Ukraine’s uniquely upgraded MiG-29 Fulcrum is back
Ukraine’s most advanced MiG-29 Fulcrum jet fighter, the uniquely upgraded MiG-29MU2, is still active and very likely still participating in dogfights against Russian aircraft and cruise missiles, according to a recent video. Rarely seen even before the recent conflict, the MiG-29MU2 once embodied the hopes of the Ukrainian Air Force significantly modernized its Fulcrum fleet, whose ambitions have since been overtaken by calls for new western combat gear to even the odds in air warfare.
A video of the MiG-29MU2 appeared on social media yesterday, very likely to coincide with Ukrainian Air Force Day being celebrated on August 7, fully armed with a pair of radar-guided R-27R (AA-10 Alamo) and four heat-seekers R-73 (AA-11 Archer) air-to-air missiles, all apparently alive. It was seen being inspected in an open-air scatter before rolling out. The video ends with a Fulcrum performing a low flyby, but this is a different jet, unarmed and seemingly a two-seat combat training version.
Another official video released on Ukrainian Air Force Day, this time by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office:
However, it is interesting in itself that the MiG-29MU2 of the Ukrainian Air Force not only appears to be available, but also appears to be in excellent condition after more than five months of high-intensity conflict.
Since the MiG-29MU2 modernization program was still in its infancy when Russian forces invaded on February 24, according to Ukrainian Air Force Fulcrum pilot Juice, only this one aircraft had been completed to this standard and there was some speculation that this might be the case were destroyed in Russian attacks on the Lviv State Aircraft Repair Plantor LDARZ, where the upgrade work was centered.
The attack on the repair plant destroyed, among other things, at least one large hangar. In addition, the state-owned company is the only one in the country capable of performing major maintenance on the Ukrainian Air Force’s MiG-29s, one of the types that have so far prevented Russian forces from gaining air superiority in the conflict.
The MiG-29MU2 clearly avoided destruction in Lviv or was already deployed to a front-line unit elsewhere in the country. The Ukrainian Air Force appears to have had considerable success in preventing their ground combat troops from being hit by Russian missiles, probably mostly by moving them to various bases and civilian airfields, something Juice alluded to in the past. Even just physically moving on a static basis would complicate Russia’s long-range goals.
That the MiG-29MU2 has now been seen with full air-to-air armament suggests that it is primarily used in air defence, along with other Fulcrums, although these aircraft have also occasionally been used to launch unguided bombs and missiles at ground targets.
However, the MiG-29MU2 differs from other Ukrainian MiG-29s in that it has precision-guided munitions capability, although it is unclear how far the test work to eliminate these was actually progressed at the time of the invasion. In early 2020, a photo surfaced of a Ukrainian MiG-29 armed with a TV-guided Kh-29T (AS-14 Kedge) air-to-surface missile, which was almost certainly related to the MiG-29MU2 upgrade.
Later in 2020, a photo emerged showing a MiG-29 carrying a different type of precision-guided munitions to be added under the MiG-29MU2, this time a pair of 500-kilogram (1,102-pound) KAB-500Kr TV-guided ones bombs.
Interestingly, photos surfaced on social media over the weekend that appear to show the wreckage of an AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, or HARM, that is said to have surfaced on the battlefield in Ukraine. There is currently no official information suggesting that the AGM-88 was delivered to Ukraine, and the fact that the air-to-ground upgraded MiG-29MU2 reappeared at the same time is probably pure coincidence.
unconfirmed Reports suggest so The first MiG-29MU2 began test flights at the Lviv plant in 2019 and was due to enter service later this year, although this had not happened at the time of the Russian invasion.
The MiG-29MU2 program was launched as a follow-up to the previous MiG-29MU1 upgrade, also orchestrated by the Lviv plant. The MiG-29MU1 upgrade was developed based on the experience gained from previous battles against Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region as of 2014.
Optimizations were made to the MiG-29MU1’s radar, providing a search range of 62 miles (compared to about 43 miles for the base configuration) and longer-range compatibility R-27ER rockets and a radio and GPS receiver according to NATO standards. The first of these aircraft returned to service in 2009. According to Juice, the Ukrainian Air Force currently has “many” MiG-29MU1s. Air Forces Monthly conditions that 18 aircraft have been upgraded to this standard by September 2021, but some of these have certainly suffered wear and tear.
The MiG-29MU2 was based on the MU1 but focused on air-to-ground capabilities. A new navigation/landing aid, navigation system, new cockpit displays (seen in the embedded tweet below) and a data bus have been introduced alongside other weapon system and radio upgrades.
It is also worth noting that recent reports indicate that Ukraine may have imported at least three additional MiG-29s from Azerbaijan to bolster its fleet. The aircraft in question was also at the Lviv plant at the time of the invasion, where it was undergoing overhaul and/or modernization. Apparently, instead of trying to get them out of the country, they were transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force. Azerbaijan is one of several MiG-29 operators that have used LDARZ’s services in the past, including Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Sudan.
Another major benefit of the local MiG-29 upgrades in Ukraine is the move to a more flexible maintenance schedule. Originally, under the Soviet-style guidelines, MiG-29s underwent thorough maintenance every 200 hours or 24 months, with less intensive maintenance scheduled every 100 hours or 12 months. Based on the requirements of the war in Donbass, the MiG-29MU1 introduced so-called on-condition overhauls based on the overall condition and degree of use of the aircraft. It is conceivable that this would be particularly beneficial for a relatively small fleet dealing with the rigors of high-intensity conflict.
Although the MiG-29MU2’s air-to-ground capabilities will undoubtedly be of great benefit to Ukraine, especially as its forces increasingly engage in counteroffensives, the fact remains that only one example of this promising aircraft was ever completed. so it remains a niche product. Given the constant need for air defense fighters to protect key infrastructure and cities from Russian aircraft and missile attacks, it is understandable that the MiG-29MU2 is needed in this role.
Dramatic video showing a MiG-29 taking off, apparently from Kulbakino Air Base, as the facility comes under attack:
But it also speaks to Ukraine’s continued need for new fighter jets, which has so far not extended beyond the supply of spare parts, particularly for the MiG-29 fleet. The apparent delivery of four Su-25 close support aircraft from North Macedonia could signal a change here, with Kyiv hoping more fighters will follow. However, hopes of receiving MiG-29s from Bulgaria, Poland or Slovakia have so far been dashed.
However, in April it was confirmed by US officials that Ukraine’s combat fleet had indeed grown in numbers, very likely an indication that spare parts were being used to bring previously dormant jets back to life and help maintain the MiGs who had been active at the beginning of the invasion. A specially painted, unenhanced MiG-29 that appeared in June also appears to support this. Since then, Germany has Approved that it delivered MiG-29 spare parts to Ukraine.
A standard combat MiG-29 painted in flamboyant colors after repairs:
Given the difficulty of getting hold of even Cold War-era fighter jets, it’s hardly surprising that Ukraine’s increasing focus is on procuring more capable Western gear, something pilots like Juice have called for on more than one occasion.
Notably, in an Air Force Day tweet, the Ukrainian Air Force released artwork of F-16 fighter jets in the familiar Ukrainian “digital” camouflage scheme. The F-16 is just one of the fourth-generation fighter jets that the Ukrainian Air Force is pushing for, sooner rather than later. As we have examined in the past, the issue of training pilots and maintenance personnel to operate new fighter jets is significant and something the US House of Representatives recently asked for funding to start before new fighter jets are made available. The change in question made it into the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2023, which is now going through the normal processes before becoming effective.
But in the meantime, and much against all odds, the Ukrainian Air Force and their MiG-29s continue to hold their own against the Russians.
“The Air Force reliably defends the Ukrainian airspace and gives a worthy rebuff to the Russian aggressor in it,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a tweet yesterday. “Thank you for your professionalism and commitment to the defense of Ukraine!”
In a July 29 briefing, an unnamed senior US military official told reporters: “I think the fact that the Russians continue to have no air superiority certainly says a lot about the nature of the will of the Ukrainians, both in their ability to prevent the enemy from firing on their planes, and in position to shoot down Russian planes.”
It seems that the unique MiG-29MU2 is one of the aircraft that Ukraine has at least available to shoot down Russian planes (and missiles). But with no realistic means of upgrading other aircraft at this point, and no more MiG-29 deliveries on the horizon, many in Ukraine will be hoping that Western fighter jets will be a much more realistic prospect, at least by the time the Air Force comes around again.
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