Procurement: Fire Sale On MiGs

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December 23,2008: Russia is selling Lebanon ten MiG-29 fighters, at a "large discount" (each fighter will cost the Lebanese less than $5 million). This sale is not as big a favor to the Lebanese as it might appear. Two months ago, all Russian MiG-29s were grounded until it could be determined if some recent crashes, and other problems, were the result of some fundamental design flaw. There have been several problems with MiG-29s lately, although all aircraft have been returned to flight status. This has not helped sales, as most export customers prefer the larger Su-27 (and its derivatives like the Su-30).

The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983, as the answer to the American F-16. Some 1,600 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with most (about 900) exported. The biggest customer, India, received its first MiG-29s in 1986, with deliveries continuing into the 1990s.

The 22 ton aircraft is, indeed, 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. India flew them at nearly twice that rate, and now Russia is offering to spiff up the airframe so that the aircraft can fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extensions upgrades promised. This won't be easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic). This is the main reason for grounding all of them after the recent crash.

Compared to Western aircraft, like the F-16, the MiG-29 is available for action about two thirds as often. While extending the life of the MiG-29 into the 2030s is theoretically possible, actually doing so will be real breakthrough in Russian aircraft capabilities. Thus the anxiety over the reliability problems. The Lebanese know all this, but their air force has no jet fighters at all, so ten MiG-29s is a major improvement.

 


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