By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace
Pending a last minute change of heart, at least one more iteration of the MiG-29 Fulcrum family will see service with the Russian Air Force. But whether this is a requirement priority for the service itself remains an open question.
Senior military and industry officials suggest that an order for the MiG-35S will be included in the next State Armament Plan, known as GPV 2018–25. However, the drivers behind such a decision may well be industrial and export priorities rather than operational needs. The GPV is now expected to be released toward the end of this year.
MiG, now part of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, showed the MiG-35 at the MAKS 2017 air show, held in Zhukovsky, Moscow Region, on 18–23 July. Yury Borisov, the deputy defence minister, said during the show that the purchase of the MiG-35 would be included in the forthcoming State Armament Plan.
The MiG-29 Fulcrum is in the process of being phased out of air force service, with most of the remaining units being used in the training role. The previous State Armament Programme, covering the 2010–20 period, focused combat-aircraft procurement mainly on Sukhoi aircraft, primarily the Su-30SM, the Su-34 and the Su-35S. It also included funding to support Sukhoi’s T-50 design to meet the air force’s PAK FA requirement for a fifth-generation multi-role fighter. A MiG-35 purchase within the context of the GPV 2010–20 was discussed; however, in 2013, Borisov was reported as saying that the acquisition of the aircraft was being postponed. Instead of buying the MiG-35, Russia purchased 16 MiG-29SMTs. MiG has, however, secured an export order from Egypt for the MiG-29M, upon which the MiG-35 is based.
The MiG-35 has a larger wing in comparison to the basic Fulcrum, along with a new glass cockpit with three multi-function displays and more powerful engines. Should it enter service, the aircraft will also eventually be fitted with an active electronically scanned array radar. However, initial aircraft might be delivered with a mechanically scanned array radar.
Underlying the on/off nature of a potential MiG-35 purchase may well be a long-running industry and air-force debate as to the mix of Russia’s tactical combat-aircraft fleet, and the affordability of the various options. The 2010–20 GPV’s support for Sukhoi tactical aircraft suggested that, in the near to medium term, the air force’s focus would be on comparatively large, long-endurance multi-role aircraft. Whether a medium-weight complement to these was required, in the shape of either the MiG-35 or a new-build lightweight multi-role tactical fighter (LMFS), remains unresolved.
Within MiG, work has been undertaken on a new design, while development of the MiG-35 continues. Committing to a MiG-35 acquisition in significant numbers would make Russia’s pursuit of a new light-to-medium fighter design increasingly unlikely, at least in the near term. Some within MiG describe the MiG-35 as a means of meeting an LMFS requirement, irrespective of the age of the basic design. (The MiG-29 prototype was flown in 1977 – 40 years ago.) Indeed, Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev, the head of Russia’s Aerospace Forces, which includes the air force, has been reported as saying that all of the air force’s light fighters (MiG-29s) would be replaced by the MiG-35.
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