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Russia's MiG-29K Aircraft Carrier Fighter Is No Joke

Russia's MiG-29K Aircraft Carrier Fighter Is No Joke

Meet the MiG-29K: Mikoyan Gurevich is one of the premier aircraft designers of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Its storied history includes some impressive aircraft such as the MiG-15, one of the first jet fighters that tangled with American F-86 Sabres in Korea, and the supersonic MiG-21, which was responsible for downing many U.S. planes in Vietnam.

Today, Mikoyan Gurevich continues to produce sophisticated combat aircraft like the MiG-29K, a carrier-capable multirole fighter currently in service with the Russian and Indian navies. 

MiG-29K: Design and Development

The race was on in the 50s, 60s, and 70s as the U.S. and USSR sought to exploit technology to build faster and faster interceptor aircraft. While both countries had begun employing supersonic fighters as early as the 1950s, carrier variants were more challenging to develop. 

Reducing drag is key to achieving high speeds and this usually means making the wings as small as possible. The trade-off with small wings is poor slow-speed performance, which can be deadly when operating on a carrier.

The nature of carrier recovery rewards designs that can safely fly slower, hence the Catch-22. Some aircraft, such as the Grumman F-14 Tomcat got around this problem with a “swing wing” design that changed the wing shape depending on aircraft speed and allowed the Tomcat to be both an exceptionally fast fighter-interceptor while still safely recovering aboard the carrier at sea.

The U.S. overcame these challenges and fielded the supersonic carrier-based F-11 Tiger as early as 1956, but the Soviet Union had no such counterpart. This was due in part to its smaller Navy and different tactics, however, by the 70s they realized the value of a supersonic carrier-based aircraft. 

Following a request from the Soviet Navy, the two primary Soviet aviation contractors Mikoyan Gurevich and Sukhoi set to work to meet the requirements for a supersonic carrier-based fighter.

While the Soviet Navy had fielded the Yakolev Yak-38, a Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) carrier-based fighter that could achieve speeds higher than Mach 1, it was hampered by a limited range and payload.

The Soviet Navy wanted a multirole aircraft that could effectively defend their fleets and support troops ashore. 

The development program took just over ten years with the Soviet Navy eventually choosing the entry from Sukhoi, the Su-33. This aircraft was based on the already highly successful Su-27 modified for carrier operations. While the decision in the early 1990s to proceed with the Sukhoi fighter meant Mikoyan Gurevich would no longer receive state funding to develop the MiG-29K, they continued work on the project. Ultimately, this paid off as they found a buyer in the Indian Navy. 

INS Vikramaditya

In 2004, Russia finalized the sale to India of a Kiev-class carrier, the ship now known as the INS Vikramaditya. India was rapidly becoming a major regional player and sought to upgrade its navy to match its ambitions.

With the acquisition of the carrier, India required a fighter to serve as a fleet defense and strike aircraft. This came as a boon to the MiG-29K program.

While the Indian Navy initially considered adopting the Su-33 like the Russian Navy, they eventually settled on the MiG-29K due to its smaller size which meant more aircraft could be supported on the deck. With the decision to acquire MiG-29Ks to serve aboard their new carrier, the Indian Navy revived the program. 

Carrier Specifications

The design of the MiG-29K grew out of a shore-based fighter also developed in the 80s.

Technically, the shore variant is the MiG-29 without the K suffix. From the initial design, Mikoyan Gurevich carried out the typical modifications necessary to allow an aircraft to operate from a carrier. Reinforced landing gear and an arresting hook facilitate recovery while folding wings decrease the aircraft’s footprint on deck and in the hangar.

Initial designs included gear to allow the aircraft to be launched by catapult however these were later removed as both the Russian and Indian navies instead used a “ski jump” design to launch aircraft. 

Fuel is a major concern for naval aviation – there are far fewer places to land and top up when out at sea – to address this challenge, the MiG-29K can carry nearly 3,000 more pounds of fuel internally than the shore-based variant.

Additionally, it can be fitted with three underwing drop tanks further increasing the range. In order to extend its endurance, it is capable of air-to-air refueling and can even serve as a buddy tanker for other MiG-29Kswhen fitted with a special tank. 

Operational History and Future

India ordered MiG-29Ks with the purchase of the Vikramaditya in 2004. In 2009, Russia ordered 24 MiG-29Ks to help replace its aging fleet of Su-33s.

The aircraft is operated in both the single-seat and two-seat trainer variants with some plans made to further improve the two-seat MiG-29KUB into an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft.

The lack of catapult launch systems on the Russian and Indian carriers precludes them from fielding conventional AEW platforms such as the E-2D Hawkeye, there is some speculation that several MiG-29KUBs could instead fill this role.

Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.

All images are Creative Commons. 

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