Russia downed 17 Ukrainian MiG-29s in 10 days, two dozen left

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In a surge of escalating conflict, the air-to-air skirmishes in Ukraine markedly intensified during October, an escalation unparalleled since the outbreak of unmitigated Russian-Ukrainian hostilities back in February 2022, based on various analyses. 

Photo credit: Ukrainian MoD

From October 13th to 23rd, Russian forces managed to intercept and terminate 17 MiG-29 fighters—a key fleet within the Ukrainian defense, which not only had substantial numbers at the onset of the conflict but also procured additional units thereafter. The MiG-29 holds a significant position in the Ukrainian aerial arsenal alongside their other critical assets—the weightier Su-27 air superiority fighter and the Su-24M strike fighter. All three were inherited in healthy quantities after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Video screenshot

In the initial month of the war in early 2022, Su-27s played a significant role in numerous air skirmishes, though their numbers have seen a decline since then. Contrastingly, the MiG-29 fleet continued to remain fairly robust until October. This can be attributed to two main factors: the large inheritance of MiG aircraft by Ukraine and the active operation of this model by allied countries, specifically Poland and Slovakia. These countries collectively donated an approximated 33 aircraft, augmenting a fleet of over 50 MiGs already functional within Ukraine. 

Photo credit: Twitter

Ukraine has exceeded observer expectations by managing to deploy heavyweight Su-27 and Su-24M fighters from improvised airfields scattered throughout the country. Notwithstanding, it is perhaps the MiG-29 that is the most well-adapted fighter class globally for such ‘guerrilla airfield’ operations. This is due to its minimal maintenance requirements and the ability to function effectively on very short airstrips.

The fighter class, particularly the MiG-29, has proven to be of significant value to customers worldwide, including regions from North Korea and India in Asia to Algeria and Sudan in Africa, alongside multiple others. Upon its induction into service in 1982, the MiG-29 was unparalleled in terms of its agility and had the unique capability to target enemy aircraft at extremely sharp angles within visual ranges using helmet-mounted sights. German testing performed after the Cold War demonstrated that these characteristics gave the aircraft an overwhelming advantage over Western competition. 

Despite the MiG-29’s impressive capabilities for its era, Ukraine’s fleet has demonstrated substantial shortcomings during air-to-air combat scenarios against the cream of the Russian Air Force’s crop. This includes aircraft like the MiG-31BM/BSM interceptors, Su-35 air superiority fighters, and to an extent, the Su-57 stealth fighters. While the latter is deployed in limited numbers, widespread reports are suggesting its participation in air-to-air confrontations.

Photo credit: Twitter

The Russian Air Force’s significant dependence on its Su-35s in confronting Ukraine’s aviation units is notable. Designed with a specific focus on air-to-air combat against much more potent adversaries than those present in Ukraine’s arsenal, the Su-35 continues to be adopted in considerable quantities. 

The Su-35 stands out not only as a decidedly more contemporary fighter jet, equipped with a phased array of radar and avionics reflective of the 21st century, giving it a distinct advantage over Ukraine’s fighters from the 1980s era. Furthermore, hailing from a higher weight class, it boasts an amplified carrying capacity for larger firepower, more voluminous sensor systems, and weightier, longer-ranged R-37M air-to-air missiles, which have a range tripling that of the R-27s borne by the Ukrainian MiGs.

Ukraine’s aging, Soviet-built MiG-29 variants lack the advancements necessary to effectively compete with modern MiG-29M styles, or the Su-35s in air-to-air warfare scenarios. These aircraft, which have not received substantial capability upgrades since the 1980s, can be deemed virtually obsolete. 

The Su-35 boasts several remarkable advantages in terms of air combat, including exceptional maneuverability, a trio of radars, and impressive engagement radius capabilities, none of which are currently found in Western fighter classes. Initiated into a combat aggressor training unit in September 2022, these aircraft have a rich combat history, particularly in Ukraine, to draw lessons from battleground experiences.

Photo credit: Rosoboronexport

Operating from air bases located in both Russia and Belarus, the fighter category’s most acclaimed operation was reportedly defeating Su-27s in Ukraine’s Zhytomyr area, where four of these older jets were eliminated without enduring any losses on the Russian side. The deployment patterns of Su-35s imply a high likelihood that the majority of the shot-down MiG-29s in recent air-to-air confrontations were targeted by these aircraft. 

Despite the severely restricted capacity of Ukrainian fighter planes to pose a threat to Russian assets in air-to-air combats since the inception of the war, their assets have made significant contributions by launching strikes on Russian forces. The strikes have been particularly notable for employing American AGM-88s European Storm Shadow and SCALP-guided missiles.

Photo credit: UAC

Ukraine has been employing land-based air defenses as an indirect way to engage the more advanced Russian air power. However, as Ukraine’s reserves of surface-to-air missiles have progressively dwindled, the unrestricted operational capacity of Russian air power has been further amplified.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Even though the Ukrainian Air Force has been witness to persistent instances of MiG-29 losses, with added instances surfacing post-October 23, there is a belief that the force still has access to over two dozen such aircraft. Nonetheless, the Western allies, who have considerably drained their reserves of Soviet-compatible equipment, are presuming the necessity for the Ukrainian Air Force to shift to Western fighter classes. Touted as aid, F-16s – which hail from the U.S. during the era of the Cold War – have been assured to Ukraine.

Though the F-16 may not possess the MiG-29’s capabilities for short airfield performance or superior flight aptitude, Western militaries’ surprisingly vast reserves of this aircraft facilitate a much simpler replenishment process.

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