MiG-35s Join Ukraine War! Top Russian Official Says Bid To Revive Capable But Forgotten Successor To Legendary MiG-29s

Russia has used its MiG-35 fighter in air strikes against Ukraine, according to its top aeronautical designer. Over the years, the fighter has nearly gone out of prominence in operational service in Russia and has also not found foreign customers. Only Ukraine has used the model’s predecessor in the war, the Soviet-era MiG-29, from both its own and Polish inventory.

The MiG-35 also never figured in the Russian Ministry of Defence’s (RuMoD) publicity material over the last 21 months since February 2022. Russia has primarily used the Su-34, Su-35S, Su-30SM, MiG-31K, and Su-25 ground attack aircraft in the war. 

While the Su-34 performed as a medium bomber and battlefield interdiction jet, releasing precision bombs and air-to-ground munitions (AGM), the Su-35s and Su-30s undertook coordinated combat air patrols (CAP) with beyond-visual range (BVR) aerial engagements.

Meanwhile, the MiG-31K has been the primary release platform for the Kinzhal aero-ballistic hypersonic missile. 

MiG-35 Used In Ukraine War

RIA Novosti quoted the General Designer of the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), Sergei Korotkov: “Today, in connection with the events that are taking place, the aircraft is already participating in all the operations being carried out. Further test flights still have to be completed, and then the Ministry of Defense will make a final decision,” he said.

Korotkov was responding to a question regarding the commencement of serial production and procurement of MiG-35 for the Russian Aerospace Forces. Korotkov noted that the characteristics of the MiG-35 “satisfy the foreign customer.” Parallelly, negotiations are “underway on export supplies.”

The fighter’s first flight took place in 2016, a year before the jet was officially unveiled to the Russian air force and the government. According to open sources, there are currently six MiG-35 models in service.

How Might MiG-35s Were Used

The MiG-35’s role is unclear, but if an informed guess could be hazarded, it could provide integral support to patrolling Su-35 and Su-30 jets by scanning for ground-based air defense systems in SEAD/DEAD missions. They could have even released stand-off range AGM strikes. But this is entirely speculatory without additional information from RuAF officials. 

Given the meager numbers of the MiG-35s with the RuAF (only 6), their employment will have been carefully planned. Possibly, it could have been to test if the plane still fits within the RuAF’s overall scheme of things when it has more or less transitioned to the Sukhoi and the MiG’s other series. 

Russian defense industry officials could also be trying to generate interest for the plane in the international market and not have a lack of domestic and global orders affect the economies surrounding MiG’s factories. Possibly, as a long-term measure, the RuAF might order a few more MiGs and place them in the Order of Battle (ORBAT). 

This is to assure potential customers that the country of origin is also using the platform — a big element arms buyers take into account. The roughly six MiG-35s delivered to the RuAF are far from the original RuMoD order of 37. Even that number was reduced to 24, ultimately to just six. Mikoyan unveiled the MiG-35 to the Russian government on January 26, 2017, after initial production started between 2013 and 2014.

Potent Weapon & Massive Advantage Over MiG-29

The MiG-35 is “the latest aircraft complex of the 4++ generation, created using the technology of fifth-generation fighters for operation in zones of high-intensity armed conflicts in conditions of dense air defense.” 

The all-weather, day-and-night-capable aircraft can engage in air dominance/superiority roles and hit moving and stationary ground and surface targets. Designers mention the NPK-SPP OLS-k electro-optical targeting and surveillance pod mounted to the fuselage, which can be used for the purpose. It also has a digital fly-by-wire system. 

The MiG-35’s developers advertise “reduced radar signature, a radar station with an active phased array antenna, a helmet-mounted target designation system, new engines with increased thrust, and the ability to act as a tanker. The aircraft can use all guided and unguided missiles and the latest guided bombs.” 

A “tanker” role means providing air-to-air refueling for other fighters while undertaking secondary aerial and ground surveillance missions. This makes the jet a tremendous force multiplier, especially when not used as a leading frontline fighter, yet harboring all the qualities of one. 

For instance, vulnerable support planes like aerial tankers and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft can be targeted by adversary jets to degrade one’s fighting capability. A 4.5-generation plane can provide some of that refueling capability while also detecting incoming missiles with its Radar Warning Receivers (RWR), Laser Warning Detectors (LWD), or Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS).  

The MiG-35 has a range of 2,000 kilometers and 3,100 kilometers when fitted with external fuel tanks and a top speed of 2,400 kilometers per hour. It can carry the Kh-31A anti-ship, Kh-31P anti-radar, Kh-29TE, and Kh-29L air-to-surface missiles, guided KAB-500Kr TV, and laser-guided bombs.

The new fighter features a new fly-by-wire system, an upgraded cockpit, more advanced avionics, and an integrated precision-guided targeting capability for air-to-ground weapons. 

Essentially, the MiG-35 is a significant advancement over the MiG-29 and MiG-29M. Firmly in the 4.5-generation category, the MiG-35 is said to have some fifth-generation technology, like data links and information exchange devices, to network with other Russian platforms for all-around situational awareness. 

This Russian penchant for network centricity is also reflected in its artillery doctrine and how it used the Su-57 fighters in a Suppression of Enemy Air Defense/Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD/DEAD) operation in July 2022. 

Enhanced situational awareness also allows the MiG-35 to be a multirole aircraft, performing all-weather air superiority fighter and precision ground strikes. It is powered by two Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC)-enabled RD-33MK engines. 

The RD-33MK is also said to have addressed the perennial problems with the Klimov RD-33 turbofan engine, particularly a smoke emission issue. The Indian Navy has been reported to have experienced this with its MiG-29K, which operates off the INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier. 

Russian engine makers adopted modern industrial processes and newer materials, offering seven percent more power and keeping the turbine blades cooler. “The Russians had hoped to create a variant of the MiG-35 with thrust vectoring engines (similar to those featured on the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II), but the idea was scrapped because of weight-related (and cost-related) issues,” said a report on the National Interest. 

File Image: MiG-35

Didn’t Export Well

In India, it was unveiled in 2007 during the Aero India air show in Bengaluru as a part of Russia’s participation in the 126 Multirole Medium Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program.

Egypt first showed interest in the MiG-35. But in 2015, Cairo signed a US$2 billion contract for 46 MiG-29M fighters instead. India, too, had expressed interest in the MiG-35, a contender in the Indian MMRCA project. 

Dassault’s Rafale was finally selected as the winner, but the Indian government canceled that project and went for a direct purchase of 36 Rafale jets in 2015. The Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab Jas 39 Gripen, Dassault Rafale, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, and Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet also participated in that program. 

It is unclear how much similarity in spares and components the MiG-35 offers with the MiG-29 to make logistics and maintenance simpler for those who operate the latter. However, the significant alignment of the airframe and operational and maintenance approaches is expected to streamline the jet’s service with potential operators using the MiG-29 series.