As strange as it sounds, the U.S. military acquired Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets following the dissolution of the USSR. Thanks to the tiny former Soviet republic of Moldova, Washington was able to procure 21 of these highly capable fourth-generation fighters.
Moldova possessed 34 MiG-29 jets, in addition to eight Mi-8 Hip helicopters and several transport airframes when the Soviet Union collapsed. Buried in a deep recession, the small country agreed to sell the majority of its MiG-29 “Fulcrum” fleet to America.
The U.S. was fearful that if it did not acquire the formidable fighters, Moldova would sell the jets to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The MiG-29 airframes were reportedly capable of delivering nuclear weapons, a capability that Tehran could ultimately weaponize against America.
Once the Fulcrum fleet reached the U.S., American pilots were able to deconstruct the airframes and verify their purported capabilities.
A brief overview of the MiG-29 fighter and its history
Back in 1977, the MiG-29 Fulcrum made its maiden flight over the former USSR. This sophisticated airframe was conceptualized under the Soviet’s Advanced Frontline Fighter (PFI) program, which aimed to create a jet powerful enough to counter the McDonnell Douglas F-15 fighter platform.
Eventually, the PFI program selected the manufacturer Sukhoi’s Su-27. However, the Advanced Lightweight Tactical Fighter Program (LPFI) was also established around this time and ultimately awarded to the manufacturer Mikoyan. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) designated the MiG-29 fighter “Fulcrum,” a nickname that even stuck in Russian service.
The Fulcrum measures around 56 feet in length, 15 feet in height and has a wingspan of roughly 37 feet long. With a maximum airspeed of Mach 2.25 (around 1,300 knots), the MiG-29 is one speedy airframe. Ordnance-wise, the jet features a singular Gryazev Shipurov GSh-30-1 30 mm autocannon with 150 rounds.
Additionally, the jet can carry almost 9,000 pounds worth of weaponry including the AA-8 Aphid, AA-II Archer and the AA-10 Alamo. Perhaps the jet’s most impressive quality was its ability to short-range R-73 infrared-guided missiles.
As explained in a previous 19FortyFive piece, “This weapon could be aimed and fired using a helmet-mounted sight, meaning that a Fulcrum pilot needed only to look at a target in a sixty-degree arc in front of him – as opposed to needing to position the aircraft so that it was pointed at the target – in order to shoot one of the missiles.”
Some test pilots were impressed by the Fulcrum’s abilities
Israeli pilots were eager to test out the newly acquired MiG-29 fighters following the Moldovan sale to the U.S. and were initially impressed with the fighter. One test pilot noted that the Fulcrum’s “abilities equals and sometimes even exceeds those of the F-15 and F-16 jets. The aircraft is highly maneuverable, and its engines provide higher weight to thrust ratio. Our pilots must be careful with this aircraft in air combat. Flown by a well trained professional, it is a worthy opponent.”
America’s procurement of Mig-29 fighters killed two birds with one stone. The deal with Moldova allowed U.S. engineers to closely examine an adversary’s airframe while also ensuring the Iranian regime would not fly the jets.
Today, several of the 21 Fulcrum fighters delivered to America are displayed in Air Force Bases and Naval Air Stations in Nevada, Texas and Ohio.
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Maya Carlin is a Senior Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.