Attrition: MiG Miseries Multiply


December 18, 2019: Polish MiG-29 fighter aircraft have returned to flying after being grounded for about nine months. The grounding order came after three crashes in three years and before that 29 years of accident-free service. There did not appear to be any common cause for three crashes, one of which killed the pilot.

Poland bought its first MiG-29s from Russia in 1989, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. A year before that all the communist governments of East Europe collapsed and as a result Poland acquired some second-hand MiG-29s from the former East German and Czechoslovak air forces. East Germany had reunited with West Germany and Czechoslovakia split in two (Czech Republic and Slovakia) and both were soon in NATO. While these MiG-29 users more than satisfied with the performance of these Russian aircraft, they soon discovered that the collapse of the Soviet Union had crippled the ability of Russia to supply quality spare parts for to keep the aircraft flying Moreover the Russians jacked up prices of those parts needed by NATO members and delivery times were not as prompt as for Western fighters. As Poland recently discovered, the biggest problem was age. By 2017, when the accidents began, Poland had 31 MiG-29s and had refurbished some of them. That was not enough.

Currently, only five Polish Mig-29s are certified to fly. The others are still being scrutinized. The nine month grounding also caused problems with MiG-29 pilots because fighter pilots have to go through a recertification process if they have not flown their aircraft for six months or more. That means as MiG-29’s are cleared for service it will be a few months before they will be doing anything but recertification flights for all the pilots.

Poland is one of the last users of MiG-29s among the NATO member states. The Slovaks have adopted the latest model of the F-16, the Block, 70 while the Bulgarians have F-16s on order and until those arrive in 2023, have only a few MiG-29s and Su-25s still flying. The Czechs have been using 14 Swedish Gripen fighters since 2005 plus 14 armed L-159 trainers serving as attack aircraft. These are Czech products which have, for decades, been a major export.

A key problem with the MiG-29 is its RD -33 engines. These are less reliable and durable than Western engines and Russia quite blatantly overcharges for replacement parts. The MiG-29 is fine if you have sufficient and affordable spare parts but the Russian suppliers overcharge and deliver late. Even when you can get spare parts from Western suppliers there can still be problems. Such was the case with the 2018 crash that killed the pilot. That was caused by a faulty part in the Russian K-36DM ejection seat. A locally made replacement part had different characteristics than the original and that prevented the parachute from opening. Normally the Russian ejection seats tend to be as reliable as their Western counterparts. All fighters had been checked and the faulty part was replaced by new ones now made within specs.

All these MiG-29 problems were not a surprise. For two decades the MiG-29 has been the problem child of the Russian Air Force as well as for many export customers. For example, in 2010 Malaysia admitted that it was getting rid of its MiG-29 fighters because the aircraft was too expensive to maintain. It cost about $5 million a year, per aircraft, to keep them flying. Malaysia had already ordered 18 Su-30 fighters and then ordered more to replace all of its retired MiG-29s. Russia offered better prices on maintenance contracts for new Su-30s, in addition to bargain (compared to U.S. planes) aircraft prices.

The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983. Some 1,800 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with nearly a thousand of them exported. The 22 ton aircraft is roughly comparable to the F-16, but it depends a lot on which version of either aircraft you are talking about. Russia is making a lot of money upgrading MiG-29s. Not just adding new electronics, but also making the airframe more robust. The MiG-29 was originally rated at 2,500 total flight hours. At that time (early 80s), Russia expected MiG-29s to fly about a hundred or so hours a year. Western pilots flew more frequently and were better pilots because of that. India, for example, flew them about 180 hours a year, as did Malaysia. So now Russia is offering to spiff up the airframe so that the aircraft can fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This won't be easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic).

Since 2009 Russia has grounded its MiG-29s several times in order to check for structural flaws. Compared to Western aircraft, like the F-16, the MiG-29 is available for action about two thirds as much. While extending the life of the MiG-29 into the 2030s is theoretically possible, actually doing so will be a real breakthrough in Russian aircraft capabilities. Algeria and several other nations have turned down the MiG-29, which has acquired the reputation of being second rate and a loser. Russia, however, wants to preserve MiG as a brand so it is not solely dependent on Sukhoi for its jet fighters. At this point, it looks like an uphill fight. MiG and Sukhoi are now both divisions of a state-owned military aircraft company (United Aircraft). Technically, the MiG division is bankrupt. Sukhoi is profitable.

These growing problems have forced Poland to replace their MiG-29s earlier than expected. Currently, Poland has 48 F-16s but those alone is not enough to handle all air force and NATO responsibilities. The Poles are interested in obtaining 32 F-35As but budget constraints mean the F-35 purchase cannot be sped up. In fact, Poland was planning to obtain to some more F-16s and modernize current ones before moving on to the F-35. Until then the MiG-29s have to be kept flyable so they can guard Polish airspace and handle NATO responsibilities like the Baltic Air Patrol. --- Przemysław Juraszek




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