Soviet-era MiG-29s could be retrofitted with a Western radar

PANAGYURISHTE, BULGARIA — Could the aging Soviet MiG-29 fighter be modernized by integrating Western radar? All specialists providing technical military assistance to Ukraine will have to answer this question. Especially since Slovakia and Poland agreed to donate their fighter jets to Ukraine.

MiG-29 can't shoot anything down with its 40-year-old radar
Photo credit: Wikimedia

As we previously wrote, the donated MiG-29s are really good news for Ukraine. But this political act may turn out to be the easiest action. If Ukraine is going to counter Russian air superiority in one way or another, the new [including available] Ukrainian MiG-29s need to offer something more. Otherwise, the effect of the donation will not be exactly as expected.

If in the coming weeks and months, the news that Ukraine receives AIM-120 air-to-air missiles is confirmed, then we can conclude that the MiG-29s that will be used by the Ukrainian Air Force, or a part of them, have already undergone modernization.

The rockets

I can safely say that the MiG-29s are the less important donation. The missiles will be key, if not critical, to an alleged Ukrainian counter-offensive, or simply a deterrent to Russian air dominance.

The Ukrainian Air Force currently uses Soviet air-to-air missiles. These are most often R-73 and R-73. The first one has infrared guidance, while the second one has radar guidance in addition to infrared guidance. They are good missiles, but Ukraine’s problem is that currently, only Russia produces them. Logically, there is no way Russia could deliver these missiles to Ukraine.

Therefore, another option is being sought. The AIM-120 is the most widely cited air-to-air missile for delivery to Ukraine. Kyiv has already received such missiles, but in a surface-to-air configuration, intended for the NASAMS air defense system.

Why AIM-120?

The AIM-120 has several air-to-air configurations. Over the years, this missile has been modernized by the US many times. I think the last upgrade was sometime in 2015-2016. If it comes to delivery to Ukraine, it is not known which modification Kyiv will receive. It could be a rocket from the 1990s or a final version.

AIM-120 AMRAAM - Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

AIM-120 has a very good air-to-air range. A Ukrainian MiG-29 or Su-27 with it under the wing can seriously engage Russian fighters. Entering its attack zone, Russian fighters will perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the war face a serious threat. Some experts predict a chilling effect, especially near the front lines.

If we learn from the use of AIM-120 in other parts of the world, we will find another advantage. This missile can engage low-flying enemy cruise missiles and drones. The missile behaves quite stable when it has to be used against such targets. Saudi Arabia has successfully used it against cruise missiles and drones, quite successfully at that. Judging by war right now, Ukraine has to deal with such threats.

Operating principle

AIM-120 has a specific principle of action. When already mounted under the wing of the aircraft, the aircraft’s seeker radar must provide the missile with information about the geographic coordinate location of the target.

A launch follows. It then uses an internal autopilot to guide it to the correct general area, at which point the onboard radar activates, seeks and (hopefully) locks onto the target. The missile has a built-in data link and continuously sends information to the pilot. In this way, the information is updated and corrections are made to the targeting if necessary.

The problems

Here comes the problem. Specialists and engineers must find a way to integrate this missile under the wings of the MiG-29. Don’t get me wrong – getting the rocket into its dedicated station under the wing is not a complicated job. Even if the station is of a different standard, it will replace very quickly.

AIM-120 works by communicating with the aircraft through the radar. I.e. somehow the soviet avionics must communicate with the American missile. The US did not develop this missile for Russian fighters, nor did Russia tailor its communications for Western combat air platforms.

The second problem – is the range. Russian radars do not have the range of the AIM-120. I.e. this missile could become an ineffective salvo if the Ukrainian fighter had to move closer to the target to intercept it with the aircraft’s radar to command the missile. This means putting the entire combat unit at greater risk – pilot, aircraft, weaponry. A Ukrainian pilot with the callsign Jus says that even if they had these missiles, “the plane’s radars could not provide the same range that the AIM-120 requires.”

Soviet-era MiG-29s could be retrofitted with a Western radar
Photo credit: Aviation Week


The rocket has to talk to the plane. One way to make this happen is to use a third party in this whole process. I.e. a NASAMS or Patriot ground system to guide the missile, which is under the wing of the Soviet aircraft. This sounds overly complicated because it means that at some point the Soviet fighter interface would also require communication with the missile, and that can’t be done. This is a rather complicated option.

Soviet-era MiG-29s could be retrofitted with a Western radar
Photo credit: AirGoons

It seems that the easier option is for the MiG-29 to receive the necessary changes in terms of radar. That, experts say, is the most appropriate, because it would certainly take less time than that for someone, somewhere to decide that Ukraine should get Western planes.

The integration of a western radar will allow the AIM-120 to seamlessly communicate with the aircraft and receive additional radar awareness. Of course, this requires new displays and interfaces compatible with the AIM-120. But it can be done, which is the most important thing in the particular case.

Various comments

There are various comments on the subject. In the West, they are more inclined to consider this option than the delivery of new fighters. There are indications that the US is considering this particular configuration as a longer-term option.

At the same time, however, Ukraine needs to get something quickly. For example, the Ukrainian pilot Jus is a supporter of the idea that Kyiv should receive Western fighter jets. In this way, an option for the integration of an interface will not be sought, but the ready-made one, which is compatible with all NATO systems, will be used.

Turkey rejects AIM-120s from its F-16s, domestic PEREGRINE comes
Photo credit: YouTube

Jus believes that the integration of a Western radar because of the AIM-120 is too expensive a process and takes too long. He also says that there is no guarantee that the old Soviet aircraft will withstand the new integration and thus more valuable time will be lost.

We can conclude that AIM-120 would be an excellent solution for arming the Ukrainian Air Force. For this to become an effective solution, it is necessary to think about which platform will be charged with the task of launching this missile.


Follow us everywhere and at any time. has responsive design and you can open the page from any computer, mobile devices or web browsers. For more up-to-date news, follow our Google NewsYouTubeRedditLinkedInTwitter and Facebook pages. Subscribe to our Newsletter and read our stories in News360App in AppStore or GooglePlay or in FeedlyApp in AppStore or GooglePlay. Our standards: Manifesto & ethical princliples.