By Craig Hoyle
Russia's RAC MiG will mark the 35th anniversary of the then Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter's first flight in early October, but with the company actively pursuing fresh orders for its latest-generation versions of the design, the event will not be a nostalgic one.
The MiG-29's success since entering service with the Russian air force in 1983 is underscored by its widespread use today. Almost 800 of the lightweight combat aircraft remain in the inventories of 24 nations in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, according to Flightglobal's MiliCAS database. It ranked fifth in our World Air Forces directory's top 10 combat aircraft types for 2011-12 and accounted for 5% of the global fleet.
And deliveries are continuing, with roughly 75 more on order under three recently-signed deals. These include 53 carrier-based MiG-29K fighters and two-seat KUB-model trainers to be delivered to the Indian and Russian navies, and a second batch of air force examples currently being fielded by Myanmar.
Under a recent effort to extend the product's sales life, RAC MiG is now drawing down deliveries of its "classic" aircraft and is instead offering potential buyers variants from a so-called "unified" range of MiG-29s. In addition to the carrier-based versions, this family also includes the single-seat MiG-29M and two-seat M2 as well as the thrust-vectoring MiG-35, which was unsuccessfully pitched for the Indian air force's medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contest.
Despite the age of the MiG-29's basic design, the unified aircraft differs significantly from its predecessors, with more powerful engines, an increased combat load, additional fuel, fly-by-wire controls and open architecture avionics. Also with improved defensive aids equipment, the new models offer a service life of up to 6,000 flight hours and have a claimed 2.5 times reduction in per-hour operating costs versus legacy examples.
The aircraft received two major boosts since last year. First, the Indian defence ministry signed an order for 29 MiG-29K/KUBs as a follow-on from its receipt of 16 of the type between 2009 and 2011. Then, in February 2012, Moscow approved a major deal for the Russian navy, which is scheduled to take delivery of 20 deck-based fighters and four two-seat MiG-29KUB trainers between next year and 2015. The service will employ them from its current lone carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which is currently used to operate Sukhoi Su-33 naval fighters.
Although the number of nations with aircraft carriers is small and represents only a limited market, "it is possible that there will be new orders for these multi-role fighters, which feature outstanding performance and cost ratio", says RAC MiG general director Sergei Korotkov.
"The production, sale and improvement of the unified aircraft family are the major programmes of our company over the mid-term prospect," he says. "We see several niches in which our products are in demand. It is primarily a niche of multi-role fighters in the light/middle class, where we are represented by the unified family of MiG-29K/KUB and MiG-29M/M2. By efficiency, they are not inferior to other modern fighters of the '4++' generation."
With India and Russia having already ordered carrier-borne fighters under the unified model, the market response to land-based types has also been encouraging. "The first demonstration of the serial MiG-29M2 took place at the arms exhibition in Kazakhstan in the beginning of May 2012 and we received positive feedback from the experts. There is great interest in the market for the aircraft, supported by detailed negotiations and contracts," Korotkov says.
"The second niche is the upgraded lightweight fighters which combine the classic MiG-29 version with new avionics," he says. One example of such activity is the MiG-29SMT modernisation package acquired by the Russian air force and other nations. "The most advanced is the MiG-29UPG, implemented in India in collaboration with local industry," he adds.
"Finally, we continue supplying earlier versions of the MiG-29, which attract some customers by the performance/price ratio." Myanmar's follow-on order for the type is one example of such business.
As with many contemporary manufactures, RAC MiG is not content with merely selling aircraft to export nations and is increasingly looking to ink deals related to the through-life support of its products. "In the structure of our incomes, after-sales service is taking a growing position," Korotkov says. "In some countries, we are shifting previously supplied MiG-29s to on-condition maintenance."
Such enhancements in support, combined with separate modernisation efforts being pursued by some users, mean that many MiG-29s will remain in use for years to come. A Polish upgrade contracted earlier this year should, for example, enable half of the nation's current 32 aircraft - 13 A-model interceptors and three UB trainers - to remain in use until at least 2030.
Despite the disappointment of seeing its design eliminated from the Indian air force's MMRCA contest before New Delhi selected the Dassault Rafale as the lowest-priced compliant bidder, RAC MiG remains confident of selling the MiG-35 as a further development of its unified aircraft family.
Noting that it offers users "fifth-generation" capabilities such as a Phazotron Zhuk-AE active electronically scanned array radar, advanced optronics equipment and further enhancements in self-defence systems, Korotkov says: "We believe that this fighter is sure to find its customers."
Another of the company's products that has yet to win an order is the MiG-AT advanced jet trainer, first flown in prototype form in 1996.
"The development of technical facilities for pilot training is one of the most promising directions of the MiG Corporation," Korotkov says, pointing to its work in developing a claimed unique simulator with a motion system to train pilots for operations from the deck of an aircraft carrier. "The MiG-AT at the time was developed as a component of the pilot training system. We have got a lot of experience, which I believe will be in demand. The MiG-AT also found application in some tentative programmes."
While it will not be bringing any of its aircraft to the show this year, Farnborough remains an important event for RAC MiG. "We will present information on the entire product line, including new planes and upgrade programmes of previously-supplied aircraft," its senior executive says. "We have also planned a series of meetings with partners and customers."