Staged 11 years after the launch of the original demonstrator, there was something anti-climactic about the official roll-out ceremony of the RAC MiG-35 on 27 January at the manufacturer’s factory in Lukhovitsy near Moscow.
After losing a critical bid in 2011 for a contract to build 126 fighters for the Indian air force, the MiG-35 has re-emerged as an enduring and increasingly popular option inside and outside of Russia.
As the maker of many of the Soviet Union’s most iconic combat aircraft, MiG has breathed new life in the 40-year-old airframe of the MiG-29, expanded significantly since a year-old merger with long-time manufacturing partner Sokol and picked up a new role in domestic commercial aircraft production.
With MiG-35 flight testing by Russian air force pilots in progress, the company’s immediate focus now is on wrapping up negotiations with the Russian air force for an initial production order.
“We hope that in the nearest future we shall conclude contract for delivery of these aircraft to the Russian air force, and the flight tests are being performed in accordance with the specified schedule,” MiG chief executive Ilya Tarasenko said in an interview this spring in a Moscow office. “Just now the meetings and negotiations are under way to define the quantity of aircraft that would be ordered. So I think the ministry of defence in the nearest future will announce this.”
The Russian air force’s commitment to the MiG-35 is well-known. Chief of Staff Viktor Bondarev told journalists on 27 January that the air force would place an initial order for 30 MiG-35s, but has a requirement to purchase up to 170.
“We're going to take these airplanes, we need them,” Bondarev told the state-run RIA Novosti news service. “It’ll take a little time, and we’ll change all [of the air force’s] light fighter [fleet] to this class.”
As Tarasenko waits to sign the deal for MiG-35s with Russia, MiG remains busier on the export front than almost any time since the demise of the Soviet Union. The market has changed dramatically since the early 1990s, when the historic MiG design bureau faced failure before securing a critical deal with Malaysia in 1993 for 18 MiG-29s.
Following the Russian air force’s gap-filler order of 16 MiG-29SMT fighters in 2014, the Egyptian air force signed on to buy 50 MiG fighters a year later. Neither Egypt nor MiG has confirmed which variant of the venerable Fulcrum is included in the order, but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) lists the order as for MiG-29M/M2s.
But international interest in the Fulcrum family remains strong. More than 30 international delegations attended the MiG-35 roll-out in January, including from India, China, Peru and Vietnam. In April, a Russian delegation attending the Latin American Aerospace and Defence exhibition in Sao Paulo, Brazil, submitted a response to a request from the Argentina air force for pricing terms on up to 15 MiG-29s. Elsewhere in Latin America, Russia plans to compete in the future for pending orders for new fighters in Peru and Colombia, Tarasenko says.
The prize for MiG on the international market remains India. Despite the loss to the Dassault Rafale in the medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition several years ago, RAC MiG has remained active on the subcontinent. Ahead of the MMRCA bidding process, MiG delivered upgrade kits for more than 60 MiG-29s starting in 2005, raising India’s fleet to the MiG-29UPG standard. A follow-on order came in 2010 from India for another 29 MiG-29Ks for the Indian Navy. The last of the MiG-29Ks arrived in India last year, but now the Indian navy is seeking to buy another 57 new carrier-based fighters.
“Of course, we shall propose for delivery MiG-35 aircraft,” Tarasenko says. “Of course, we shall make it in the way that [meets India’s industrial requirements] – they call it ‘Make in India’. We shall also propose a comprehensive maintenance programme.”
Beyond India, MiG continues to pursue opportunities in other Asian countries and the former Soviet states, including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The export appeal of the MiG-35 is simple. As the latest upgrade of the MiG-29, it combines a mature airframe and engine combination with improvements in range, manoeuvrability, sensors and weapons. In the Russian air force fleet, the MiG-29’s 4.5t payload capacity complements the 9t payload capacity of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker family, providing a high-performance and low-cost alternative.
The highlight in the upgrade package is the Phazotron-NIIP Zhuk AE radar, an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Phazotron-NIIP has served as MiG’s radar supplier since delivering the Smerch-A2 system for the MiG-25. After developing passively scanned array radars for previous MiG-29 variants, Phazotron-NIIP partnered with Tomsk-based Micran and Semiconductor Instrument Research Institute to develop and manufacture the transmitter-receiver modules for the Zhuk-AE.
“The range of targets detection is increased by two times,” Tarasenko says. “Thirty targets can be tracked simultaneously, and six targets can be destroyed. So to our customers, if it is required for them, we are proposing for them Zhuk radar with active electronically phased antenna.”
Russia categorises the MiG-35 as a fourth-generation++ fighter, implying a significant improvement in survivability against increasingly sophisticated threats in the air and on the ground. While not shaped for low observability to radar, the MiG-35 is not as easy to detect as the MiG-29.
“We are using stealth technology,” Tarasenko explains. “We have a specific coating that reduces the signature. That makes it easier for this aircraft to [survive] through several anti-aircraft or air defence systems.”
Taking a page from other Russian companies with military and commercial assembly lines, such as Sukhoi and Irkut, MiG has assumed a new role in commercial aircraft production. The Sokol-MiG merger in April 2016 adds the Sokol factory complex in Nizhny Novgorod to MiG’s final assembly plant in Lukovitsy south of Moscow. Both will play a role as MiG revives assembly of the Ilyushin Il-114, a regional turboprop ordered by the Russian government to restore air access to remote towns and villages deep in the Siberian interior.
“Il-114 will be manufactured at RAC MiG,” Tarasenko says. “Also, other enterprises will be participating in this programme. Final assembly and delivery will be done at RAC MiG.”