MiG-29 History – Born of “Fulcrum”
The shock came when the CIA in Langley, USA, looked through data sent by their surveillance satellites from Ramenscoye aircraft test facility in Russia, at this time still the USSR and a potent enemy to NATO. According to rumors the USSR was going to introduce a new aircraft generation (MiG-29) with a performance equal to that of new NATO aircraft such as the F15 and F16. Nobody really believed in them, because the USSR was said to lack the experience and the abilities to develop such a high-tech aircraft. As the intelligence officer went through the data, he could hardly believe his eyes. He found signs of an aircraft at Ramenscoye ramp with a fuselage shape somewhat similar to an F15 but smaller in size. It received “RAM-L” as code-name for being a test aircraft from Ramenscoye and not yet in use with the Soviet Air Force.
On October 6, 1977, renowned test pilot Alexander Fedotov took this new aircraft design for the first time to the air. This maiden flight of “Product 9” – the official Soviet designation for the MiG 29 design was the result of a program initialized in the late 1960s and divided in 1971 into two separate designs: LFPI (ljochki=light) and TFPI (tjasholui= heavy). The outcome of the TFPI was the Sukhoi SU 27, put into service 1987, and that of the LFPI, the MiG 29, taken into service in 1983. After MiG-29 introduction it was given the NATO code name “Fulcrum”, a name that MiG-29 still carries today.
At an early design stage it was planned to skip an interim solution and equip new MiG 29 fighter with a newly developed system, the N-019 radar
After the “Fulcrum” was introduced into the Soviet Air Force in 1983, the WP (Warsaw pact) partner countries decided to enhance their fighter fleets and to seek replacements for their aging MiG-21 aircraft. In the mid 1980s the East German Air Force made first steps towards the procurement of the MiG-29 fighter aircraft. After final settlement of the contract worth 1 billion GDR-Marks, the decision was made to acquire this aircraft and to reequip squadrons FW 3 “Vladimir Komarov” at Preschen airbase near the town of Forst close to the Polish Border, as the first wing with the new fighter. The first two aircraft were delivered in May 1988, and the last one 778 in January 1989. They equipped the first and the second squadron of FW 3.
As with every newly introduced aircraft the difficulties began shortly after the last MiG-29s had arrived in Preschen. At this time, FW 3’s Pilots flew the first missions. At one occasion a young pilot took his steed into the air and did some low level aerobatics. While changing from a left hand barrel role into a right hand one the aircraft started to brake out and departed. Being quite close to the surface the pilot did all he could to prevent the aircraft from crashing. He managed a safe lading and returned to his shelter where the MiG-29’s systems were checked and the flight data, recorded by the aircraft’s onboard TESTER-system, printed out immediately. As the MiG-29 could only be rescued by exceeding the published G limitations of 9 Gs for the MiG 29, the Mikoyan representative at once decided to cancel the factory guarantee for this new aircraft. The upset German side convinced the Russians to measure the fuselage first, but after the bird was defueled, put on the jacks and levelled, it easily was proven that the MiG-29’s parameter were out of any tolerance.
The suspicious NVA officers then tried something different. As all MiG-29 s were handed over with a total of four flight hours on their backs, the question arose, if not all aircraft were handed over to the NVA out of their tolerances as the soviet representatives deleted all data from the aircraft’s TESTER-system shortly after having touched down on East German soil. Under Soviet protest the last MiG-29, which only recently had landed in Preschen, was also put on the jacks and levelled out. To the surprise of all German technicians the aircraft parameter were also out of tolerance. After a lengthy discussion with the Mikoyan representatives, the Germans were shown a way to drain the remaining aircraft fuel from the fuselage. Subsequently all parameter were brought back to acceptable numbers and the guarantee remained on all MiG 29s.
NVA (East German People’s Army ) and WP (Warsaw Pact) Tactics
The NVA and other WP countries exclusively used their few MiG 29A in defensive counter air role, although aircraft was intended for a secondary air-to-ground role as well. Often the aircraft were scrambled out of their protective shelters or undertook limited CAP missions. During those missions they remained under strict GCI control of ground stations or A-50 “Mainstay” AWACS aircraft. This hardly left any scope for the pilot to make decisions on his own. At first glance this method had the advantage that the controller was able to manage all tactics, while the pilot could concentrate on flying the aircraft and execute the orders coming from the ground station.
However, this very strict reign lead to a kind of remote control of the MiG-29 into firing position by the LASUR system, degrading the pilot to a puppet on strings. This form of “close control” was a further development of the tactics employed during the night fighting above Germany during WW II. The MiG-29 systems were designed out to meet those requirements to the best possible extend; however, this particular system of “close control” was the weakest point in NVA tactics. During the first missions of the MiG-29 against NATO’s fighter aircraft, the NATO-wide used “tactical control” – where all information gathered from the pilot’s radar and Gel are used to enhance the situational awareness of the aircrew – proved to be more flexible and left a much wider scope for decisions for the pilot. Strict Soviet bureaucracy and the superior’s mistrust in pilots proved to be fatal for the development of newer, more effective tactics and the creativity of younger pilots. Before the Gulf War Iraqi pilots were sent to France for training on the Mirage F1. Many of them failed the French fighter pilots’ course and were ordered back to the Middle East. Those dismissed and other second line pilots, however, seemed to be good enough for being trained on the MiG-29 in Russia. There everyone passed the exam, which leads to the conclusions that Russia and other WP countries had a very low training standard.
Adding to this, more disadvantages could be found in the airframe itself. Although the NVA’s (Nationale Volksarmee = East German People’s Army) MiG 29 A variant was to be an export version, only some minor equipment changes were incorporated mainly to the radar, its designation changed to N-019E or A “Rubin”. Even the latest version of the IFFI SIF equipment the SRZO (NATO-code “Odd Rods”) could be found in the East German aircraft. The N-019E radar has a detection capability of 120° i. e. 60° to either side. However, only 50° of these 120° can be used for detecting and tracking an airborne target. This 50° tracking cone must be set manually to the anticipated target’s direction to receive a firing solution. It seems that the radar was designed to concentrate on the weapons employment, rather giving the pilot an overview on the tactical situation. The HUD symbology is very sparse. Even when the target is locked it does not give any data such as altitude or ranges out. The radar does not feature a track-while-scan mode and after having a lock on the target, other contacts will disappear. As the AA 10 “Alamo” missile is working on a semi-active guidance mode, the pilot has to continue illuminating his target until missile impact. The NVA MiG-29s received the early centerline tanks without a specially constructed aperture to allow the ejection of spent ammunition cases, thus this tank has to be dropped before firing the gun. Even a warning burst during air policing would not be possible. With the tank attached the speed brakes cannot be operated and the maximum speed is limited to Mach 1.5.
In the final months of the GOR’s existence, pilots of FW 3 could accomplish some flight hours in the new bird, however, hardly reaching a combat readiness state of “limited combat ready”. As the German reunification drew closer, the Soviet government forbade further sales of MiG 29s to the GDR forces, although it was intended to reequip FW 1 at Holzdorf airbase with the same type of aircraft. Under the cover of the night Soviet technicians coming from a nearby Soviet air base were sent to Preschen and exchanged the IFF/SIF PAROL of all 24 MiG 29 with an older version of the “Odd T Rods” system. The Soviets did not allow this state-of-the-art equipment to fall into the hands of the West German Air Force, the new owner to come. On October 3, 1990, the NVA seized to exist. All military units and their equipment became part of the Federal Republic of Germany. Some years ago the USA and all other NATO countries would have paid millions to be owner of such a precious gem of Eastern technology, now it simply was taken over into NATO-inventory.