Updated: 6/19/2017; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
By the end of the 1960s, both the East and West were well on their way towards development of Fourth Generation jet-powered fighters. Fourth Generation jet fighters originated in the 1970s and introduced a myriad of new features to make for more capable, ever more lethal fighter mounts. The United States went on to introduce the venerable McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle in 1976 and the fleet was further strengthened by the arrival of the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon in 1978. The long-standing McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II was still a fixture worldwide and since 1974 the Grumman F-14 Tomcat interceptor would patrol the skies wherever American carriers were. On the other side of the world, the Soviet Union was holding ground with their fabled MiG-21 "Fishbed" fighter of 1959 and the Sukhoi Su-15 "Flagon" of 1967. However, the Mikoyan concern also unveil their MiG-23 "Flogger" in 1970 which was then evolved into a capable ground-attack platform in the MiG-27. To counter new American and NATO developments, Mikoyan OKB was one of three Soviet firms tabbed with beginning work on a new Fourth Generation mount in 1970 - the other two being stalwart competitors Sukhoi and Yakovlev. Mikoyan-Gurevich became a household name in the dark days of World War 2, responding with the excellent single-seat, piston-powered MiG-1 fighter aircraft to match wits with German Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s.
In 1974, Soviet authorities detailed a requirement for a new lightweight fighter with excellent agility to replace the MiG-21, MiG-23 and Su-15 series along the Cold War frontlines. By this time, technology made it such that the new fighter aircraft could be fitted with increased digital processing and utilize the latest in missile weaponry as well as radar systems. The new development would be powered by equally-new engines and field an array of short- and medium-range air-to-air missiles as well as an internal cannon for close-in work. The fighter would be charged with direct competition against the best that West had to offer.
Mikoyan engineers set to work on the new requirement and, based on past operational experience of previous jet aircraft to their name, settled on a two-engine design layout from the standpoint that it offered up inherent benefits - not the least of these being better performance and basic crew survivability. The new fighter was christened the "MiG-29" and its early design forms presented an aircraft design not unlike the boxy Mikoyan MiG-25 "Foxbat" - a large, flat-bodied interceptor built primarily for speed and utilized to intercept aerial threats with missiles and radar. The new design featured a forward-set cockpit with a raise fuselage spine, twin engines buried in the fuselage side-by-side and high-mounted wing assemblies with an elegantly contoured wing leading edge. Engine exhaust rings were straddled by rearward-extending booms mounting the twin vertical tail fin assembly. The engines were aspirated by a large pair of rectangular intakes fitted to either side of the forward fuselage. In all respect, the design was nothing more than a glorified MiG-25 in its current form. Other designs then emerged, one even appearing to resemble the upcoming McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet and still another seemingly mimicking the design style of the F-15 itself.
In 1971, it was resolved that the program should revolve around two distinct aircraft types based on the same overall airframe, only each were to be modified to suit different mission roles. This produced a dedicated interceptor form fitted with radar and increased fuel and a dedicated multi-faceted tactical fighter to work within shorter ranges and be faster to produce in number. In effect, each design was meant to counter the F-15 and F-16 in their respective primary roles. This approach also ensured commonality of parts across both mounts and improved logistics to an extent while also retaining inherent performance qualities regardless of mission role.
Of the three competing Soviet firms, only Mikoyan and Sukhoi's proposals were selected for further development and it was Mikoyan that would eventually prevail - at least in the short term. Mikoyan moved ahead to develop the MiG-29 and the similar MiG-29A and different radar systems were trialed. Both designs also fielded a helmet-mounted sight (HMS). Interestingly, flight controls would be handled by a less complex system utilizing basic linkage mechanics as opposed to "fly-by-wire" controls becoming ever more prevalent in Western fighters. On June 26th, 1974, Mikoyan's submission was officially selected ahead of Sukhoi's two attempts and the legacy of the MiG-29 was born.
However, in a turn of events on January 19th, 1976, Soviet authorities opted to develop a heavier dedicated fighter platform to match the F-15 directly and classified the MiG-29 as a "lightweight" fighter design meant to counter the reach of the F-16 directly. This initiative officially gave rise to the development of the much larger and highly-capable Sukhoi Su-27 "Flanker" series detailed elsewhere on this site. The two aircraft would, therefore, become the next generation mounts to welcome all upcoming Soviet fighter pilots and be fielded in strength side-by-side throughout the 1980s and 1990s while still serving operationally today. Interestingly, both fighters would also represent the first Soviet use of computer controlled avionics which further leveled the playing field between the Soviet Air Force and offerings of the West. New radar would also be developed specifically for these new breeds as would be more lethal air-to-air missiles based on the latest technologies available. The MiG-29 would. therefore, be more of a point defense fighter while the Su-27 would serve in the long-range role.
Development of the MiG-29 was no small feat for the Soviet aviation industry that generally lagged behind the West in terms of innovation. The MiG-29 program itself was to be a formidable foray into largely unknown territories and caution was exercised when possible in an effort to produce the very best end-product. Construction of the MiG-29 involved use of aluminum-lithium based alloys as well as composites, both measures to ensure that the airframe met Soviet weight specifications. Automatic flaps and LERXES would figure into the mix to provide for superb control and outstanding agility. Vision out of the cockpit was excellent thanks to a raised position and afforded the pilot a commanding view of the action ahead from all pertinent angles.
Mikoyan delivered their first of fourteen prototypes in the first "Aircraft 901" which more or less mimicked the design lines as found in production-quality MiG-29s to a certain extent. One major difference came in the well-forward positioning of the nose landing gear leg. Western observers were convinced that the new Soviet fighter featured "swing wing" (or variable geometry wing) technology to match the F-14 Tomcat, General Dynamics F-111 or the British Panavia Tornado but this was not the case - wings on the MiG-29 prototype were fixed in place and stemmed from a fixed fuselage root extension area - perhaps giving the impression to some of swing wings being used. The cockpit was held well-forward in the design with excellent visibility throughout. Large rectangular intake openings, slightly canted inwards at their top edges, were fitted under the fuselage and straddled the central tubular fuselage nacelle. Engines were low-set in the fuselage with wings shoulder-mounted. There were a pair of vertical tail fins outboard of each engine mount. Wings featured noticeable sweep along the leading edges and lesser sweep along the trailing edge. Horizontal tailplanes were fitted well-aft in the design, extending beyond the reach of the jet exhaust rings. The undercarriage was fully-retractable and of the tricycle arrangement with a pair of single-wheeled main landing gear legs and a double-wheeled nose landing gear. So as to not ingest potentially harmful field debris, the intakes could be sealed, taking in air from the leading edges during startup and taxiing actions. In many ways, the finalized form was not wholly unlike the original MiG-29 vision that borrowed so heavily from the MiG-25 - just excessively streamlined for a new generation of Soviet airman.
First flight of the MiG-29 prototype was recorded on October 6th, 1977. After early evaluations of the system in flight, the nose landing gear was moved more aft to combat the leg perhaps encouraging the ingesting of debris into the awaiting intake systems for each engine. Direction stability was also improved by the addition of ventral strakes. Controlled spins were enacted by test pilots and it was soon found that the MiG-29's airframe design could actually self-recover our of potentially deadly in-air spins that would doomed most other aircraft. During development, another prototype - Aircraft 908 - was lost to an engine failure during a flight. The production-quality MiG-29 prototype became prototype Aircraft 917 and was noted for its extended rudder bases. Prototype Aircraft 918 then followed and was completed with an intact fire control radar (FCR) system. It was further used in testing of a possible navalized MiG-29 complete with an arrestor hook for carrier landings. Other prototypes followed that included a two-seat conversion trainer and mounts dedicated to the testing of specific onboard systems and components.
In 1979, the US Pentagon received a blurry satellite overhead profile image of what was the actual prototype MiG-29 and, in accordance with past NATO designation standards, afforded the new Soviet model the nickname of "Fulcrum". The image was not overly clear and subsequent artist impressions of the aircraft were well-off base and led to much deviation. Once further versions of the aircraft were identified, the primary fighter variant became known to NATO as "Fulcrum-A". The MiG-29 was formally introduced into the Soviet Air Force in August of 1983 and operational service was achieved in 1984. The first operating wing became the 234th Proskoorovskiy Fighter Wing. At their peak, some 800 MiG-29s would stock the inventory of the Soviet Union / Russia across 25 different fighter groups. The largest group was naturally stationed in East Germany to showcase the new fighter against its Western counterparts. In 1988, the MiG-29 was demonstrated to audiences at Farnborough, UK. There, pilots entertained crowds with an unprecedented "tailslide" maneuver - a feat which, up to this point, had never been accomplished by a combat aircraft.
In 1991, the political climate across Europe saw the end of the Cold War, essentially bringing an end to Soviet rule in the region and an end to the Soviet Empire proper. Russia entered a period of uncertainty and defense funding was drastically cut from what was enjoyed throughout the blank-check "glory days" of the Cold War prior. Production of MiG-29s was therefore slowed to the point of near full stoppage. The reunification of Germany allowed Western observers full access to East German MiG-29s for extensive scrutiny.
The original MiG-29 was fitted with a pair of Klimov RD-33 series afterburning turbofan engines delivering up to 18,300lbs of thrust each. This supplied the mount with a top speed in excess of Mach 2.25 (1,490 miles per hour), a service ceiling of nearly 60,000 feet and a range of 888 miles on just internal fuel. Performance was such that the MiG-29 could get airborne and achieve vertical flight within a short amount of time. Standard armament was a 1 x GSh-30-1 internal cannon which could be supplemented with external ordnance across seven hardpoints, six underwing and a fuselage centerline position. Such munition options included air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles and conventional drop bombs as well as external fuel stores and Electronic CounterMeasure (ECM) pods.
The Fulcrum sported excellent maneuverability and could maintain a high angle-of-attack (AoA) at top flight speeds. Agility was equally excellent and low-speed handling a true strength. Targeting was possible through the internal RP-29 pulse-Doppler radar suite that allowed for "look down, shoot down" capability - a must for modern aircraft. The pilot's helmet-mounted sight delivered pertinent target information and could be used to guide infrared air-to-air missiles towards a target that were not in the immediate vision arc of the HUD (Heads-Up Display). The integrated IRST system allowed for passive detection and engagement of multiple enemy aircraft. As mentioned above, prevention of debris ingestion into the low-slung intake openings during warm up and taxiing actions was handled by the automatically sealing intake doors. Upon the aircraft beginning to move, the leading edge inlets would give way to the primary intakes.
The MiG-29 was naturally branched out into a two-seat conversion trainer variant and designated by Mikoyan as "MiG-29UB". The type first flew on April 28th, 1981 and development involved three prototypes. The major obvious difference in this model was its two-seat, tandem cockpit arrangement with its rear-hinged canopy. To make room for the second cockpit, the production model's fire control radar was omitted but for the most part the MiG-29UB stayed faithful and fully combat-capable and, as such, could be relatively easily converted back into its combat form if need be. Without the radar, however, student pilots could only train for air-to-air missions. Upon identification of this model within NATO, the nickname of "Fulcrum-B" was afforded.
It was only a matter of time before the Fulcrum was open to foreign export orders and this produced the "MiG-29, Export Version A", also known to NATO as the "Fulcrum-A", with production spanning from 1988 to 1991. While most everything remained faithful to the Soviet production mount, it was, on the whole, downgraded to keep the latest Soviet technology intact. The export version was also delivered to select Soviet Warsaw Pact nations and included the Cold War frontline force of East Germany. This export variant was naturally followed by the similar "MiG-29B-12" meant for Soviet-friendly nations outside of the Warsaw Pact. These were also fielded with more basic radar and engine installations and lacked nuclear weapons capability. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a customer of this type, as was Syria and India.
The dedicated Fulcrum fighter mount became the MiG-29 Tactical Fighter, known in NATO nomenclature as the "Fulcrum-C". These types were noted for their bulged fuselage spines designed to house additional fuel for improved operational ranges and a new Electronic CounterMeasures (ECM) suite. This model was demonstrated in three prototypes with production beginning in 1986 and spanning into 1991. The raised spine of these types went on to earn it the unofficial nickname of "Hunchback" or "Fatback".
An developmental Fulcrum-C existed to test out smart munitions and made its first appearance in 1985. The type was heavily evaluated but never selected for serial production. Other test aircraft appeared as one-off experimental mounts to evaluate forms of stealth technology, carrier operations, digital avionics and newer engines and improved radar systems. One of these more famous test aircraft became known to the world after its crash at the 1989 38th Paris Air Show. Another such accident occurred in the 1993 Royal International Air Tattoo display when a pair of MiG-29s collide midair, both pilots ejecting safely. The MiG-29OVT trialed thrust vectoring engine technology as well as improved fly-by-wire technology.
The next major Fulcrum-C development became the MiG-29S Tactical Fighter ("Fulcrum-C"). It mated the all-new Vympel R-77 (AA-12 "Adder") radar-guided active homing air-to-air missile to a Phazotron N019M radar system. The system now allowed the Fulcrum pilot to let loose two missiles and have the radar guide each missile against two targets simultaneously. Maximum take-off weight was further increased for a broadened range of munition options. The flight control system was improved as was operational range with three hardpoints plumbed for external fuel droptanks. The MiG-29S became the new Soviet Fulcrum standard in the early 1990s to which previous Fulcrum-A and Fulcrum-C production models were brought up to. The Fulcrum-A models simply lacked the hunchback spine and, thusly, held less internal fuel volume and fielded decreased operational ranges. The MiG-29S was fitted with a pair of Klimov RD-33 turbofan engines producing 18,300lbs of thrust. Maximum speed was Mach 2.3 with a rate of climb nearing 65,000 feet per minute. Service ceiling was just under 60,000 feet and maximum take-off weight was rated at 43,430lbs. She was armed with a 30mm GSh-301 series internal cannon and could make use of missiles, rockets and bombs as needed.
The MIG-29S became an export product under the MiG-29SD designation ("Fulcrum-A"). It was much improved over the initial export offering and began production in 1995. One key addition was its introduction of in-flight refueling to make limited operational ranges something of a moot point to an extent. Malaysia became the first export customer of this model and western-style systems were integrated into their final delivery forms per the customer. A 1994 addendum brought over a dozen of the existing Malaysian Fulcrums to a standard that included an in-flight refueling probe.
Another export model became the MiG-29SE ("Fulcrum-C") and these were noted for their "hunchback" fuselage spines mentioned earlier. As expected, the larger spine included larger internal fuel volume thusly producing inherently higher operational ranges than the MiG-29SD. Beyond this difference, both the MiG-29SD and MIG-29SE were largely similar.
The MiG-29SM ("Fulcrum-C") was a multi-role fighter development. Since the early Fulcrum forms were primarily air-to-air in their basic usage (as were early F-15 Eagles), the MiG-29SM was a leap forward for the Fulcrum family line, integrating ground attack into the forte of this already formidable airframe. The design change necessitated some upgrading and introduction of modern attack systems and the end-product had precision-guided strike capabilities through use of missiles and bombs. In-flight refueling was also standard in this version as range was a key concern for strike aircraft of any design.
The MiG-29G and MiG-29GT designations (single-seat fighter and two-seat trainer, respectively) involved existing East German Fulcrums in the post-Soviet world being brought up to NATO standard. As reunification of East and West Germany commenced, two established air forces had to be melded into one cohesive standardized fighting force. These modifications were accomplished by a previously unheard of joint venture between DaimlerChrysler and MiG. Similarly, Slovakia upgraded their MiG fighters and trainers to a NATO standard producing the MiG-29AS, MiG29UBS and MiG-29SD designations.
In 1997, Mikoyan worked on improving the inherent ranges of its Fulcrum family line beyond what was being accomplished with its "hunchback" and probe-installed initiatives. The MiG-29SMT multi-role platform emerged from the MiG-29S design with a different molded fuselage spine while an in-flight refueling probe was standard fare and support for droptanks was included. Munitions capacity was increased to four hardpoints under each wing so the fighter could mount ordnance as well as external fuel in a single sortie, doubling its lethality and reach in the process. The aircraft was also fitted with an improved N019MP radar installation and a single-piece dorsal airbrake was fitted as was a "beaver" tail assembly. Russian digital processing technology had improved dramatically by this point that the internal workings of the Fulcrum were further streamlined for better response and lower operating costs. Production began in 1998 and marked a major improvement over the original Fulcrum offerings.
The MiG-29UBT became an advanced combat trainer based on the original MiG-29UB trainer mentioned. The major difference in its design was the inclusion of the "hunchback" fuselage spine for additional internal fuel. Consistent with the times, the cockpit was also upgraded to a more standard "glass" design featuring the latest in Russian aviation systems technology. Primary customers of this model were Algeria and Yemen.
The MiG-29MF was a multi-role fighter mount born out of a Philippines aircraft requirement. Historically, the Philippines had largely operated with American military firepower so this deal was something new. Talks between the two parties began in 1997 but the MiG-29MF was never realized.
The MiG-29M designation marked a major upgrade initiative in the Fulcrum lineage. The end-product represented a "4.5 Generation" jet fighter beyond the scope and capabilities of the original MiG-29 production fighter. The MiG-29M was a multi-role airframe and fitted with improved avionics and internal systems. The airframe was refined for the better (revised intakes, greater use of lighter composites). An analog-based fly-by-wire system was introduced for improved handling. The cockpit was further raised for better pilot visibility and stronger landing gear legs meant a higher maximum take-off weight. The cockpit itself implemented more in the way of digital technology (including a pair of large liquid crystal multi-function displays) - a far cry from the original's analog displays - and sported a more useful HUD (Heads-Up Display). HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) was also brought into the fold, keeping more controls at the hands of the pilot. An optional laser designator now allowed the MiG-29M to self-designate its own targets, no longer needing to rely on ground-based forces or other allied aircraft to "laze" a target when using so-called "smart" guided munitions. This served to ease pilot workload and improve mission efficiency. Range was further addressed as was in-the-field ruggedness and general manufacture. Klimov supplied new RD-33K engines which were managed by a digital onboard suite known as FADEC (Full-Authority Digital Engine Control). Overwing air intakes were deleted and replaced by the inclusion of retractable perforated doors while the internal cannon ammunition store was lessened to make more room. The chaff/flare countermeasures dispenser was relocated from the fins to the spine and all major wing surfaces were slightly revised with extensions.
Key to the MiG-29M development was the Phazotron N-010 Zhuk series pulse-Doppler radar capable of tracking up to ten targets at once out to 152 miles away. It prioritized the threat level of each target and, upon launching of the MiG-29s four air-to-air missiles, the radar system could then guide each missile to their respective targets without pilot input - true "fire and forget". Like other Fulcrums before it, the N-010 system was tied into the pilot's helmet-mounted sight which relayed pertinent target information in real-time. Additionally, the system allowed for inherent air-to-ground attack functionality from the get-go.
The initial MiG-29M prototype flew on April 25th, 1986 and resulted in seven total test airframes being built. However, the intended RD-33K engines were not yet ready so RD-33s were utilized instead. Results were encouraging to say the least with Russian authorities claiming capabilities on par with the newer "Fifth Generation" Lockheed F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter. An RD-33K powered form went airborne in 1989. After some delays and lack of funding across the collapsed Soviet Empire (now Russia), the new Fulcrum type was slowly added to existing Fulcrum production facilities, eventually slated to overtake both Fulcrum-A and Fulcrum-C derivatives within time. The MiG-29ME (also known as the "MiG-33") became the export variant of the MiG-29M albeit with less of the top Russian technology as standard. An advanced two-seat trainer of the MiG-29M was to be the MiG-29UBM but this version was never furthered. The MiG-29M and MiG-33 designations are known to NATO as "Fulcrum-E".
MiG-29K was a proposed navalized form of the MiG29M and highly modified for possible use aboard Russian aircraft carriers. This included the requisite installation of a tail arrestor hook, reinforced undercarriage and folding wings. The latter facilitated ship-borne storage. The MiG-29K initiative was initially killed by Russian authorities in 1992 but resurfaced once more in 1999 - this time for purchase by India. India acquired the MiG-29K as well as its two-seat trainer variant, the MiG-29KUB, to which NATO recognized the breed as "Fulcrum-D". For the Russian Navy, a navalized version of the Sukhoi Su-27 was elected instead of the MiG-29K. The basic Indian Air Force MiG-29s will undergo upgrade to the proposed new standard of "MiG-29UPG". The type will include an all-new Phazotron Zhuk-M series radar suite as well as improved avionics. Engines will consist of a newer type of RD-33 series powerplant. First flight of a development model occurred in February of 2011 with future production believed to be forthcoming as of this writing.
The MiG-35 is known today as the latest available Fulcrum incarnation (known to NATO as "Fulcrum-F") and is based on the impressive MiG-29M. The type goes beyond the previous "4.5 Generation" jet fighter assessment of previous marks and represents the pinnacle of the Fulcrum family lineage to date. It achieved first flight in 2007 and at least three examples were known to be built by the end of 2010. The MiG-35 was first shown in public in 2007 during the Aero India exhibition and further demonstrators have since come online - no doubt to showcase the type to potential customers, including India itself. Like other Fulcrum designs, there exists a single-seat and two-seat version of the MiG-35. The MIG-35 is believed to mount a Phazotron Zhuk-AE phased array radar system as well as Klimov RD-33K series afterburning turbofan engines with possible thrust vectoring. More digital components have been added than previous Fulcrum marks including three full-color multi-function displays (MFD) consistent with Western offerings. Avionics have been kept modular meaning that any customer interested in the MiG-35 could address the avionics suite from another global customer. Armament of the MiG-35 remains the 1 x 30mm GSh-30-1 internal cannon and external ordnance can be spread across nine total hardpoints including a fuselage centerline location. The MiG-35 retains support for air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, guided bombs, conventional drop bombs and unguided rocket pods.
As far-reaching as its sales and history have been, the MiG-29 has never truly seen combat - at least in capable hands. While the Iraqi Air Force maintained a collection of these modern Soviet fighters during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraqi pilots were generally poorly trained in comparison to their coalition counterparts and use of these aircraft to stem the coalition invasion was terrible at best. At least eight total MiG-29s that were sent aloft were downed to coalition F-15 Eagles and F/A-18 Hornets in the conflict while a further nine retreated to neighboring Iran. Iran elected to keep these examples as "payment" for the losses it incurred in the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s at the hands of Saddam Hussein.
Regardless, the MiG-29 remains a favorite export product and staffs many-an-air-force-inventory the world over. Her near future seems in check though the arrival of the F-22 and Lockheed F-35 Lightning II will more than likely signal the end of the long term legacy of the MiG-29. The Sukhoi firm has also debuted their developmental PAK FA aircraft which incorporates more of what is found in the competing American F-22 - beginning to make more "conventional" minded aircraft like the MiG-29 something of an obsolete breed of fighter. Time will only tell.
April 2016 - Bulgaria is in the market to replace its aging line of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighters requiring a batch of nineteen in all. Contenders appear to be used Lockheed F-16 Fighting Falcons or Eurofighter Typhoons or all-new Saab JAS 39 Gripens (C- or D-models).
January 2017 - Serbia is scheduled to receive six ex-Russian Mig-29 fighter aircraft in a deal announced back in October 2016. These aircraft will be added to the existing Serbian Air Force stable of four MiG-29s. Three phases will be implemented to update the fleet to a modern fighting standard as the Serbian military attempts to keep pace with regional neighbors after decades of neglect.
March 2017 - Russia and the UAE have entered into an agreement to develop a fifth generation version of the MiG-29. The work is expected to begin in 2018 and run into the mid-2020s.
Service Year: 1984
Type: Lightweight Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft
National Origin: Soviet Union
Manufacturer(s): Mikoyan OKB - Soviet Union
Production Total: 1,625