Farnborough Air Show

MiG juggles its fighter upgrade options

 - July 12, 2008, 4:08 AM

As Anatoly Belov contemplates his new joint role as RSK MiG’s new general designer and general director, he faces a situation in which the famous Russian fighter house has both opportunities and challenges to keep its domestic and export customers happy. The company expects to build around 300 to 350 new aircraft over the next decade. It is bringing its “fourth-generation-plus” MiG-35 warplane to market, mindful of the fact that its rival Sukhoi is in the driver’s seat for the development of Russia’s planned fifth-generation fighter.

Eight nations operate nearly 400 MiG-29s, as does Russia. According to MiG, more than 300 of these are suitable for upgrades that could extend their service life for a generation.

For instance, the latest proposal for the Russian air force includes the upgrade of the service’s entire MiG-29 fleet into an advanced SMT version, as well as the provision of new MiG-35s. “Our offer addresses immediate Russian air force needs and also the tasks the service will face in a more distant future,” Belov explained.

The MiG-35 is being presented as the ultimate land-based derivative of the MiG-29K/KUB shipborne fighter. Conceived as a family of lightweight fighters, these models form the core of MiG’s product portfolio for the next decade. Winning the new Indian government tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft in the face of stiff Western competition would give a solid basis for the MiG-35 development. It would also ease financial pressures facing MiG (see below).

A new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar is the key element in the MiG-35 package. As the first-ever AESA for a Russian fighter, the Phazotron Zhuk-AE is entering the third phase of its trials. “This time we are going to close the loop of air-to-air mode, and also that of the ground mapping. We are on track with preparations for the next phase of the Indian tender at the end of this year,” said Phazotron general designer Yuri Guskov.

To some degree, Russian prospects for success in the Indian MMRCA choice may depend on how well the country’s industry is judged to have fulfilled previous commitments to the Indians. Completion of the Vikramaditya (formerly Gorhskov) aircraft carrier has been delayed until 2011. However, Belov claimed that the contract for 16 ship-based fighters is separate and well on track.

Last month Indian navy crews started theory classes to enable them to begin flying an initial batch of MiG-29K/KUBs in August. “These aircraft are completed and will soon be delivered to the Indian navy,” said Belov. A second batch will be dispatched by year-end.

Depending on the complexity of upgrades, the price differential between a modernized MiG and a new airframe can be as much as five to 10 times. Financially, this renders upgrading worthwhile.

This year MiG won the contract for upgrading 66 Indian air force early-model MiG-29s. The work follows completion of the MiG-21bis modernization into the UPG Bison version.

Now New Delhi is considering the case for retrofitting MiG-27MLs with Salut AL-31F engines to attain commonality with the Indian air force Su-30MKI multi-role fighters. “We should have made the offer a few years earlier, but there is still some chance.
The customer likes the retrofit, but making the decision to go for it is something that needs further consideration,” said Belov. Out of 165 MiG-27MLs built, 150 are still in Indian service. “Assembled in late 1980s and early 1990s, these airframes are relatively new, with some life still in them. This makes the retrofit a viable solution,” he added.

Meanwhile, Eastern European nations face the same dilemma in that their MiG-29s are about the same vintage. “In my opinion, the correct selection of technology insertions into the airplane’s onboard systems offers a cost-effective solution, enabling the MiG-29 to remain effective for a few dozen years. Our joint work with the Slovakian air force proves it,” said Belov.

MiG is now cooperating with BAE Systems, Goodrich, Thales, Safran, Rheinmetall Defense Electronics and Rockwell Collins to shape cost-effective upgrade solutions for such aircraft. Together, these companies address specific requirements of MiG users, such as compliance with NATO and ICAO standards. Industrial cooperation programs between MiG and European firms are generating annual orders in the tens of millions of dollars.

Customers are being offered the chance to move from traditional scheduled support to subscription-based and on-condition maintenance programs. Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia have agreed to do so and talks are in progress with Ukraine, Belorus and Romania.

Asked about MiG’s new SCAT unmanned aerial vehicle first revealed at last August’s MAKS Moscow airshow, Belov declined to elaborate on the scope of the program beyond confirming that it is intended to meet the needs of “next-generation warfare.” He also opted not to expand on possible new MiG-31 sales, hinting that news could emerge soon on this front. Both Russia and Syria are prospective customers.   

Algeria Refund Causes Headaches

For the first time in company history, RSK MiG has had to accept the return of newly delivered aircraft because of customer complaints about quality. In February, Algeria reached agreement to return 15 MiG-29SMT/UBTs and cancel deliveries of 19 more, opting instead to take Sukhoi Su-30s.

“The Algerian syndrome is behind us now, an unpleasant episode of the past,” said Belov. Nonetheless, MiG still faces the prospect of having to refund a $250 million advance payment to the Algerians. To raise the money, the company is seeking other buyers for the Algerian fighters. “Splitting [the aircraft] is possible, but we prefer selling the whole package to one customer. Negotiations are going on now,” Belov told AIN.