Indian Navy's upgraded MiG-29UPG fighter jet

The MiG-29, one of Russia’s most exported military jet has been upgraded in India that expands its capabilities from an air superiority fighter to a multi-role aircraft. The Indian Air Force (IAF) revealed the upgrade, called the MiG-29UPG ahead of the Air Force Day celebrations in October 2018.

The upgrade by the IAF, one of the biggest operators of MiG-29 in the world has opened up the possibility of similar technological enhancements and life extension projects for the venerable Russian aircraft which many believe was ahead of its time when it was launched in the 1980s.

The global inventory of MiG-29s is estimated at 750-850 aircraft, all of which are a potential upgrade possibility. The MiG-29UPG upgrade in India is expected to cover some 65 aircraft. Another major MiG-29 upgrade is being done in Ukraine. Ukrainian Lviv Aircraft Repair Plant is upgrading the country’s MIG-29 fighter jets with air-to-ground and surface attack capability making it a multi-role fighter aircraft.

At a time when the US-made F-16 fighter jet, upgraded to the Block 70 format is finding markets all over the world, particularly as replacement for older generation F-16s and MiG-29s, the Soviet origin jet could turn out to be a worthy and highly cost-effective option to the F-16.

Given the distinct ability of fighter aircraft purchases to sap military budgets, many governments are increasingly preferring upgrading legacy aircraft with capable airframes such as the F-16 and the MiG-29 to expand their features and to increase service life by about 50%. The cost of converting the IAF MiG-29 to the MiG-29UPG is said to be US$15 million each, far short of the cost of buying new aircraft which could be upwards of US$50 million for an all-new MiG-35, the Russian successor to the MiG-29.

According to Rodney Lee, Senior Product Manager, Aerospace & Defence Business Unit, IFS Software of Sweden, the “There is an increasing trend in military organisations to extend the lifecycle of aircraft and other equipment.”

While the F-16 has forged ahead with offering a complete upgrade package of the Block 70 format including active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, the MiG-29 is still to offer an AESA radar but is on schedule to have one in 2019-20.

Indian MiG-29UPG Features

The MiG-29UPG aircraft is now capable of mid-air refuelling, compatible with the latest missiles in IAF’s inventory and can launch multi-dimensional attacks, Indian media reports quoted Flight Lieutenant Karan Kohli, a MiG-29 pilot at Adampur Air Force Station in Punjab province where the MiG-29 squadron is based.

The improved engines as part of the upgrade enable the MiG-29UPG to take off almost vertically on full power. This fighter jet can be scrambled within five minutes of spotting a hostile aircraft and reach a height from which it can challenge the ‘enemy’ plane. Other features of the upgraded plane are a multi-functional display, air-to-air refuelling and ability to launch precision guided munitions.

A significant part of the Indian upgrade is the radar. The aircraft’s outdated N-019 Topaz air-intercept radar, has been replaced with the Zhuk-ME unit with multi mode capabilities and mechanically scanned, slotted antenna.

A more potent radar upgrade, the Phazotron-NIIR's Zhuk-AME - also known as the FGA50 - AESA radar is expected in early 2019. The new radar will be installed into the Russian Aerospace Forces' new MiG-35 multi-role combat aircraft and retrofitted as part of an upgrade programme for the MiG-29. An export version of the Zhuk-AME - known as Zhuk-AME - was unveiled at Airshow China in 2016. The Zhuk-AME can detect aerial targets that are around 160 km away and can simultaneously track up to 30 targets. The Zhuk-AME radar is expected to give the MiG-29 capabilities of a 4.5 generation fighter jet similar to the F-16 Block 70.

Enhanced Weapons Capability:

The highlights of the MiG-29UPG upgrade are:

  • Able to deploy R-77RVV-AE (AA-12 'Adder') air-to-air missile.
  • Ability to use the advance subsonic anti-ship missile Kh-35E (AS-20 Kayak).
  • Introduced the OLS-UEM IRST sensor with the laser, thermal-imaging and television capabilities
  • increased the range by 40% to 2,100 km on internal fuel
  • The upgrade improve maintenance which helped reduced maintenance cost by as much as 40%.
  • Using the Indian licence manufacture of the new RD-33 series 3 turbofan engines
  • Introduction of new weapon control system
  • Improved cockpit ergonomics with enhanced HOTAS design, two large and two smaller monochrome LCD
  • Introduction of a retractable in-flight refuelling probe, similar to Malaysian MIG-29N and Russian MIG-29SMT
  • Weapons load was increased to 4,500 kg on six under wing and one ventral hard points similar to the MIG-35
  • Secure data link system
  • Life increased to another 15 years of use
  • Introduction of a bigger centre line tank from 1500 litres to 1800 litres tank extending range toward 3,000km
  • Upgraded MiG-29 to take on F-16 in the Refurbished Fighter Jet Market
  • Zhuk AME AESA radar to be used in future MiG-29 fighter jets