The MiG-29 was developed to meet a Soviet Air Force requirement for a lightweight multi-role fighter. It was a Soviet response to the American F-16 multi-role fighter. With its stunning maneuverability, the MiG-29 re-established the Soviet Union's reputation as a producer of capable combat aircraft. This fighter is known in the West as the Fulcrum. The MiG-29 was built in substantial numbers. About 1 600 fighters of this type were built. Most of them (about 900) were exported. After Russia, Ukraine is the next major operator with six regiments (including Fulcrum-Cs). Other operators are Belarus, Bulgaria, Cuba, Eritrea, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Malaysia, Peru, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yugoslavia. The MiG-29s serve primarily as air defense fighters. All operators have small numbers of MiG-29UB two-seat conversion trainers.
Incorporating an advanced aerodynamic design, the MiG-29 has an N-019 pulse-Doppler radar (NATO reporting name Slot Back) as its primary sensor; this is allied to an infra-red search and track for passive tracking of targets.
The 9-12 prototype made its first flight in 1977, and the type entered service with Soviet Frontal Aviation in 1986. Replacing MiG-23, the MiG-29 was assigned dual air superiority and ground-attack roles. Fighter regiments were also tasked with tactical nuclear strikes with 30 kT RN-40 nuclear bombs.
The basic MiG-29 has proved itself as a formidable close-in dogfighter. The pilot has a helmet-mounted sight to cue missiles onto an off-boresight target. The very agile R-73 missile remains widely viewed as the best close combat air-to-air weapon. However, the MiG-29s primary beyond visual range weapon, the R-27 (Western reporting name AA-10 Alamo) is no more than adequate. Furthermore, the RD-33 engines suffer from low maintainability, and the MiG-29 is also handicapped by its lack of range and endurance. The latter parameters were addressed by an improved 9-13 variant allocated the NATO reporting name Fulcrum-C. This featured a bulged and extended spine, which houses both fuel and avionics, including an active jammer. Commonly nicknamed Gorbatov (hunchback), this variant was built alongside the standard 9-12 MiG-29s.
To address the shortcomings of the baseline MiG-29 the design bureau developed two radically-improved variants. Both the MiG-29M and naval MiG-29K fell victim to fierce spending cuts after the Cold War and their further development was halted. MiG MAPO chose to pursue more limited upgrade programs for more immediate application to Russian and export baseline MiG-29s.
The MiG-29S upgrade was applied to a limited number of Russian 9-13 MiG-29s, the first phase introducing a provision for underwing fuel tanks. It remains unclear if further phased improvements were applied. These included a doubling of the warload, provision for in-flight refueling, and an upgraded NO19MP Topaz radar with simultaneous dual-target engagement capability. The radar would have given the compatibility with R-77 beyond visual range air-to-air missiles. Such features were subsequently offered for export MiG-29s, along with Western navigation and communications equipment as well as a bolt-on retractable in-flight refueling probe.
The standard export MiG-29S was known as the MiG-29SD for 9-12 airframes and as the MiG-29SE when based on the 9-13 airframe. Malaysia's MiG-29Ns are effectively MiG-29SDs. While these versions were marketed as air superiority fighters, the MiG-29SM stressed its multi-role capability with TV- and laser-guided air-to-surface weapons.
Pending the production of a fifth-generation fighter, the Russian air force is upgrading over 150 9-13 MiG-29s to a standard comparable to the MiG-29SMT (9-17); this first full standard prototype flew in 1998. The upgrade was planned to include an N-019ME or MP radar, a modern glass cockpit, greatly increased internal fuel capacity, RD-43 engines, improved serviceability, the addition of an IFR system, and increased combat load; not all of the features mentioned were planned to be incorporated in the first phase of the upgrade.
The MiG-29K is a shipborne multi-role fighter. It entered service with the Russian Navy in 2013 alongside the MiG-29KUB two-seat conversion trainer. These are operated by the Russian Kuznetsov aircraft carrier.
Some time ago India acquired from Russia a former light aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov but in a modified and upgraded form. In 2004 an agreement was signed to refit this Russian ship and sell it to India. This deal also included 12 MiG-29K fighters and 4 MiG-29KUB conversion trainers. In 2010 India ordered additional 29 MiG-29Ks. The MiG-29K entered operational service with the Indian Navy during the same year. In 2014 the refitted aircraft carrier was commissioned with the Indian Navy as the INS Vikramaditya.
Successor to the MiG-29 is the MiG-35 (Fulcrum-F). This multi-role fighter made its first flight in 2007. It has more powerful engines, new radar, and new avionics. Though the MiG-35 received no production orders.
The MiG-29MU2 is a recent Ukrainian modernized version. It costs around $3.6 million and takes around 9 months for Ukrainians to refurbish and upgrade a single aircraft to the MiG-29MU2 standard.