Israel’s Secretive MiG-29 Fulcrum Test Program

In a secretive program in the mid-1990s, Israel briefly got its hands on a small number of Soviet-era MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets, at that time almost certainly the most capable threat aircraft that it was likely to face. While the source of these jets was never officially disclosed, they were put through their paces by the Israeli Air Force, including in dissimilar air combat, and the effort yielded some fascinating insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the MiG-29.

Israel had some significant successes in obtaining previous MiG fighters for study and evaluation. Most of these had arrived in Israel through defections from Arab air forces, or involved aircraft that were captured after having been damaged in battle. In some cases, as with the famous Iraqi Air Force MiG-21 coded ‘007,’ the efforts to acquire the jet were altogether more nefarious, as you can read about here.

A MiG-21 painted up as the famous ‘007.’ This particular aircraft was acquired from Indonesian stocks. BUKVOED/Wikimedia Commons

By the mid-1990s, the air forces of both Iran and Syria — Israel’s two most significant potential foes in the region — had begun to receive MiG-29s. These aircraft represented a significant upgrade over their previous fighter equipment: Cold War-era U.S.-made fighters in the case of Iran — some of which Israel also flew — and earlier-generation MiGs in the case of Syria.

An IRIAF MiG-29 at Mehrabad Airport, Tehran, in 2019. DARA ZARBAF/Wikimedia Commons

By this stage, the Israeli Air Force had been able to extensively test a MiG-23MLD Flogger-G, flown to the country by a Syrian defector in 1989. While this was the most advanced version of the swing-wing Flogger fighter at this time, and impressed the Israelis in certain regards, the MiG-29 had by now clearly eclipsed it in terms of overall air-to-air combat capabilities and even threatened to challenge its F-15s and F-16s.

According to the official account of the Israeli Air Force, three single-seat MiG-29 Fulcrum-As arrived in Israel around April of 1997, after which “for several weeks, Israeli test pilots learned the plane and its weapon systems inside and out, flew numerous hours, and tested the jet’s abilities when facing Israeli fighter jets.”

The Israeli Air Force account doesn’t reveal which base the Fulcrum trio was brought to, although the Flight Test Center, based at Tel Nof, south of Tel Aviv in central Israel, certainly played a key role. This unit is responsible for trials of new and modified aircraft and weapons testing, providing domestic modifications to aircraft and avionics, as well as evaluating threat assets.

While Israel has never acknowledged the source of the three MiG-29s, there is a weight of evidence to indicate they belonged to the Polish Air Force — at least one source even provides the individual aircraft identity for one of the Polish jets involved. Although their national markings were concealed, the gray-painted areas match the shape and location of the Polish checkerboards, while the color scheme is also identical to that applied on the Polish jets.

The few available photos of the jets clearly show the insignia of No. 253 Squadron of the Israeli Air Force applied to the tailfins, suggesting that pilots from this unit (then flying the F-16A/B) were heavily involved in the evaluation.

The insignia of No. 253 Squadron, Israeli Air Force, as applied to the MiG-29s during their time in Israel. Wikimedia Commons

Presumably, the Fulcrums were accompanied to Israel by Polish Air Force pilots and maintainers. The Israeli Air Force account suggests that most of the flights were undertaken with non-Israeli pilots at the controls, although “a few” local test pilots also got a chance to fly the jet themselves, each of these recording around 20 flight hours in the MiG.

Before that could happen, however, the Israelis had to become familiarized with the aircraft, using a specially prepared conversion course. According to the Israeli Air Force account, “The language barrier was the main difficulty: the study material was all written in Russian, forcing the Israeli pilots to use a translator, and at times to improvise.”

A Polish Air Force MiG-29 trails its brake chute after landing. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. John E. Lasky

Among those Israelis that did get a chance to fly the MiG-29 was ‘Lt. Col. M,’ who was the commander of the Flight Test Center at the time. “We are used to testing foreign aircraft, as part of our purchasing procedure, but the MiG-29 was an out-of-the-ordinary kind of test flight”, he recalled. “Not even for a moment did we forget that this aircraft is the most advanced strategic threat that exists at the arena today.”

Even after mastering the theory, there would be some hurdles once up in the air, including the voice-warning system, which provided the pilot with alerts, and which was in the Russian language only. Furthermore, the cockpit instrumentation was all in Cyrillic and calibrated in metric rather than Imperial measurements, leading to temporary English-language placards being added.

“Since we are used to flying unfamiliar aircraft, it wasn’t a great challenge to fly the MiG-29 by ourselves right from the first time,” said Lt. Col. M. “Within minutes sitting in the cockpit, I was comfortable.”

“I wasn’t too excited about the first solo flight on the MiG”, Lt. Col. M reflected. “What was exciting, is the fact that so many people watched that premiere flight. It’s not every day that a MiG takes off the squadron’s runway. Everyone at the base stopped what they were doing to watch that jet fly.”

While the MiGs were in Israel, there were “several” flights each day. Each test flight began was pre-briefed and then thoroughly debriefed, with the particular test points analyzed.

“The debrief is the most serious part [of any mission]”, explained Lt. Gen. G, another of the Israeli pilots who flew the MiG. “This time, they were even more serious. After each flight, which lasted an hour, there was a two-to-three-hours debrief, sometimes even more.”

Most valuable was no doubt the opportunity to fly simulated air-to-air combat between the MiG-29 and frontline Israeli Air Force jets, namely the F-15 and F-16, although some sources indicate that the Fulcrum was also flown against the F-4E.

One of the MiG-29s during an air combat training mission with an F-15 and an F-16. Israeli Air Force

Against the F-15 and F-16, the Soviet-designed jet was found to be a “serious opponent,” superior in certain scenarios to the Israeli fighters.

“The aircraft is highly maneuverable, and its engines provide a higher thrust-to-weight ratio,” observed Israeli test pilot Maj. N. “Our pilots must be careful with this aircraft in air combat. Flown by a well-trained professional, it is a worthy opponent.”

Specifics of how those dissimilar air combat drills played out have not been revealed, although Lt. Gen. M. noted that the MiG’s advantages were most prominent “in a tight [turning] battle.”

“It’s an advanced aircraft, and in close maneuvering engagements it is absolutely terrific,” Lt. Gen. M. continued. “It makes sharp turns, it’s quick, and to my opinion, as a platform, it does not fall short of our advanced fighter jets.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Israelis held the MiG’s N019 (NATO Slot Back) pulse-Doppler radar in high regard, although this is an area where the fighter has subsequently been seen at a disadvantage compared to Western jets of the same era.

“The MiG has an excellent radar system”, said Maj. N. “I was also very impressed with the IRST [infrared search and track] system. The missile systems provide the jet with a significant advantage. I made good use of the Russian helmet [which had off-boresight cuing capability for its Archer missiles], and I can say that it works fairly well. Having said that, it is less convenient than the Israeli system, and in some ways, it falls short of it. Overall, it works well.”

“I was positively surprised by its systems”, said Lt. Gen. G. “The different parts — radar, helmet-mounted display, and the missiles — are very well combined. The jet is equipped with advanced air-to-air guided missiles, as well as radar-guided missiles. The jet features an IRST system, which identifies targets by their heat signature, without using radar. All these, combined on a relatively good platform, result in an advanced weapons system. The MiG turned out to be an advanced fighter jet, similar to the F-15 and F-16.”

At this point in time, it should be recalled, a passive IRST sensor was still very much a novelty and was found on only a few Western fighters of that era, while it was a standard feature on Russian-made fighters.

A Polish MiG-29, with the IRST dome clearly seen immediately ahead of the windshield. bomberpilot/Wikimedia Commons

The mention of the MiG’s missile advantage also sounds surprising, seeing as the basic air-to-air weapons of the first-generation Fulcrum are generally seen today as one of its drawbacks. However, at this stage, the Israeli Air Force was still using the semi-active radar-homing AIM-7 Sparrow, rather than the active-radar AIM-120 AMRAAM, and was yet to introduce the latest models of its homegrown heat-seeking Python missiles, which were specifically designed to outperform their Russian counterparts.

Other features that won the praise of the Israeli pilots included its level of automation, which took certain critical parts of flying out of the pilot’s hands, allowing them to concentrate on other elements of the mission.

One of the MiG-29s during its evaluation in Israel. Israeli Air Force

“One of the greatest tools available to the pilot in this jet, is its ability to land by itself, without the need for [the] pilot’s involvement,” said Maj. N. “The landing destination is entered into the computer before takeoff. In case of bad weather, or any other difficulty, hampering the pilot’s ability to land, he simply needs to press a button, and the jet will land by itself.”

The same pilot also noted, however, that this function was not actually put to the test during the evaluation.

“Another system worth mentioning is the one that stabilizes the jet in case the pilot is affected by motion sickness and loses his orientation in space. Such systems do not exist in Western aircraft, counting on the pilot to handle such situations independently,” Maj. N. continued. This has changed in a big way in recent years.

Despite features like this that were designed to make the job of the task-saturated pilot easier, it was also found that the overall human-machine interface was a weak point of the MiG.

The cockpit of a Polish MiG-29. Jacek Karczmarz/Wikimedia Commons

“One of the greatest problems of the MiG is its human engineering,” Maj N. said. “Most of the systems installed are good overall, but their combination and the user interface are cumbersome, and need improvement. On several occasions, I needed a certain piece of information which was not showing on any of the cockpit instruments.”

Furthermore, the inability to carry significant amounts of air-to-ground weapons put the Fulcrum at a disadvantage compared to Western jets.

However, the typically rugged Soviet approach to aircraft design did win praise from the Israelis.

“I was positively impressed with the overall simplicity of the jet,” said Israeli F-16 pilot Maj. H. “The important things are proper and simple. The engine start, for example, is done with a single push of a button, following which there are only a few tests the pilot needs to perform.”

Reliability, overall, was a plus point, as Lt. Gen. G, explained. “The jets had very few malfunctions, and, like other Russian products, the MiG-29 is trustworthy, strong, and massive. The F-15 and F-16 are much more delicate, in comparison.”

Since the MiG-29 evaluation, the Israeli Air Force has introduced considerably more advanced versions of the F-15 and F-16, in the form of the F-15I Ra’am and F-16I Sufa, both of which are optimized for long-range strike missions without compromising on their air-to-air capabilities. New avionics and weapons have been added to these and to older F-15 and F-16 jets, while Israel’s first-generation Vipers have since been withdrawn altogether. Meanwhile, the F-35I stealth fighter, known as the Adir, has entered service, providing a whole new level of capability.

Israeli Air Force F-35I Adir and F-16I Sufa jets. Israeli Air Force/Maj. Ofer

The MiG-29 remains an important part of the inventories of Iran and Syria, although the survivors have undergone only fairly modest upgrades and the overall serviceability of the war-weary Syrian Fulcrum fleet is debatable.

A battered-looking Syrian MiG-29 seen in an official video released in 2020. Syrian Ministry of Defense

More wide-ranging upgrades for the MiG-29 have been pitched periodically and have gained some orders, but the Fulcrums that Israel is likely to face, were it go to war with a regional rival, are little changed from those that it tested back in 1997.

While hundreds of MiG-29s of different versions remain very much frontline fighters today, in different parts of the world, NATO operators are now in the process of finding more modern successors to the Fulcrum, and Ukraine, too, has made repeated requests for Western fighters to supersede its hard-worked and increasingly outclassed MiG-29 fleet.

Israel was not the only country to go to strenuous efforts to secure MiG-29s for evaluation purposes, of course. At very much the same time, in June 1997, the U.S. government bought 21 MiG-29s from Moldova, ostensibly to prevent these from being sold to Iran. However, at least some of the ex-Moldovan MiGs were returned to airworthiness and secretly put through their paces, including in dissimilar air combat training against U.S.-made jets. 

Some of the Moldovan MiG-29s being readied for transport to the United States. DoD

Moreover, U.S. efforts toward foreign materiel exploitation, or FME, continue to make clandestine use of enemy aircraft, including the MiG-29 and Su-27. The successor to the secretive unit known as the Red Eagles, which was focused on flying foreign jets as adversaries for American fighter pilots during training, is understood to fly both these Soviet-designed types, and possibly other foreign threat aircraft, from Area 51.

A video from 2003 shows examples of both the MiG-29 and Su-27 over Nevada. It’s not clear whether one of the ex-Moldovan MiGs was involved, but since then, there have been further eyewitness reports of MiG-29s flying in the area. Other examples of the MiG-29 are known to have been acquired by the U.S. government from Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine and have also been exploited for intelligence and possibly training value.

The MiG-29 fleet inherited by the newly reunified Germany also provided a wealth of opportunities to better understand the jet and its weapons, something that has continued as other Fulcrum operators have also joined NATO.

A German Luftwaffe MiG-29 fires a radar-guided R-27R air-to-air missile at a QF-4 full-scale aerial target drone during a live-fire weapons training mission in the United States. U.S. Air Force

With the passage of time, and especially the pace of modernization in the Israeli Air Force, the threat posed by the MiG-29 is now very much diminished. The process of demystifying the MiG, and developing effective ways to counter it, will have benefited enormously from Israel’s brief period of semi-covert evaluation of these jets at Tel Nof, back in the mid-1990s.

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