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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

MiG-29: Why Ukraine’s Air Force Needs It Desperately to Fight Russia

MiG-29
MiG-29 fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said it shot down two Ukrainian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters in the Mykolayiv region on June 11. While there was no independent confirmation of the action and Ukraine did not reply with a comment, the Ukrainians do not have a large fleet of fighters that are expendable. The MiG-29 is a Ukrainian workhorse and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy constantly calls for more from friendly countries. Poland, Bulgaria, and Slovakia still fly MiG-29s and could send them to Ukraine. 

MiG-29: The Key to the Ukrainian Air Force

In April, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that Ukraine “received additional aircraft and aircraft parts to help them,” in the war against Russia. This allowed the Ukrainians to put an additional 20 MiG-29s in the air. Before the war, the MiG-29 was the most popular airplane in the Ukrainian fleet. The Ukrainian air force had six squadrons of the twin-engine supersonic fighter at three bases in three regions of the country.

Ukraine’s Airforce Has a Difficult Mission

The MiG-29 is fighting superior numbers of Russian warplanes in a contested air space against a significant supply of Russian anti-aircraft defenders. In an apparent attempt to boost morale with patriotic undertones, at least one Ukrainian MiG-29 has been painted boldly with the national Ukrainian colors. 

Background on the MiG-29

The MiG-29 is an air superiority fighter built to compete with the F-16 Fighting Falcon. It was meant to replace the MiG-23. A total of 1,600 were made by Russia with 900 of them exported, and Ukraine was the main customer. The MiG-29 is an old airframe with the initial prototype first flown in 1977. The Soviet air force later equipped them with nuclear bombs. The MiG-29 has seven external hardpoints for short and medium-range air-to-air missiles. The pilot has a helmet-mounted sight. It can also carry rockets and dumb bombs. 

It Has Its Weak Points

The MiG-29 has its downsides. “The RD-33 engines suffer from low maintainability, and the MiG-29 is also handicapped by its lack of range and endurance,” according to Military-Today.com.

Upgraded MiG-29 Will Help

The Ukrainians updated their version of the MiG-29 with the MiG-29MU2 variant that was first tested in 2020. This allowed for new guided missiles and bombs. The MiG-29MU2 also has a different radar and upgraded navigation with satellite guidance. The MU2 has better electronic countermeasures and an improved threat database. The other main aspect of the upgrade is to transform the MU2 into a formidable close air support fighter. Air-to-ground missiles and bombs are now guided instead of the old MiG-29’s unguided “dumb” munitions.

It’s Not the Airplane, It’s the Pilots

Ukrainian pilots will have to take advantage of the MiG-29MU2’s ability to perform as a multi-role fighter. Ground strikes will be important over the skies of Donbas where the main combat is taking place. The Ukrainians have a problem – they can fall victim to Russian fighters and Russian S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Success comes down to the ability of individual fighter pilots to outfox Russian pilots and SAMs. 

Aerial agility and aviator prowess have worked in the past. A MiG-29 reportedly shot down a Russian Su-35 in the Kherson region on May 27. More of these wins are needed. But sometimes Russia gets the upper hand when flying against Ukrainian pilots. A Ukrainian MiG-29 was destroyed over Slovyansk in the Donetsk People’s Republic on June 6. The Ukrainian air force cannot afford to engage in a war of attrition in the air. Thus, the MiG-29, Ukraine’s most popular fighter, will be a decisive warplane as the war grinds on.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

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