The Truth About the MiG-29

How U.S. intelligence services solved the mystery of a cold war killer.

A Polish air force MiG-29 rests in the shadows.This year the Polish air force is upgrading the avionics in half of its 31 MiG‑29s. (Maciek Wolanski)
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The MiG-29 Fulcrum outside the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has a hornet’s nest growing in its nose. Its tires, lifted off the ground by stands, are split and shredded. Bird droppings drool off its radome. The aircraft gives the impression of a war prize displayed like a head on a stake. In a way, it is a war prize, taken in the winning of the cold war. It’s one of 17 MiG-29s the U.S. government purchased from the former Soviet state of Moldova in 1997, a deal that kept the jets from being sold to Iran. The loose confederation that replaced the Soviet Union was not in a position to stop the buy, and it became one more ignominy in the Soviet collapse. “Any military establishment of any country would be upset if its opponent would receive an opportunity to evaluate and test its most modern weapons,” says Moscow-based aviation historian Sergey Isaev. “I wonder how happy would the White House be and Pentagon if Mexico, for example, would even try to sell its UH-60L Blackhawk helicopters to the Russian Federation?”

The acquisition also gave Western analysts, some of them working inside the grim edifice of this national intelligence center, a chance to study the fighter that they had been viewing from afar for 20 years. When it first showed up, in 1977, the MiG-29, like its very distant ancestor, the MiG-15, was a startling revelation: The Soviets were catching up with U.S. aeronautical technology.

The U.S. intelligence community first learned of the new Soviet aircraft from satellite photos in November 1977, about the time of the jet’s first flight. “Simply by looking at the size and the shape of it, it was clear that the Soviets were developing a counterpart to our F-16 and F/A-18,” says Benjamin Lambeth, author of the 1999 book Russia’s Air Power in Crisis and, in the late 1970s, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. “From all the various intelligence sources and methods that we had for gathering electronic and other information, the U.S. government learned a fair amount about the airplane early on, and it was clear we had to do something.” What the Air Force did was to begin development of stealth technology and electronic systems that could hunt and target multiple aircraft at once; in 1981, it issued its first formal requirement for the next generation of fighter technology, an Advanced Tactical Fighter, which eventually became the F-22 Raptor.

MiG-29s remained shadowy until a 1990s U.S.-German exchange revealed their secrets to the West. More revelations came from MiGs imported from Moldova; one was towed to an intelligence center in Dayton, Ohio, where it sits outside on display. (USAF/Staff Sgt Joshua Strang)
At “the Petting Zoo,” a collection at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, analysts get the chance to study the vulnerabilities of enemy aircraft, including Russian Mi-24 and Mi-14 helicopters. (Department of Defense)
A MiG-29 trainer is winched aboard a C-17 for shipment from Moldova to the United States. (Department of Defense)
At the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center in western Nevada, a pair of F/A-18s wrangle in a training exercise. By adopting the tactics and flight characteristics of enemy aircraft, like MiG-29s, aggressor pilots (“adversaries,” in the Navy) demystify enemy aircraft and give U.S. pilots experience in flying against them. (Ted Carlson)
U.S. soldiers survey the wreckage of a Fulcrum shot down in 1999 by NATO forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (US Army/SPC Tracy Trotter)
Two Fulcrums (foreground) form up with F-16 aggressors in a 1999 Red Flag exercise in Nevada. (USAF/Courtesy Peter Steiniger)
With a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.09 to 1, a German MiG-29UB rockets away from Preschen Air Base (visible below). (Dr. Stefan Peterson)
Red stars on the wings mark these F/A‑18 Hornets as U.S. adversary aircraft. Stacked up over a Virginia landscape, the “Fighting Omars” of VFC-12 face off with other fighter squadrons from their base at Naval Air Station Oceana. ( Ted Carlson)
In Laage, Germany, a JG 73 pilot—with the Archer missile-aiming sight mounted on his helmet—watches as a squadron mate prepares to take off on a training sortie. (Courtesy Peter Steiniger)
A drag chute helps slow the MiG‑29, landing (at about 155 mph) at Minsk Mazowiecki air base in Poland. Last May, in one more irony connected with the Russian-built fighter, a Polish-flown, Lithuanian-based MiG-29 intercepted two Russian air force Su-27s over the Baltic Sea, where the Polish air force shares patrol duty with the British Royal Air Force. (Lukasz Gronowski)

In the years since, the bits and bytes first assembled about the MiG-29 have resolved into a much clearer picture, in part because of the opportunity to examine the 21 Moldovan MiGs. Between October 20 and 27, 1997, the Fulcrums—14 frontline C models, six older A’s, and a single B two-seater—were disassembled in Moldova and the parts flown by C-17s to the national intelligence center in Dayton, where they were analyzed by the organization’s foreign materiel exploitation facility. What happened after that, NASIC isn’t saying. NASIC communications officer James Lunsford says, “We don’t want our adversaries to know what we know.” A few Fulcrums that could be made flyable probably went to Edwards Air Force Base in California for testing. At least one example found its way to Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base Threat Training Facility, known within the service as the Petting Zoo. It displays a host of foreign-made hardware for budding intelligence professionals to examine. As for the rest of the airframes and associated parts: classified, except for one early A model that took the 10-minute trip from NASIC to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Inside the museum, curator Jeff Duford and I enter the 40,000-square-foot Cold War gallery, and he points out the “Checkpoint Charlie” exhibit. The very recently acquired (and-now-where-do-we-put-it?) NASA Space Shuttle Crew Compartment Trainer dominates the left of the hangar and has pushed the other aircraft into a theme-be-damned hodgepodge to the right. Here, Ohio’s second MiG-29 sits in an illogical 45-degree nose-to-nose pairing with an unlovely Fairchild-Republic A-10 “Warthog.”

Duford lifts the strap on a barrier so we can take a closer look. Unlike the Fulcrum moldering outside NASIC, this example has been beautifully restored and rests in climate-controlled comfort, basking under klieg lights, resplendent in a freshly applied paint job that feels satiny to the touch.

Let’s face it: Soviet jets are ugly, and MiGs are some of the worst offenders. The Vietnam-era MiG-17 and MiG-19 represented a utilitarian tube-with-wings-on-it trend; they were followed by the deadly MiG‑21, a rational sculpture of angles and cone. This one is different. The fluidly beautiful MiG-29 looks like its larger twin-tail contemporary, the slab-sided F-15 Eagle, to the degree that a Bolshoi ballerina resembles a roller derby star. Once the gallery is complete, the two air superiority icons will be exhibited together, Duford says, or the Fulcrum may pose with a more lithe rival, the F-16. Behind the scenes, he and his fellow curators are penciling the floor plan that will showcase the Fulcrum as the worthy adversary it is.

“We’re really fortunate to have this airframe,” Duford says, running his hand over the MiG-29’s right intake. “When we got it, it had Moldovan air force paint on it. It was done very crudely. When the restoration staff sanded in this area, they expected to find bort numbers [the equivalent of an Air Force serial number]. As they sanded, the outline of ‘08’ came through.”

What the numbers revealed, Duford realized, was that this MiG was not only one of the first operational Fulcrums, part of the fighter’s first posting to Moscow’s Kubinka Air Base, but also one of the first displayed outside the Soviet Union. “Some other clues helped reveal [its] provenance,” Duford says. “The gun blast plates…. There are only six openings, which is an indicator it is an early aircraft.” Other evidence came from how the numbers were painted. Unlike on a U.S. Air Force aircraft, where painted numbers are governed by down-to-the-millimeter specs, “on Russian aircraft, the spacing between the numbers can vary,” says Duford. He pored over the photos of a MiG-29 taken at the 1986 airshow at Kuoppio-Rissala, Finland. “It’s like a fingerprint. Looking at the spacing of the numbers and their location, there was no question” that the MiG had been on display in Kuoppio-Rissala.

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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