‘Strength lies not in defence but in attack.’

– Marquis de Acerba

Mig 29 test pilot, Anatoly Kvochur, was awarded ‘Hero of Russia,’ the highest honorary title of the Russian Federation, and The Order ‘For Merit to the Fatherland,’ at that time the highest Order of the Russian Federation

India is buying twenty-one new Mig 29 UPG (Baaz) multirole fighters from Russia. Eyebrows are raised. Why buy an ageing fighter? A fighter that will have design-age of eighty years when it retires in 2050!

Because a Mig 29 UPG costs less. Three-four Mig 29 UPG for the price of one Rafael. And yet, Mig 29 UPG packs a punch. It outfights most nimble of modern-day fighters in close combat. And is a challenge to them in a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) encounter.

Its main shortfalls are in weapon load, electronic counter measure (ECM), range, avionics, and maintenance.

Ageing Warrior

Mig 29 is an ageing warrior, almost half a century old. Its design is 1970s technology. Its first flight was on 06 October 1977. But Mig 29 UPG is almost a new fighter compared to the Mig 29 A that Luftwaffe and the US flew and evaluated in 1990-2000.

Mig 29 Versus Other Top Fighters

What we know about Mig 29 versus today’s top fighters – F 16, F/A 18, and F 15 – comes from the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and from United States Air Force (USAF). After the German reunification in October 1990, twenty-four Mig 29 A of the East German Airforce were integrated into Luftwaffe. These were extensively flown by Luftwaffe pilots with wide experience in West’s advanced fighters like Phantom and Tornado. The US acquired twenty-one Mig 29 A from Moldova in November 1997. These were exhaustively evaluated in the US.

Later, Mig 29 flown by Luftwaffe pilots were pitched against F 16, F/A 18, and F 15 in exercise Red Flag. It is a two-week advanced aerial combat training exercise held several times a year by the USAF. The exercise simulates a realistic air-battle environment. The aim is to train military pilots and to evaluate combat aircraft and battle tactics.

Mig 29 In Close Combat

Oberstleutnant Johann Köck of Luftwaffe who flew the Mig 29 said, “Inside ten nautical miles I’m hard to defeat, and with the IRST [Infra-Red Search and Track], helmet sight and ‘Archer’ I can’t be beaten. Period.”

In the Red Flag exercise, a Luftwaffe pilot flying a Mig 29, shot down three F/A 18 in less than one minute.

In close combat, the fighter with better thrust to weight (T/W) ratio, turn-rate, and maneuvrability has the edge. Mig 29 excels in all three criteria.

Thrust to Weight (T/W) Ratio

Mig 29’s T/W ratio is better than other fighters.

T/W RATIO

FIGHTER Mig 29 M F 15 C F 22 A Rafale C F/A 18 E F 16 E F 14 B/D
T/W 1.19/1.39 1.19 1.18 1.16 1.11 1.09 1.08

Turn Rate

Western pilots who flew Mig 29 described its turn performance as “awesome,” “incredible,” accelerating from 800 to 850 kmph in a sustained level 9 g turn, 360 deg, below 5,000 feet. No Western fighter matches that performance.

Mig 29’smaximum turn-rate of 28 degrees per second is better than that of the nimblest of West’s fighters: F 16’s 26 degrees per second. And its sustained turn rate 23 degrees per second is better than West’s most advanced air defence fighter F 15’s sustained turn rate of 16 degrees per second.

Maneuvrability

Mig 29 is supermaneuvrable, that is, it can do maneuvres that are impossible in other aircraft. It showcased its supermaneuverability at Farnborough air show

in 1988 and Paris air show in 1989: performed tail slide and Hammerhead Turn (Stall Turn).

In tail slide, the fighter pulls up to vertical position, the speed drops, fighter stands still, motionless, for about fifteen seconds, then begins to slide down towards its tail, then the nose falls forward and fighter regains control.

In stall turn, right or left rudder is applied when the fighter is pointing vertically up and is at very low speed, it cartwheels left or right through 180 degrees at speed near zero, nose dropping from vertically up to vertically down, and pulls out of the dive.

These are not combat maneuvres. But these demonstrate Mig 29’s ability to maneuvere at exceptionally low speeds without loss of control. During close combat, which is at low speeds, Mig 29 pilot can focus on the adversary without fear of losing control of his fighter. British Aerospace test pilot John Farley best summed up Mig 29’s handling qualities, “No skill is required to fly this aircraft at its aerodynamic limits.”

How supermaneuverability may help in close combat is explained by Sergey Bogdan, Sukhoi chief test pilot, “The classical air combat starts at high speed, but [ends up] at a lower speed, [where] both aircraft may be in a position where they cannot shoot. But supermaneuverability allows an aircraft to turn within three seconds and take another shot.”

Thrust Vector Control on Mig 29

An all-aspect thrust-vector control (TVC) has been offered to India. Klimov nozzle can be fitted to any Mig 29 (RD-33 series) engine. The nozzle can deflect the engine’s full thrust by up to 18 degrees in any direction. With these nozzles, Mig 29 can do double back-flips and controlled flat spins. These display the control power provided by the TVC. That control power would enhance nose-pointing ability. That gives a further edge to Mig 29 with a TVC in close combat.

Of the West’s fighters, only F 22 Raptor with vectored thrust is supermaneuvrable.

Maneuverability Value in Future Close Combat

Mig 29 and its Western counterparts have Helmet Mounted Sights and missiles that can be fired 30-45 degrees “off-boresight,” that is without pointing the fighter towards the target. These missiles have kill-probabilities of seventy to eighty percent. So, the advantage of superior maneuverability in future close combats will reduce.

Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Battle

Present day Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles can be fired at targets over 100 km away. Super long range BVR have a speed of 5-6 Mach and range of

300-400 km, a distance it can cover in 45-60 seconds. It has a good probability of hitting the lumbering tankers and AWACS.

USAF believes that BVR combat will dominate future air battles. The Russians believe that electronic counter measures and evasive maneuvres will lower the hit probability against maneuverable fighters much below the projected fifty to seventy percent hit rate. Russian fighters are therefore designed for BVR battle, but with equal focus on close combat.

Continued in Part II

Co-author: Air Vice Marshal V P Kala

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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