As unlikely as it may seem to us in the West, there was a real fear by many, at all levels of Soviet society, of a NATO-initiated war with the Warsaw Pact. Luckily, despite four decades of tension and conflict, the forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact never engaged in actual direct combat. And now, the Soviet Union is itself gone, replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States.
But this scenario certainly does represent what Soviet planners thought could have happened; it reflected one contingency of many and what the Warsaw Pact planned for in the event of a shooting conflict with NATO forces. Many billions of dollars, rubles, pounds, Deutchemarks, and lira were invested in preparing for World War III. And while the idea of an invasion of the Soviet Union and the other members of the Warsaw Pact might seem ridiculous to us, it certainly seemed plausible to the Russians. And with many good reasons; they've been invaded and threatened with invasion for centuries.
Weapons systems such as the ones on the MiG-29 are only small components of massive, complicated, and expensive strategic plans for things that might happen. The MiG-29 is one extension of the commitment of the Soviet Union to be able to fight any adversary in the future, because they have had to deal with so many adversaries in the past. Russian history-and that of the other republics, as well-is dominated by a recurrent theme of invasions by the Germans, French, Swedes, and Asians, and wars with all possible neighbors. Russian history is full of military disaster and economic victimization. The Mongol hordes rampaged through early Russia, and Nazi Germans did the same just a few decades ago. While the United States and the Soviet Union were both victims of surprise attacks at the outset of World War II, we lost half a million men in battle, but the Soviets lost 27 million men, women, and children to combat and starvation and disease. The experience was just another chapter in their history, nothing really new But World War II's awful cost inspired Soviet society to ensure that the next invasion would be met with an unbeatable military establishment.
The Soviets learned many lessons during what they call the "Great Patriotic War," the most important of which was to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Another is that a lot of good weapons systems are better than a few excellent weapons systems, and that battles may be won by good defense, but wars are won by good attacks. The Soviets have incorporated all these lessons in their combat aircraft, particularly the marvelous MiG-29.
Now that the Soviet Union is gone and the paranoia of the Cold War with it the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and all theother independent republics of the Commonwealth still feel threatened. When I visited Kubinka in October 1991, several MiG-29 pilots made the point of saying that they were not worried about any threat from the West-but they were sincerely worried about having to fight forces from breakaway republics as established order deteriorated. The threat of war among the republics is real, and the MiG pilots know that they're a first line of defense in any kind of skirmish. So, even with the threat of war with NATO gone, the MiG still has a role to play, a mission to perform.
The MiG-29 is an "air superiority" fighter aircraft, which means that its principal mission is to control the skies within its combat radius. According to the Mikoyan design Bureau (0KB), its basic missions include 'counter-air" or fighter versus fighter engagements, close air support, and counter-air reconnaissance, day or night, in any weather.
The Fulcrum is equipped for a dayonly, clear-weather close air support role, but it has extremely accurate systems for delivering weapons against point targets (such as a tank or a bridge) or area targets (typically, troops in the open).
It has the systems to effectively engage other fighters at long, intermediate, and close ranges, and includes a firecontrol system that gives a trained and motivated pilot some tactical advantages not available to fighters from other nations. It carries a look-down, shoot-down radar that can pick targets out from the ground clutter. It has a digital data link that provides secure, reliable communications with ground command-and-control facilities. It carries an integrated firecontrol system that automates separate weapons systems and targeting devices. Its weapons systems are known to be extremely effective; the cannon-and-laser-rangefinder system is said to guarantee a kill on any target in range with no more than five rounds.
The MiG-29 airframe-powerplant combination was intended to be superior to any other contemporary fighter; it has a thrust-to-weight ratio of better than 1:1, which means that it can accelerate while flying straight up while carrying a normal combat load. And it can pull 9gs and more, for as long as the pilot can stand it. The airframe will take l2gs without bending, even though no pilot can do the same.
The plane is agile in ways that only counter-air combat aircraft need to be: You can control it easily when it's going very fast or very slow, up or down, straight and level or squirming in a gunfight. It can perform combat maneuvers that Western fighters can't duplicate, and is considered by some Western experts to be superior in Important ways to anything else in the air.
It is intended to be able to identify engage, and defeat any contemporary fighter or bomber-and it probably can, often without being detected itself. It is a simple, strong, elegant, and sophisticated combat aircraft intended to be easy to maintain under the most austere conditions and with the most minimal of facilities. It doesn't need a runway or a hangar; a dirt road will serve for landings and all maintenance is done in the open air.
The MIG'S fire-control system, with its IRST system, powerful look-down shoot-down radar, laser rangefinder, extremely accurate 30mm cannon, and helmet-mounted sight, are all integrated into a package that is extremely effective and unique. The MiG-29 can carry three kinds of missiles, all state-of-the-art, and it can carry them at better than Mach 2, around 1500mph.
Like many Soviet weapons systems, the MiG has been slandered and belittled by Western media reports-until the reporters got a good look at. it. Until the MiG-29 visited Finland, it was criticized for a variety of imagined flaws and faults. Since then, many Western military and aerospace industry experts have been able to see the MiG perform, and what they have seen is a set of capabilities unmatched by any combat aircraft in any air force.
Although the Fulcrum (as NATO calls it) appeared earlier, the 1988 visit to the Farnborough Air Show in Great Britain was the first real opportunity Western aviation analysts had to see the mystery fighter up close and doing its stuff. The reaction was one of surprise, for several reasons. One of the reasons was the candor of the Soviet, pilots and technical experts who accompanicd the aircraft, offering a wealth of detail about the fighter's systems and capabilities that had previously been classified state secrets. Not only was the technical information surprising, but the Soviets themselves surprised the journalists and military analysts with their charm and goodwill. After four decades of adversarial relations, the visit and the visitors did a lot to start a process of improving relations between the NATO forces and those of the Warsaw Pact. But the real thrill came when the MiGs flew what one aviation magazine called a stunning" display
When the two aircraft visited Farnborough in 1988, it was an unprecedented opportunity to study an aircraft that had been, until then, a major mystery. The visit began as the flight entered British airspace: a pair of Tornados formed up alongside to provide escort service. Waiting on the ground were crowds of aviation enthusiasts from many nations and many specialized interests, including a minor intelligence-gathering effort by British and American teams using airborne and ground data collection devices. Every second the aircraft were aloft was recorded on videotape and thousands of photographs were taken. And, when the airplanes were safely parked and the pilots were formally greeted, interviewers for news magazines, radio, television-and the military intelligence community- interrogated the pilots and support personnel.
The planes were flown by Anatoly Kvotchur and Roman Taskaev, both highly accomplished test pilots from Mikoyan; Yuri Ermakov navigated. Accompanying them in an Aeroflot transport were a team from Mikoyan 0KB, including Chief Designer Mikhail Waldenberg and Alexander Velovich, an avionics designer providing translation services.
The Russians surprised the crowd with their charm, candor, and, especially, their aerial display. It began with a fullburner takeoff, the MiG becoming airborne in only 750ft. That impressed the crowd, but what really shocked many of them was that the engine inlet doors stayed solidly closed during the entire run.
As soon as the wheels left the concrete, the nose of the jet was smoothly rotated straight up, and the MiG accelerated in a vertical climb and then continued to pull back into a loop that topped out at about 2,400ft. At the bottom of the loop, the MiG was started right back up again, but this time the power was chopped and the airspeed decayed until the fighter hung motionless in the air before sliding backward for a short distance. The pilot applied power at this point, pushed the nose back toward the horizon where it normally belongs, and-still completely in control-brought it back for more. This time, the MiG made a pass at low speed, only 110 knots, and extreme angle-ofattack (alpha), about twenty-five units of alpha, still in complete control. Then, the Fulcrum accelerated, pulled up to the vertical, and came back for another go, this time with the wings held vertical in a "knife-edge" pass. During the knife-edge maneuver, the aircraft was accelerated from about 270 knots to more than 450 knots. This was followed by a series of Cuban Eights and extreme turns, and then a roll into the landing pattern. While inverted, the gear were extended, and while still airborne (just a few feet above the ground the braking parachute was deployed with a loud pop, and the MiG-29 was back on terra firma.
This display shot down a lot of notions about Soviet aircraft and airmen. The tailslide maneuver showed that the fighter was extraordinarily controllable under the most extreme of flight conditions and that the engines were far more capable than expected-and in the resistance to stall in the slide perhaps were superior to those of any manufacturer. After years of being disparaged by the Western media, the MiG was revealed to be an aircraft with performance equal to or better than anything else in the air It did things no NATO fighter would attempt near the ground, if at all. It appeared to be controllable and agile both at high speeds and while hovering almost motionless in the air. In addition, the aircraft was simple (or at least as simple as a contemporary fighter can be), reliable, and designed to be operated from austere facilities when required.
The MiG-29 is certainly one of the most important fighter aircraft currently available. But like its contemporaries, whose designs came off the drawing boards in the 1960s and 1970s, the MiG-29 has its limitations and restrictions. Even its designers say its cockpit is crowded and complicated and makes the pilot's combat workload heavier than newer designs. Its flight control system uses hydraulics and mechanical linkages rather than the newer digital fly-by-wire technologies that help make such fighters as the F-15E Strike Eagle so much more agile. The airframe has limitations and flaws, like any aircraft's. But, as Canadian Air Force pilot Major Bob Wade said after flying it, "The Western pilot would be wise to detect and shoot at the MiG-29 from a distance using his high-technology weapons system, because if it comes down to a close encounter with infrared missiles or guns, a good Soviet pilot is a definite threat".
Contractor: Mikoyan Gurevich, Russia
Crew: 1 pilot
Wing span: 11,50 m.
Length: 17,20 m.
Height: 4,40 m.
Powerplant: 2 Tumansky R-33D turbofans each rated at 8.300 kg of thrust
Max take off weight: 18.500 kg
Armament: 1 30mm GSh-301 cannon and 4.400 kg of AA and/or AG ordnance
Max speed: Mach 2.3 at high level
Service ceiling: n/a
Max range: 2.100 km