Recently the web site of the Russian company that makes the MiG-29 fighter posted a document stating that four Syrian MiG-29s had been upgraded in 2011 to the MiG-20SM standard. When this tidbit made the Western news media the document on the Russian web site suddenly had the reference to the four Syrian MiG-29s removed.
The MiG-29SM upgrade makes older Mig-29s (like those the Syrians have) capable of using a wider variety of new weapons (smart bombs and new improved air-to-air missiles). The upgrades replace a lot of the older electronics, including the radar and generally makes the MiG-29 a more effective aircraft. Now questions have been raised about how much more Russia has done to improve Syria’s MiG-29 fleet.
A year ago it was believed that the Syrian Air Force was in very bad shape. It had suffered major losses since 2012, as the aircraft and helicopters were unleashed on rebels (and civilian supporters) and took a beating from the rebels. Of the 370 usable fixed wing war planes the Syrian Air Force had in 2011, by 2013 about half were out of action because of combat losses or wear and tear. Nearly two-thirds of the 360 helicopters were gone for the same reasons.
Part of the problem was that few Syrian air force leaders (and pilots) were prepared for this kind of war (low level bombing and lots of helicopter flights made under fire). Desperate times demand desperate measures and in the by early 2013 even the MiG-29 fighters were seen dropping bombs. These are the most modern aircraft Syria has and their pilots were trained to fight Israeli jets, not bomb civilians. But a village or city neighborhood is hard to miss, even for a rookie.
All Syrian aircraft are showing their age, except for the MiG-29s, which were relatively new and now we know that the Russians were refurbishing them. Lack of money has meant few flying hours for air force pilots and not enough money to keep all aircraft flyable even before the revolution began in 2011. Fuel and spare parts were even more expensive after that (because of sanctions) and the air force had a hard time dealing with the payroll and the expense of running (and defending) its bases. But all that seems to have changed in the last year and that is largely because of massive Russian assistance to the Syrian Air Force. In addition to fuel and spare parts, the Russians appear to have put technical people into Syria to help with maintenance, upgrades and training. A number of Syrian Air Force personnel were sent to Russia for training. A year ago it was not the beginning of the end for the Syrian Air Force but the start of a Russian financed and supplied revival.
The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983. Some 1,600 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with about 900 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. But some export customers did a l0t more than that. India, for example, flew them at nearly twice that rate, 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). The most recent versions of the Su-30 are built to last up to 6,000 hours. Western warplanes are built to last even longer. The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours in the air. But advances in engineering, materials and maintenance techniques have extended that to over 8,000 hours. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, F-16s sent to these areas will fly over a thousand hours a year more than what they would fly in peacetime. The current planned refurbishment program will extend F-16C flight hours to 10,000 (10K) or more.