“Russians play chess and Americans play poker,” was the oft-repeated phrase used during the Cold War to describe how the two sides approached the development of their military establishments. Russian designers tended to look very long-term, building significant growth capacity into their platforms and anticipating that requirements would alter significantly over the 40 years that has become the average life span for a modern jet fighter.
The most contemporary example of this is the MiG-35 multirole fighter that Moscow-based RSK-MiG introduced last year as its new-generation derivative of the MiG-29 Fulcrum. Although outwardly it looks almost the same as the original MiG-29 that first appeared in the 1980s, it is as different from that Soviet-era platform, say some Russian observers, as the Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Block 60 is from the early F-16A/B-series.
The analogy to the F-16E/F is fairly close to the mark when comparing the major improvements that have been made to the new MiG’s designs. Like the Block 60, the MiG-35 will incorporate a new generation of avionics systems; it will have the ability to launch a full range of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons; and it will be equipped with an active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar. Both aircraft enjoy a significant increase in range–about a 50-percent improvement, in the case of the MiG.
The new MiG is going to be fitted with a new, higher thrust version of its Isotov/Klimov jet engine, called the RD-33MK, which features a thrust vector control (TVC) like that seen on the MiG-29OVT demonstrator. The TVC is linked to the aircraft’s full-authority digital engine control and digital fly-by-wire flight control systems, making the MiG-35 as maneuverable as or better than the famous TVC-equipped Su-30MKI fighter.
The MiG-35 is, in reality, an advanced development of the one-time MiG-29M-91.5 program that was cancelled in the early 1990s after only a few prototypes were built, and the MiG-29K-9.31 that was developed for–but not purchased by–the Russian navy. One of the MiG-29M prototypes has since been retrofitted with a TVC module and has been designated as the MiG-29OVT testbed prototype. This aircraft, painted in the same red, blue and white colors of the Russian flag and bearing the RSK-MiG logo, has been flown at several international airshows and is advertised as being the demonstrator for the systems being developed on the MiG-35.
Aside from the new on-board systems and the new engine, the MiG-35 also is built with a new, redesigned structure. The design team is led by Vladimir Barkovskiy, RSK-MiG’s deputy general designer and director of the company’s main engineering center. The team has managed the nearly impossible task of achieving two simultaneous goals of creating an airframe of lower weight and a structure stronger than any other previous versions of the MiG-29 by making greater use of composite materials.
The weight saving has had a profound impact on the aircraft’s combat power as it will now feature two additional hardpoints (for a total of eight) and will carry twice as much weight in weaponry as previous MiG-29 models. The MiG-35 will feature full integration of the Vympel RVV-AE medium-range, active-homing air-to-air missile, and air-to-surface weapons such Tactical Missile Corp.’s Kh-31 and Kh-35 missiles. These weapons have not been integrated on most of the basic versions of the MiG-29, and the ability to use them on the MiG-35 makes it a complete, multirole fighter.
Beyond these achievements perhaps two of the most significant aspects of this program are that the aircraft is to be fitted with an AESA radar, and despite all of the new-era technology systems that will be on board, it is also supposed to enjoy a major reduction in life-cycle costs over any previous MiG-29 models.
But skeptics state that while they can believe that the MiG-35 will represent a quantum leap in capability over previous generation models, they nonetheless see the promise of reduced life-cycle costs as being highly problematic. Initial models of systems like an AESA or new-generation digital avionics tend to be fraught with numerous faults and other integration difficulties that need time to be de-bugged. As this is Russian aerospace’s first experience with an open-architecture avionics configuration, expecting the aircraft to be, at least initially, cheaper to operate may be the true triumph of hope over experience.
The question also remains as to what radar set will be available for this aircraft. The traditional supplier of radars for the MiG-29–NIIR-Phazotron–showed a model of a what is being called “Zhuk-A” (the “A” indicating “active”) as their bid for the MiG-35. Their competitors at NIIP are also hard at work on an active array that is beyond the Irbis radar intended for the Su-35. Both Russian design houses have been working on developing an active-array for some time now, but the expense of validating the design and testing the radar on board an actual fighter is an expensive proposition–one that in Russia usually makes the presence of a launch customer a prerequisite for moving forward with active, full-scale development and test.
The one prospective launch customer–and the only customer at this time for whom this aircraft is a real possibility–is the Indian Air Force (IAF). The current IAF tender is still slated as a purchase of 126 aircraft, with numerous possibilities for follow-on purchases that could take the total buy well past 200 units. The revenue created from a sale of this size would enable MiG and its subsystem industrial partners to complete all of the unfinished aspects of this design. But the question still remains as to whether or not India will decide to stick with its traditional Russian supplier, rather than opting for a U.S. design.
And it is here that the real chess-versus-poker game is to be played out. Russia, with its many years of working with India, is counting on the series of moves it has made over the years to checkmate the U.S. bid to sell the IAF on a Lockheed Martin F-16 or Boeing F/A-18. Whether this will be enough to checkmate the Americans’ hand will be the key to this deal of the century, and to the future of the MiG-35.