters.
New MiG-29 variants of the 4++ or 4.5 generation such the MiG-29M/M2, MiG-29SMT, MiG-29K, MiG-29OVT, and MiG-35 incorporate features and technologies from 5th generation fighters such as AESA radar, engines with thrust vectoring nozzles, integrated avionics, and improved radar jamming capabilities. These upgrades will surely make the MiG-29 a worthy opponent for years to come.
Thanks Jeff. Glad you have liked it. I did make some updates to the article today.
You haven't seen the MiG-29 YET.... but I hope you will get the opportunity to see the Egyptian Air Force's new MiG-29Ms when they are delivered!