Why Russia’s MiG-35 Is Starting To Look Like A Dead Duck

The latest-generation Fulcrum should have been in service by now, so why isn’t it and what went wrong?

RAC MiG/Vadim Savitsky

Almost four years on from the MiG-35’s first flight, there’s no sign of the hoped-for large-scale orders for the warplane from the Russian Defense Ministry. The Fulcrum-F — described by the manufacturer as a “Gen 4++” fighter — had been slated to begin frontline squadron service around mid-2020, but to date, Russia has purchased only six examples.

The latest iteration of the Fulcrum, which is based on the standard MiG-29's 43-year-old Cold War-era design, entered development in 2014 thanks to defense ministry funding ready to meet a domestic requirement, but the fighter is still undergoing its mandated state flight-test campaign. It had been hoped that trials would be completed by late 2018 or early 2019, after which Moscow would place an order for at least 30 aircraft.

Confusingly, the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG (RAC MiG) has used the MiG-35 designation before its current and latest incarnation. The name was previously applied to a pair of prototypes flown as long ago as December 2011 and then offered, unsuccessfully, to India under its 126-aircraft Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender. Although speculative — the prototypes were based on modified MiG-29K/KUB naval fighters — the promised Indian MiG-35 would have been more advanced than the current offering, including a Phazotron-NIIR Zhuk-AE active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar.

The first two pre-production examples of this latest MiG-35 were presented to officials in an official ceremony at RAC MiG’s Lukhovitsy factory, southeast of Moscow, in January 2017. During the event, Russian Aerospace Forces commander-in-chief Colonel General Viktor Bondarev said that all of the service’s “lightweight” fighters would eventually be replaced by the new MiG-35.

RAC MiG

 The MiG-35 cockpit is dominated by three liquid-crystal displays and a HUD.

The initial two jets were single-seat MiG-35S, with the bort number ‘702,’ and two-seat MiG-35UB, carrying ‘712’. These aircraft had both completed maiden flights towards the end of November 2016.

While test work continues, the defense ministry has signed up to buy just six MiG-35s, ordered in August 2018 under the State Armament Program. This token force — four single-seaters and a pair of two-seaters — will continue the evaluation effort and are then expected to join the Strizhi (Swifts) aerial display team based at Kubinka near Moscow. In August last year, RAC MiG admitted the joint state tests wouldn’t be complete before the end of 2021.

It’s a far cry from earlier ambitions to introduce the MiG-35 as standard “lightweight” fighter across the Russian Aerospace Forces, also known by the Russian acronym VKS. In the meantime, the requirement for such a fighter looks increasingly questionable. With just one frontline MiG-29 unit remaining in the VKS order of battle, it’s hard to see exactly where the MiG-35 fits in. Rather than trading legacy Fulcrums for brand-new MiG-35s, some squadrons have switched to the “heavyweight” Su-30SM Flanker instead.

Moreover, when it comes to the price tag, the difference between “lightweight” products from RAC MiG and the “heavyweight” offerings from the Sukhoi stable can be overstated. Even in its original form, the cost of a basic MiG-29 was 80% that of the Su-27 Flanker. The difference in operating costs between the two fighters was also similar.

Plans to outfit the Strizhi team with MiG-35s were revealed by the then commander of the VKS, Lieutenant General Andrey Yudin, in March 2017. While the team’s aircrew do have a frontline combat tasking alongside their display work, it’s likely the jets would mainly be used to hunt for lucrative export orders. It was at one stage expected that Strizhi pilots would get their hands on MiG-35s from late 2019, during a conversion course with the 929th Chkalov State Flight-Test Center at Akhtubinsk in Russia’s southwestern Astrakhan region — there is no confirmation that this happened. It’s noteworthy that while the Strizhi team still relies on the veteran Soviet-era MiG-29, the VKS’ Russikiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) team traded its Su-27s for Su-30SMs back in 2017 and has now begun to receive the latest Su-35S Flankers, too.

RAC MiG

A MiG-35 prototype carries four KAB-500Kr TV-guided bombs and a pair of inert R-73 air-to-air missiles.

The other prime candidate to receive the MiG-35 within the VKS is the 3624th Aviation Base at Erebuni, in neighboring Armenia — the last of the air arm’s frontline MiG-29 operators. Back in February 2017, the base’s commander, which Russian media only referred to as Colonel Petrov, said that the unit’s aging MiG-29s would be replaced by MiG-35s. With no follow-on contract signed, delivery of the jets to the air force’s Armenian outpost has become an increasingly remote prospect. More recently, it’s been suggested the base will start to receive new Su-30SMs instead.

Should the new-generation Fulcrum ever enter VKS service, it will likely receive the MiG-35S (single-seat) and MiG-35UB (two-seat) designations. Internally, RAC MiG calls these aircraft 9.41SR and 9.47SR respectively — in fact, they both share a common airframe structure and cockpit canopy. The single simply eliminates the seat from the rear cockpit and replaces it with an additional fuel tank. 

The MiG-35 is a far cry from the basic and strictly limited capability MiG-29. The advanced cockpit is furnished with three color liquid-crystal displays as well as a monochrome head-up display (HUD). The fighter’s Phazotron-NIIR FGM-129 Zhuk-M radar — inherited from the carrier-based MiG-29KR/KUBR — features a mechanically scanned slotted-array antenna rather than an AESA. It’s combined with a new OLS-UEM optronic system that brings together electro-optical and infrared sensors plus a laser rangefinder/designator. The pilot is also provided with a helmet-mounted display system.

RAC MiG

The MiG-35 in single-seat form. Both this and the two-seat fighter share a common cockpit canopy.

While token efforts were made to enhance the MiG-29’s survivability during its early development, the MiG-35 features a more modern self-protection suite in which a radar warning receiver is combined with a missile approach warning system (six ultraviolet sensors to ensure 360-degree coverage) and two wingtip laser warners. The suite can be complemented by an external radar jamming pod.

The latest-generation armament includes both air-to-air and air-to-ground stores, among them the RVV-SD air-to-air missile, an improved version of the R-77, with active radar seeker for engagements at beyond visual range. Alongside the full range of conventional air-to-ground weapons, new-generation precision-guided stores include the modular Kh-38 air-to-surface missile and the Grom family of glide munitions.

RAC MiG

A twin-seat MiG-35 leads a two-ship formation.

The appearance of a further refined MiG-35 at last year’s biennial MAKS airshow outside Moscow indicated that RAC MiG has begun to look for MiG-35 customers further afield. This MiG-35 variant was presented in a “renewed export configuration” with enhanced avionics including open-architecture software, reinstated Zhuk-AE AESA radar, plus a new larger wing and tail. In this form, the jet is being offered to India to meet its new requirement for 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA). Here, the Russian manufacturer faces stiff competition from Airbus Defence and Space, Boeing, Dassault Aviation, Lockheed Martin, Saab, and Sukhoi.

Without a doubt, the MiG-35 is a capable fighter. The similar MiG-29M/M2 has also secured an export order from Egypt. However, prospects for the new-generation Fulcrum with the Russian Aerospace Forces appear slim. Combined with the continued ascendancy of the Flanker, and with the all-new Su-57 waiting in the wings, it’s becoming increasingly hard to make the case for a large-scale MiG-35 order.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com