Paris Air Show

Foreigners hold edge in MiG-29 upgrade race

 - December 12, 2006, 10:56 AM

The Mikoyan MiG-29 carries a reputation as one of the most capable fighter aircraft ever designed, but to keep the revered Russian warplane on the cutting edge, new technology needs to be applied to the marque. Russian and foreign firms have made numerous proposals over the past 12 years, but none of them have ever reached a stage that even approaches Lockheed-Martin F-16’s midlife upgrade program. The MiG-29s in service still use avionics and other on-board systems designed more 20 years ago.

Users of the MiG-29 have been pushing for a common configuration for all the aircraft’s users, but such solidarity among the different nations and enterprises that could or would establish a modernization program has always proved elusive. As a result, a number of air forces have received proposals to abandon their MiG-29s in favor of used Lockheed-Martin F-16s or other Western fighters. Even though the Western designs benefit from active retrofit programs and offer a number of options air forces need, most prospective customers have turned down the offer. The reasons are twofold.

During the Cold War, U.S. and Western intelligence agencies frequently took criticism for overstating the capabilities of Soviet weapon systems to justify procurement of their own new and advanced designs. However, the MiG-29 was one case where the aircraft proved itself much more formidable than many had originally believed.

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down at the end of the 1980s, the U.S. and other nations got the chance to inspect firsthand the early production MiG-29 fighter flown by the former East German  air force, which the newly reunified Germany now intended to place into service with the Luftwaffe. The evaluation teams that examined the aircraft came away more than impressed. “Our overall assessment after a series of evaluations was that the MiG-29 was the best fighter in the world when operated inside of the infrared air-to-air missile envelope–superior in many respects to most fighters in service with NATO,” said a senior NATO military official who participated in the exercise.

The assessment proved accurate when, throughout the 1990s, U.S. and other NATO air forces had the chance to fly against the Luftwaffe MiG-29s. Most of the Western pilots marveled at its performance–particularly how well it retained energy at lower speeds. They now realized what the air forces flying the MiG already knew: with some upgrades to the on-board systems the aircraft could serve as a viable platform for another 15 years or more.

Finally, some viable and economical options for modernizing the aircraft have surfaced. In a twist of irony, many of the most affordable options come from outside Russia, and not from the same firms that participated in the design of the original MiG-29.

Russian radar houses NIIR-Phazotron and NIIP have both developed very capable new-generation radars for the MiG-29 that–along with a host of other new on-board systems–could significantly augment the aircraft’s combat performance. The upgrades available through Russian suppliers are widely regarded as significantly more extensive and expensive than packages offered by firms in the Ukraine and Belarus. This leaves MiG-29 operators having to calculate just how much more investment they want to make in the equipment to extend its useful service life.

Ukraine and the neighboring Republic of Belarus have long been home to some of the most capable overhaul and service facilities for the MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27. Two of these are the repair plants in L’viv, Ukraine and Baranovichi, Belarus. Because of their hands-on familiarity with the aircraft’s operational eccentricities and the need to provide a low-cost solution to the problems of the Su-27 and MiG-29’s increasing obsolescence, facilities in both countries have developed a means of modernizing the platforms by swapping out old components and making moderate changes to the configuration. By contrast the approach of Russian providers tends toward more wholesale replacement of equipment, modernizing just about everything within the original MiG-29 airframe.

The Phazotron-Ukraine joint venture stands as one of these local, lower-cost solutions. The hardware developed in Ukraine in conjunction with radar specialists in Moscow modernizes the existing Su-27 N001 and MiG-29 N019 radars instead of completely replacing them with new units. After the modifications the N001 is effective to almost 100 miles, and can fire export versions of air-to-air active radar-homing missiles.

The Baranovichi aircraft plant in Belarus takes the process a step further by making their Su-27s and MiG-29s fully air-to-ground capable and installing major cockpit alterations. Two separate data channels control air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry, which gives the aircraft more functionality than some of the packages offered by Sukhoi in Russia.

“With our upgrade,” said one Baranovichi official, “a MiG-29 or Su-27 can launch the full range of air-to-ground weapons. This includes laser-guided munitions, which the Russian upgrades do not offer despite their higher priced upgrades. And our upgrade provides the same air-to-air weaponry functionality that the Russians have been proposing with the MiG-29-9.17SMT upgrade.”

However, neither the the Ukrainian nor Belarusian programs can advertise far and wide that they can provide cheaper upgrades for Russian-made fighters. Any change they make to the MiG-29 or Su-27 must ultimately win approval from the original design bureaus in Moscow.