Ukraine’s Uniquely Upgraded MiG-29 Fulcrum Is Back

Ukraine’s most advanced MiG-29 Fulcrum jet fighter, the uniquely upgraded MiG-29MU2, is still active and, based on a recent video, very likely still taking part in the air battle against Russian aircraft and cruise missiles. Rarely seen even before the latest conflict, the MiG-29MU2 at one time embodied the Ukrainian Air Force’s hopes of significantly modernizing its Fulcrum fleet, ambitions since overtaken by calls for new Western fighter equipment to help even the odds in the air war.

Video of the MiG-29MU2 appeared yesterday on social media, very likely timed to coincide with Ukraine’s Air Force Day, celebrated on August 7. The upgraded Fulcrum, the code of which, ‘12 Blue,’ is just visible in the video, is shown fully armed with a pair of radar-guided R-27R (AA-10 Alamo) and four heat-seeking R-73 (AA-11 Archer) air-to-air missiles, all apparently live. It’s seen being inspected in an open-air dispersal before taxiing out. The video ends with a Fulcrum performing a low fly-by, but this is a different jet, unarmed, and seemingly a two-seat combat training version.

Another official video that was released for Ukraine’s Air Force Day, this time by the office of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy:

However, it’s interesting in itself that the MiG-29MU2 is still not only apparently available to the Ukrainian Air Force, but also seems to be in excellent condition after more than five months of high-intensity conflict.

With the MiG-29MU2 modernization program still in its infancy when Russian forces invaded on February 24, only this one aircraft had been completed to this standard, and there had been some speculation that it may have been destroyed in Russian attacks on the Lviv State Aircraft Repair Plant, or LDARZ, where the upgrade work was centered.

The raid on the repair plant destroyed at least one large hangar, among other damage. What’s more, the state-owned enterprise is the only one in the country that is capable of performing major maintenance on the Ukrainian Air Force’s MiG-29s, one of the types that have so far prevented Russian forces from gaining air superiority in the conflict.

Clearly, the MiG-29MU2 either avoided destruction at Lviv or was already deployed to a frontline unit elsewhere in the country. The Ukrainian Air Force seems to have had notable success in preventing its fighter force from getting struck on the ground by Russian missiles, likely mainly by moving them around to various bases and civilian airfields, something that Ukrainian Air Force Fulcrum pilot “Juice” alluded to in the past. Even just physically moving them around at a static base would complicate Russia’s long-range targeting.

That the MiG-29MU2 has now been seen with full air-to-air armament suggests that it’s being used alongside other Fulcrums in primarily an air defense role, although these aircraft have, on occasions, also been used to deliver unguided bombs and rockets on ground targets.

The MiG-29MU2, however, differs from other Ukrainian MiG-29s in that it has a precision-guided munitions capability, although it’s unclear how far the test work to clear this had actually advanced by the time of the invasion. In early 2020 a photo surfaced of a Ukrainian MiG-29 armed with a Kh-29T (AS-14 Kedge) TV-guided air-to-surface missile that was almost certainly related to the MiG-29MU2 upgrade.

Later in 2020, a photo appeared showing a MiG-29 carrying another of the types of precision-guided munitions intended to be added under the MiG-29MU2, this time a pair of 500-kilogram (1,102-pound) KAB-500Kr TV-guided bombs.

Interestingly, photos appeared over the weekend on social media apparently showing the wreckage of an AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, or HARM, that is said to have appeared on the battlefield in Ukraine. At this time, there is no official information pointing to the AGM-88 having been supplied to Ukraine, and the fact that the air-to-ground optimized MiG-29MU2 reappeared at the same time is likely purely coincidental.

Unconfirmed reports suggest the first MiG-29MU2 began test flights at the Lviv plant by 2019 and was planned to be accepted into service this year, although this hadn’t happened by the time of the Russian invasion.

The MiG-29MU2 upgrade was developed on the basis of lessons learned during earlier fighting against Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists, in the Donbas region beginning in 2014. The program was launched as a follow-on to the previous MiG-29MU1 upgrade, also orchestrated by the Lviv plant.

The MiG-29MU1 had tweaks made to its radar providing a 62-mile search range (compared to around 43 miles for the basic equipment) and compatibility with longer-range R-27ER missiles, as well as a NATO-standard radio and GPS receiver. The first of these aircraft returned to service in 2009. AirForces Monthly states that 18 aircraft had been upgraded to this standard by September 2021, but some of these have certainly suffered attrition.

At least 11 MiG-29s of all versions have been confirmed as destroyed in the fighting so far, based on open-source data, from a reported total fleet of around 50 before the current conflict.

The MiG-29MU2 was based on the MU1 but focused on air-to-ground capabilities. As well as further upgrades to the weapons system and radios, it introduced a new navigation/landing aid, navigation system, new cockpit displays (seen in the embedded tweet below), and a data bus.

It’s worth noting, too, that recent reports suggest that Ukraine may have inducted at least three additional MiG-29s from Azerbaijan to boost its fleet. The aircraft in question had also been at the Lviv plant, undergoing an overhaul and/or modernization, at the time of the invasion. Rather than trying to get them out of the country, it seems they may have been transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force. Azerbaijan is one of a number of MiG-29 operators that have made use of LDARZ’s services in the past, others including Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, and Sudan.

Another major advantage of Ukraine’s local MiG-29 upgrades is the switch to a more flexible maintenance schedule. Originally, under the Soviet-style guidelines, MiG-29s underwent deep maintenance every 200 hours or 24 months, with less-intensive maintenance scheduled every 100 hours or 12 months. Based on the demands of the war in the Donbas, the MiG-29MU1 introduced so-called on-condition overhauls, based on the overall condition and degree of use of the aircraft. It can be imagined that this is particularly beneficial for a relatively small fleet coping with the rigors of a high-intensity conflict.

Of course, while the air-to-ground capabilities of the MiG-29MU2 undoubtedly are of great use to Ukraine, especially as its armed forces increasingly go on the counteroffensive, the fact remains that only one example of these promising aircraft was ever completed, so it remains very much a niche asset. With a constant need for air defense fighters to protect key infrastructure and cities against Russian aircraft and missile attacks, it’s understandable that the MiG-29MU2 is required in this role.

A dramatic video showing a MiG-29 taking off, apparently from Kulbakino Air Base, as the facility comes under attack:

But it also speaks to Ukraine’s continued requirement for new fighter jets, which so far has not extended beyond the supply of spare parts, primarily for the MiG-29 fleet. The apparent supply of four Su-25 close support aircraft from North Macedonia could signal a change here, with hopes in Kyiv that additional combat aircraft will follow. So, far, however, hopes of receiving MiG-29s from Bulgaria, Poland, or Slovakia, have come to nothing.

However, in April it was confirmed by U.S. officials that the Ukrainian fighter fleet had actually grown in numbers, very likely an indication that spare parts had been used to bring previously dormant jets back to life, as well as help sustain the MiGs that had been active at the start of the invasion. One specially painted, non-upgraded MiG-29 that appeared in June also seems to support that. Since then, Germany has also confirmed that it has delivered MiG-29 spares to Ukraine.

A standard combat MiG-29, which was painted in flamboyant colors after undergoing repairs:

With the difficulty in getting hold of even Cold War-era fighter jets, it’s hardly surprising that Ukraine is increasingly focused on obtaining more capable Western equipment, something that pilots like Juice have made calls for on more than one occasion.

It’s notable that, in a tweet marking Air Force Day, the Ukrainian Air Force posted artwork of F-16 fighter jets in the familiar Ukrainian ‘digital’ camouflage scheme. The F-16 is just one of the fourth-generation fighters that officials in both Kyiv and the United States are pushing for the Ukrainian Air Force to acquire, sooner rather than later. As we have explored in the past, the issue of training pilots and maintainers to operate new fighters is a significant one and something that the U.S. House of Representatives recently called for funding to launch in advance of new fighters being provided. The amendment in question made it into the house version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which is now going through the normal processes before being signed into law.

But in the meantime, and very much against the odds, the Ukrainian Air Force, and its MiG-29s, continue to hold their own against the Russians.

“The Air Force reliably defends the Ukrainian sky and gives a worthy rebuff to the Russian aggressor in it,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a tweet yesterday. “Thank you for your professionalism and dedication to the defense of Ukraine!”

In a briefing on July 29, an unnamed senior U.S. military official told reporters: “I think the fact that the Russians continue to not have air superiority certainly says a great deal about the Ukrainians’ kind of will, both in their ability to prevent the enemy from shooting at their aircraft but also to shoot down Russian aircraft.”

It seems that the unique MiG-29MU2 is one of the aircraft that’s at least available to Ukraine to shoot down Russian aircraft (and missiles). But with no realistic means of upgrading other aircraft at this point, and with no further MiG-29 deliveries on the horizon, many in Ukraine will hope that Western fighter jets will be a much more realistic prospect at least by the time Air Force Day comes around again.

Contact the author: