Russian President Putin has conducted a video conference with the MiG Bureau today in connection with the commencement by the Russian military of the flight of the MiG-35 fighter.
At the time of the MAKS airshow in 2015 Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Russia’s aviation and defence industries, said that Russia was working on introducing a light fighter to complement the larger SU T50. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the light fighter Rogozin was referring to is the MiG-35.
In opting for the MiG-35 the Russians have taken a totally different course to the one followed by the US with the F-35, which also began as a light fighter replacing the F-16 to complement the larger and more advanced F-22. Whereas the F-35 is a totally new aircraft which has evolved into a very complex and expensive aircraft, the MiG-35 is based on the previous MiG-29, which first flew in the 1970s and which entered service in 1983.
The similarities between the MiG-35 and the MiG-29 should not however be taken too far. Though the two aircraft look very similar, and though the MiG-35 is obviously not a completely new aircraft, it does represent a fundamental redesign using the advanced technologies of today. Here is how Yury Slyusar, the Director of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation [“OAK”] described it during the video conference with Putin
The fighter was designed specifically for combat in high-intensity conflict and dense air defence conditions.
The plane’s excellent results were achieved through using a new on-board defence system and new infrared search and track. The plane’s radar visibility has been reduced [by comparison with the MiG-29] by a several-fold factor. We have increased from six to eight the number of suspension points, which will make it possible to use current and future airborne weapons systems, including laser weapons.
The plane’s range has been more than doubled. This was achieved through bigger capacity of internal tanks and mid-air refuelling functions, which can be done in tanker regime with aircraft of the same family too.
All systems used in the MiG-35 are Russian designed and made, including the newest systems – the inertial system and helmet-mounted targeting system.
One of the major differences with the MiG-29 which for some reason Slyusar failed to mention is that unlike the MiG-29 the MiG-35 uses a Phazotron Zhuk-AE active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which is far more sophisticated than the radar of the original MiG-29. It is this radar which provides the M-G-35 with the capabilities that Putin referred to in the video conference
I note that the new multipurpose MiG-35 fighter has enhanced flight and technical characteristics and is equipped with the very latest weapons systems. You know this better than I. It can follow from 10 to 30 targets at once, and can operate over land or sea. This is a genuinely unique and promising aircraft, 4++, you could say, very close to being fifth generation.
I would add that though the MiG Bureau has presented various variants of the MiG-29 which it has previously passed off as new generation aircraft with designations such as “MiG-33” and even “MiG-35”, serious development of the MiG-35 only began in 2007, and it is only recently that the Russian military firmly committed themselves to it, with development resources up to now focused on the SU T50.
This is in fact characteristic of Russian military fighter development practice. Since the 1950s development of the sophisticated ‘heavy’ fighter – always assigned to the Sukhoi Bureau – is given priority. Once work on it is largely completed a complimentary ‘light’ fighter – invariably designed by the MiG Bureau – quickly follows.
The Russian decision to opt for a comprehensive redesign of the MiG-29 rather than follow the US approach of developing an entirely new light fighter like the F-35 is of course in part a function of Russia’s more limited resources. However it also follows the conservative Russian design tradition of avoiding risks and cutting costs by squeezing more life out of old designs by using advanced technologies to redesign them.
Well known examples are the MiG-15 which became the MiG-17, the SU-7 which became the SU-17, the 1950s MiG-21 which in the 1970s became the more advanced MiG-21bis, the MiG-23 which became the much more advanced MiG-23ML, and the 1960s MIG-25 which in the 1980s became the very advanced MiG-31, which remains in service today.
Though few will say it, it is known that there are some people in the US who think that in place of the F-35 the US should have followed the same route, with a redesigned F-18 – an aircraft bearing a certain resemblance to the MiG-29 – as its main fighter instead of the overly complex and expensive all-new F-35. Some of President Trump’s tweets suggest he is one of those who thinks this way. With the US now fully committed to the F-35 it is now too late for that.