Russia’s MiG-35 is currently being viewed as an increasingly hard to sell combat jet, not only to the domestic military, but also to export customers.
The only known series-production order for the classic MiG-35 fighter, placed by the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), is negligibly small, accounting for six aircraft, with deliveries completed in 2021.
In turn, export customers have so far voted to purchase the less-advanced MiG-29M/M2 derivative, taking no fewer than 60 aircraft between 2017 and 2021.
The long-delayed MiG-35 project, in the form it exists today, has emerged thanks to the funding support from the Russian MoD, with a development programme launched at Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG (RAC MiG) in 2014. This new MiG-29 (NATO reporting name Fulcrum) version was to meet domestic needs for a ‘Gen 4++’ lightweight multi-role fighter and the effort was fully funded by the Russian military. The expectations at the time were that this vastly enhanced Fulcrum derivative would be well capable and positioned to replace the majority of the older versions of the classic Russian fighter type, still in active service with the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuASF). The first pair of newly-built MiG-35s – referred to as pre-production aircraft and earmarked for use in the type’s extensive developmental testing and evaluation effort – took to the air for the first time in November 2016.
On completion of the testing works, conducted at the RuASF’s flight-test centre, the 929th GLITs in Akhtubinsk, an order for 30-plus aircraft was originally expected to be placed in late 2018 or early 2019, but has never materialised.
The only RuASF order
In fact, only six MiG-35s – including four single-seaters and two two-seaters– were ordered by the Russian MoD in August 2018 in addition to two pre-series aircraft. Ordered in February 2017 and taken on strength by the RuASF in 2019, the pre-series aircraft (serialled Blue 10 and Blue 11), were earmarked for supporting the expanded flight testing and evaluation programme. The so-called initial production batch of six MiG-35s was also intended to initially join the type’s testing and evaluation programme and then to be introduced in experimental operation. At the same time, a large-scale order for the type was expected to be placed by the Russian military. According to the official information released in August 2019 from RAC MiG, the MiG-35 configuration for the RuASF was scheduled to complete the rather protracted joint state testing effort not before the end of 2021, but this was believed to have happened in the first half of 2022.
The first four MiG-35s from the August 2018 order for six aircraft for the RuASF were delivered in 2020 and the remaining two examples followed in 2021. Ilya Tarasenko, then director general at RAC MiG, told Russia’s RIA Novosti state-run news agency in June 2019 that a follow-on order for an undisclosed number of MiG-35s was expected soon. He claimed these aircraft would be scheduled to replace the fleet of RuASF’s ageing first-generation Fulcrums delivered before 1990.
However, as of April 2022, no follow-on orders for new-generation Fulcrums have been placed by the Russian MoD and the six-strong initial batch was eventually earmarked to replace the first-generation MiG-29s operated by the Strizhy (Swifts) air display team, a component unit of the RuASF’s 237th Air Display Centre, stationed at Kubinka airfield near Moscow. This was first revealed in March 2017 by Lieutenant General Andrey Yudin, then CO of the RuASF’s air force arm, but the handover of the newly built aircraft to the Strizhy team has been seriously delayed and is now expected to take place this year.
It seems there is no clear place and role defined at present for the lightweight MiG-35 in the RuASF’s Frontal Aviation arm, whose fleet is currently dominated by the Su-35S and Su-30SM heavyweight multi-role fighters. It is also noteworthy that the three frontline fighter regiments, operating the vast majority of the MiG-29s and MiG-29SMTs, traded their Fulcrum fleets for new-build Su-30SMs between 2014 and 2018, leaving the RuASF arm with only one active frontline squadron flying legacy MiG-29s (stationed at Erebuni airfield in Armenia) in addition to two more of the Astrakhan-based combat training centre, equipped with a mixture of legacy Fulcrum single and two-seat versions in addition to new-buildMiG-29SMT/UBTs. At the same time, there is no information on any new confirmed export orders for this Russian classic and the RAC MiG’s near and medium-term chances to secure more business remain increasingly slim.
Old wine, but new bottle
Within RAC MiG, the internal designation of the two sub-versions of the MiG-35 built for the RuASF are Model 9-41SR for the single-seater (apparently dubbed MiG-35S) and 9-47SR for the two-seat derivative, also known as the MiG-35UB.
In contrast to the classic Fulcrum family – where the single and two-seat variants have significant airframe structure and mission avionics differences – both the ‘Gen 4++’ single and twin-seaters share a common airframe structure and even the same single-piece canopy design in addition to exactly the same mission avionics suites and ordinance. Space occupied by the second cockpit in the two-seat derivative is used to accommodate an additional 400-litre fuel tank on the single-seater.
The MiG-35S inherited a major share of the design features of the shipborne MiG-29K/KUB, developed and tested in the second half of the 2000s, including the airframe design, powerplant, general systems and most of the avionics suite. The airframe incorporates about 15% composite materials and its service life is set at 6,000 hours or 40 years, whichever is reached first.
The list of the design novelties inherited from the MiG-29K/KUB includes the larger wings – with increased span and area – as well as the beefed-up undercarriage, while the dorsal spine terminates in a beaver tail. The extensive wing mechanisation has large double-slotted trailing-edge flaps, double-slotted leading-edge slats and drooping ailerons in addition to the so-called Krueger flaps (small leading-edge vortex controllers extending from the wing root). These are used for low-speed stability improvement, by reducing oscillations on the glide path during landing approach. The combination of the expanded wing area and highly automated mechanisation results is a considerable reduction in approach speed, offering a comfortable angle-of-attack for the pilot on the final and while touching down.
The quadruple-channel digital fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system provides envelope protection, autothrottle and in-flight loads alleviation and also has a specific mode for improving stability and controllability during air-to-air refuelling. The FBW system affords fully automatic lift control at all flight regimes, via continuous in-flight scheduling of the slats, trailing-edge flaps, Krueger flaps and tailplane, depending on the angle-of-attack and Mach number, and without trim changes felt by the pilot.
The internal fuel tanks were made much roomier than those of the baseline Fulcrum, holding 11,463lb of kerosene, equal to 6,666 litres, and the fuel system includes a conformal dorsal tank, holding 858lb or 500 litres in the fuselage mid-section aft of the cockpit. The single-seater also has a 1,082lb internal tank housed just behind the cockpit, while the two-seat derivative has it in the rear of the cockpit, so its internal capacity is seven per cent less than that of the single-seater.
The new-generation Fulcrum can carry a 2,150-litre underfuselage fuel tank as well as up to four underwing 1,150-litre drop tanks and also features a fully-retractable inflight-refuelling probe to the port side of the windshield.
Powered by the same engines as those on the shipborne MiG-29K/KUB, the Klimov RD-33MK afterburning turbofans are rated at 11,902lb (52.97kN) at military power and 19,836lb (88.3kN) at full afterburner, each. The engine service life is set at 4,000 flight hours while the time between overhauls (TBO) has been extended to 1,000 flight hours. The engine intakes are fitted with simple and lightweight protective grills to prevent foreign object damage on take-off and landing.
The ‘glass’ cockpit layout of the MiG-35, built for the RuASF, is dominated by the IKSh-1M monochrome Head-Up Display (HUD) with 26° field of view, augmented by three MFI-10-7 colour liquid-crystal displays for flight/navigation, targeting and system status information as well as digital terrain maps and targeting data.
Old mission avionics suite with new name
The pumped-up Fulcrum derivative for the RuASF also comes outfitted with the Phazotron-NIIR Zhuk-M (Zhuk-ME for the export customers) radar with a mechanically scanned slotted-array antenna, the same as that installed on the MiG-29KR/KUBR version built for the Russian Naval Aviation arm.
The radar works in both air-to-air and air-to-surface modes, and has a multiple-target engagement capability, with a claimed maximum detection range of about 81 km and acquisition range of 65 km against fighter-size targets (with radar cross section of 5m²). In the air-to-surface mode, its maximum detection range against large ships reaches 141 km. The Zhuk-M can track up to ten air targets and provide data for the engagement of four of these with R-77-1 active radar-guided missiles for beyond-visual-range (BVR) engagements, while the set of air-to-surface modes also includes high-resolution terrain mapping. Ground and sea target positioning accuracy is advertised to be within 4 meters, while resolution in the air-to-surface mode is within 6 meters.
The weapons control system incorporates the new OLS-UEM optronic system, also borrowed from the MiG-29KR/KUBR, installed in front of the windshield. Capable of operating 60° left and right (in azimuth), 15° below and 60° above the aircraft centre-line (in elevation), it integrates electro-optical and infrared sensors, together with a laser rangefinder/designator. In the air-to-air mode, the OLS-UEM system is claimed to be capable of detecting and automatically tracking air targets in tail-on engagements at a maximum distance of 24 km while its head-on detection range stretches to 8 km. The embedded laser rangefinder is useful in attacks against air and surface targets and has a range of up to 8nm.
The pilot is also equipped with the NSTs-T helmet-mounted cueing system.
During its January 2017 official presentation, the MiG-35 for the Russian military was also displayed equipped with the indigenous T220 optronic targeting pod, supplied by the Moscow-based NIIP company, sporting exactly the same sensor outfit as that integrated in the nose-mounted OLS-UEM system. It is intended to be used for target detection and identification as well as for the designation of laser-guided munitions, but as of April 2022, no details have been released on its readiness to enter regular service with the RuASF.
The new-generation Fulcrum derivative for the RuASF also features a newly introduced sophisticated self-protection suite similar to that of the Su-35S, incorporating the L-150 ‘Pastel’ radar warning receiver in addition to the OAR missile approach warning system (with six ultraviolet sensors for providing spherical coverage) plus a pair of laser warning sensors of the OLO system placed in the wingtips. The MSP-418K radar jammer pod is also integrated into the aircraft’s self-protection suite. According to RAC MiG sources, non-specified measures are being taken to reduce the aircraft’s infrared and radar signature, thanks to the use of special coatings.
Weapons are carried on eight underwing hardpoints, including the entire arsenal of Russian-made air-to-air and air-to-surface guided munitions. Maximum warload weight is 13,224lb, with the four inner hardpoints made ‘wet’ for carrying 1,150-litre external tanks, in addition to a 2,200-litre tank accommodated between the engine nacelles. The aircraft also has an in-flight refuelling probe and can be deployed as a ‘buddy-buddy’ tanker for refuelling other tactical combat aircraft, toting the PAZ-MK refuelling pod accommodated between the engine nacelles in addition to four external tanks under the wings.
The air-to-air weaponry is represented by the R-77-1 BVR semi-active radar guidance missile with a range of 70 km. The R-74M, a highly agile missile fitted with infrared seeker, is used for within-visual-range (WVR) air combat. The MiG-35 also retains the 30mm GSh-301 single-barrel gun with 150 rounds.
The list of the air-to-surface guided munitions includes Kh-29 missiles in the two versions (equipped with TV and laser guidance systems and dubbed Kh-29T and Kh-29L), in addition to the all-new Kh-38 modular missile able to use a variety of different guidance systems, as well as the Kh-35U and Kh-31A anti-ship missiles and the Kh-31P/PD high-speed anti-radar missile. It is also advertised as capable of using the new-generation satellite, laser and TV-guided bombs of the KAB series in addition to the family of Grom new-generation guided glide munitions.
Today’s MiG-35 touted for export customers is regarded as a very different beast from the aircraft wearing the same designation and unveiled for the first time to the public by RAC MiG some 15 years ago, when it was proposed for participation in the Indian Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft tender, but without success. In 2007, the fighter manufacturer began marketing a company-funded demonstrator – designated before the MiG-29M – as MiG-35, offered for export, equipped with the brand-new Zhuk-A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, but failing to attract any interest from export customers.
However, Zhuk-AE never passed bench test, nor it was produced for RuAF or export customers.
This is the main reason Egypt and Algeria were sold 1980s airframe parked at Russian warehouses for 40 years.
In turn, the MiG-29M/M2 is a simplified land-based export derivative of the new-generation Fulcrum, which proved commercially successful, with sales made to Egypt and Algeria.
Algeria returned a squadron of MiG-29M because 1980s airframe manufacturing date was visible on the aircraft.
Based on the airframe and general systems of the shipborne MiG-29K/KUB, with the tail hook and folding wings deleted, this new derivative – otherwise externally similar to the RuASF MiG-35S/UB – features an export-standard avionics outfit and weapons.
Initially, its marketing effort had been fruitless – the only customer in the second half of the 2000s was Syria, which placed a firm order for 12 aircraft, with delivery scheduled for between 2010 and 2012. However, these new-generation, export-standard Fulcrums have never been delivered due to the outbreak of the devastating civil war there. Only two examples from the ill-fated Syrian order were built by RAC MiG in 2011, including a single-seater designated MiG-29M (wearing the serial 747) and a two-seater dubbed MiG-29M2 (serialled 741). These machines saw extensive participation in various flight trials and were used for customer demonstration purposes at RAC MiG.
The MiG-29M/M2 – a new-generation multi-role export derivative – was at last launched into production for Egypt, which placed an order for 46 aircraft in 2015. Priced at about US$2 billion, the first aircraft covered by the contract were delivered in 2017 while the last of the ordered Fulcrums were taken by the Egyptian Air Force in 2019.
Egyptian government was given grease payment of $100 million for the MiG-29M deals, according to UK based transparency international.
The version built for Egypt differs from the RuASF’s MiG-35 configuration by its export-standard mission avionics, such as the radar, electro-optic targeting system, communication system, electronic warfare system and identification friend-or-foe system.
Algeria is the second MiG-29M/M2 customer, with an order for 14 examples placed in 2019 and deliveries takingplace in 2020 and 2021. No further details are known on the configuration or features of the Algerian Fulcrums as the deal is shrouded in secrecy and official Russian sources remain tight-lipped about it.
As for the export prospects from 2022 onwards, increasingly strict sanctions imposed by the US and others are expected to cause a gradual shrinking of the MiG-29M/M2 and MiG-35 potential customer base in the immediate future. Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, delivered another serious blow to the already slim export chances of the new-generation Fulcrums.
There is a multitude of factors that are currently impeding the export of the MiG-29’s advanced derivatives asmost potential customers are underthreat of sanctions that may be imposed via the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) adopted in 2017. This act obligates the imposition of US sanctions against any country that places large-scale orders for weapons madein Russia.
In turn, other customers – who do not fear CAATSA sanctions, but have limited procurement budgets – are expected to opt for second-hand MiG-29s.
There are also potential customers with bigger budgets that may opt for purchasing the Su-30SMEs or Su-35s heavyweight fighters.
At the same time, the MiG-35’s prospects for large orders to equip the RuASF remain bleak – particularly in light of recent MoD fighter orders (signed in 2021) covering deliveries of the more capable and combat-proven Su-35S and the Su-30SM2 models, as these enhanced Flankers are still being offered at affordable prices for domestic use.
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