By Alexander Mladenov
The MiG-29 (NATO reporting name Fulcrum) was once the dominant and most capable air defence fighter in Eastern Europe, with as many as 150 machines in service across seven air arms back in 2000. Seventeen years later, the distinctive twin-finned, twin-engined aircraft is becoming an increasingly rare sight. It is now expected that by 2020 four counties will continue to fly the jet – Poland, Slovakia, Serbia, and Bulgaria.
Since the beginning of this decade three of the four remaining European operators have experienced serious budgetary and organisational problems, causing, as I may guess, poor MiG-29 serviceability rates, while Poland, which is investing a lot in its fleet, has encountered serious airworthiness issues. The aircraft’s status in the region, and particularly in NATO, has dwindled from year to year and Poland and Bulgaria are the only countries with serious intentions to maintain their inventories well into the 2020s, albeit in declining numbers.
In the early 2010s, Serbia, Bulgaria and Slovakia have begun looking for affordable purchasing or leasing options to replace their MiGs with Western fighters, driven by the sharply increased maintenance costs of their aging fleets but the process proved to be more complex and protracted, so the MiG-29 will continue to serve well into the next decade. In contrast to Bulgaria and Slovakia, Serbia abandoned its plans for new fighters and instead has taken measures for supplementing its tiny Fulcrum force, by taking six aircraft donated from Russia in 2017, introduced in regular service in October 2018, with additional deliveries of second-hand MiG-29s planned from Byelorussia.
It is noteworthy that Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia, all NATO members, use their MiG-29s primarily as fighters-interceptors, routinely tasked with quick reaction alert (QRA) duty in the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS), a network of interconnected national and NATO systems comprised of sensors, command and control facilities and weapons systems. This is also the Fulcrum’s sole task in unaligned Serbia.
In addition to the straightforward QRA role, the East European NATO MiG-29 fleet is considered as a valuable ‘aggressor’ asset. The Bulgarian Air Force, for example, has been flowing its Fulcrums in this ‘new’ role in a regular manner since 2005, training with no less than fifteen United States Air Force squadrons from the Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard components as well as with fighters from the UK and Italy.
Fulcrum Peak of service
Eastern Europe’s MiG-29 fleet was relatively small when Communism fell in Eastern Europe over November/December 1989, and remained so during the subsequent dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in March 1991, when some 105 Fulcrums of all versions were in service with six air arms. Compared to its predecessor, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23MF/MLA/MLD Flogger, which was in mass service with all the former Warsaw Pact states, the brand-new MiG-29 was considered as a state-of-the-art air defence fighter, armed with advanced beyond-visual-range missiles and vastly superior within-visual-range missiles, and equipped with more capable look-down/shoot-down radar. Most importantly from an operator’s point of view, the new fighter boasted much-needed twin-engined safety, an unprecedented thrust-to-weight ratio and ‘carefree’ handling characteristics compared to those of the swing-wing MiG-23, thanks to its superior stability and controllability.
In 1993-1995, a total of 42 additional MiG-29s were procured by Hungary and Slovakia under two separate deals exchanging Russian trade debt, owed to these countries from the Soviet era, against deliveries of military equipment, while Romania got a few second-hand MiG-29s from Moldova as attrition replacement. Soon after, however, Europe’s Fulcrum fleet began to decline sharply in the early 2000s, due to the type’s rapid withdrawal from Romanian service and the decline in serviceability with some of the surviving operators, which grounded a significant portion of their MiG-29s. Then the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) MiG-29 fleet was handed over to Poland, although only ten of the 22 transferred aircraft were set to be retained for long-term use. In addition, Serbia lost more than half of its MiG-29 inventory in the 1999 Kosovo war.
The Hungarian Air Force retired their Fulcrums in 2010, while three of the remaining four operators – Bulgaria, Slovakia and Serbia – struggled to maintain their fleets with limited budgets. The sharp hike in maintenance costs in the early/mid-2010s resulted in a further slump in MiG-29 serviceability rates.
From a maintenance point of view, the major issue faced by all European operators was the cost of engine and accessory gearbox overhaul, as well as the need to acquire new engines after the service lives of their existing RD-33 motors are reached. Ironically, the Fulcrum’s twin-engined configuration, responsible for its inflight safety and stunning thrust-to-weight ratio, has turned into the type’s primary drawback.
The time between overhaul (TBO) of the Klimov RD-33 Series 2 afterburning turbofan, delivered with the aircraft in the 1980s and the early 1990s, is only 350 hours, with options for rolling manufacturer-approved extensions – initially to 400, then 450, and subsequently even 500 hours – provided that the highest-loaded turbine components, including the blades, were in a good condition.
The engine’s service life is only 1,200 hours, with two overhauls required; each overhaul is a costly, complex and protracted undertaking. In 2014, the cost of overhauling an RD-33 Series 2 in Russia was around $1.5 million per unit and the turnaround time not less than eight months. Second-hand RD-33 Series 2s, purchased by Poland from Russian intermediary companies, with 350 hours TBO and 700 hours of residual service life, were priced at $3 to 3.1 million each, while brand-new engines with longer TBO and service lives cost $4 million each.
Service Life Extension
Poland and Slovakia have performed mid-life upgrades on some of their MiG-29s, while Bulgaria selected to order an airworthiness restoration and a service life extension programme (SLEP) for its fleet, performed by RSK MiG, the MiG-29’s original manufacturer and design authority. The process has simplified maintenance, removing the need for major airframe overhaul, which has been replaced by extended inspections at the home base (known as control-restoration works) combined with mandatory replacement of a list of time-limited airframe components and assemblies, while other components are replaced on condition.
The Polish and Slovak Fulcrums were subject to similar SLEPs and most, if not all the airframes of the 60 or so MiG-29s surviving in Eastern Europe could be good, in theory, for 40 years’ use or 4,000 hours, providing that the operators allocate proper budgets for engine and accessory gearbox overhauls and procurement of some important and expensive time-limited components, including undercarriage legs.
Avionics upgrades to a number of Slovak and Polish MiG-29s covered only the replacement of original Russian communications, navigation and identification (CNI) components with modern Western systems. They had no impact on the aircraft’s overall combat capabilities, since the original 1980s’ sensors and weapons were unchanged. The main purpose of the CNI upgrades was to allow the Polish and Slovak fleets to be integrated, at least partially, into NATO’s operational environment, for use in the air defence role. This was achieved by granting secure communications and identification ‘friend or foe’ (IFF) capabilities in addition to more reliable and accurate tactical navigation and instrument landing options. The small Serbian MiG-29 fleet is reported to have undergone a limited upgrade of its navigation suites, but with new Russian avionics.
Poland Leads in Europe
The Polish Air Force (SPRP, Sily Powietrzenje Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) is the largest MiG-29 operator in Europe and has the most-extensively upgraded aircraft, with major improvements introduced into service in 2013-2014. Ironically, in the early 1990s Poland had one of the smallest MiG-29 fleets in the region, numbering only 12 aircraft (nine single-seaters and three two-seaters), delivered between 1989 and 1990. Since then the SPRP has exploited two opportunities to boost its fleet with second-hand aircraft at affordable prices.
In the first of these, ten little-used ex-Czech air force Fulcrums (including a two-seater) were taken on strength in 1995-1996 in exchange for 11 PZL W-3A Sokol helicopters. In the second case, 22 ex-Luftwaffe MiG-29s were acquired between September 2003 and August 2004. These well-used aircraft were purchased at the symbolic price of €1 each, but in the event, only ten were overhauled for long-term operation, while eight more were cannibalised for spare parts and two were assigned for ground instruction.
The original 12 Polish MiG-29s and ten ex-Czech examples are assigned to the two squadrons of the 1 Eskadrila Lotnictwa Taktycznego (ELT, Tactical Air Squadron ELT) at Minsk Mazowiecki near Warsaw, while 41.ELT operates the former Luftwaffe Fulcrums at Malbork; the initial four aircraft began flying there in June 2005. The first overhauled example was introduced in December 2005. The total price for overhauling and inducting the ex-Luftwaffe Fulcrums into service was around $30 million.
Poland has achieved considerable success and built up a good deal of experience in indigenous fleet sustainment. It is capable of effective and efficient airframe and engine maintenance, overhaul and repair (MRO) activities, as well as producing large numbers of spare parts and implementing avionics upgrades, including works on the radar. The state-owned Military Aviation Works No. 2 (WZL-2) in Bydgoszcz is responsible for airframe MRO and spare part design and manufacture, and is also the main contractor responsible for avionics upgrades.
WZL-2’s involvement in MiG-29 MRO dates back to the late 1990s. In addition to the rolling NATO compatibility avionics upgrades implemented by the facility, the Polish MiG-29s have received upgraded radars with vastly enhanced reliability thanks to the use of a Western electronics element base replacing a selection of worn-out Russian-made components. In addition, newly delivered Russian-built avionics boxes for the radar were introduced to boost detection performance and UOMZ, the Russian company responsible for the OEPS-29 infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, upgraded it for vastly increased detection ranges and improved reliability. The upgraded SPRP Fulcrums were life-extended to 40 years or 4,000 flight hours, whichever is reached first, and are intended to continue in service until 2028.
In 1999, the Polish Air Force decided to go ahead with a small-scale upgrade, combined with main overhauls on 1.ELT aircraft. The work was carried out by local companies, with WZL-2 as primary contractor, and improved the MiG-29’s NATO compatibility. The first upgrade standard saw the navigation suite enhanced with a Trimble 2021 commercial GPS receiver, Rockwell Collins AN/ARN-153(V) digital TACAN (in 2001) and ANV-241 Multi-Mode Receiver VOR/ILS (2005), integrated into the existing navigation system via a custom-built TGR-29A interface box.
The locally-built Radwar SC-10D2/Sz Supraśl IFF Mk XII transponder/interrogator (a licensed version of the Thomson-CSF, now Thales SB-14E/A) was also installed, using blade antennas fitted ahead of the windshield. In 2010-2011 the upgraded aircraft received the new Unimor RS 6106-7 radio, a digital gun camera and a digital video recorder. A total of 21 MiG-29s were upgraded with the new CNI avionics before, in the mid-2000s, their service lives were extended to 4,000 hours or 40 years.
The latest upgrade standard, applied to around half the active fleet at the time, was implemented in-country under a $48.5 million program running between 2011 and 2014. Primary contractor was WZL-2, in cooperation with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The program involved 13 single-seat and three two-seat aircraft, all assigned to 1.ELT at Minsk Mazowiecki and fitted with the Western avionics integrated for basic NATO compatibility in the 2000s. The first jet upgraded to the latest avionics standard, serial number ‘89’, flew again on March 15, 2013. The program was completed with hand-over of the last example on November 4, 2014.
The new open-architecture avionics suite using military-standard systems, designed for the upgrade by WZL-2 and Israeli company IAI, includes a multi-function colour display, mission and display processor mission computer, EGI (embedded GPS/INS) navigation system (with selective availability anti-spoofing module), up-front control panel, air data computer, digital video recorder and new digital camera gun (video recorder looking through the HUD). The communication suite was enhanced with a Rockwell Collins RT-8200 UHF/VHF radio (also known as the AN/ARC-210 Talon), provided with Have Quick I/II and Second-Generation Anti-jam UHF Radio for NATO (SATURN) encryption modes. The new avionics systems were integrated through a dual MIL-STD-1553B databus. The upgrade package also incorporated the MPS/DBRS briefing/debriefing ground-based system.
RD-33 Series 2 engine overhaul is being done at WZL-4 MRO plant in Warsaw, but the work depends on the supply of engine overhaul kits from Russia and Ukraine and the TBO of the overhauled engines is reported to have been below 300 hours. According to the Polish press (the Dziemik Zbrojny.pl website), RD-33 overhaul at WZL-4 cost around €840,000 ($950,000) in early 2010.
Today the SPRP has an operational fleet of 24 MiG-29s (including eight two-seaters, while one single-seat aircraft was lost in crash on June 6, 2018 and another in December 2017), assigned to two squadrons. Fifteen aircraft (16 were upgraded to the latest CNI standards in 2013-2014) equip 1.ELT, which is set to continue flying the type until 2028; the ex-Luftwaffe Fulcrums will be retired earlier – most likely in the period 2018-2020.
The Polish MiG-29 fleet has proven sufficiently NATO-compatible to fulfil no less than six Baltic Air Policing deployments to Siauliai air base in Lithuania between 2006 and 2015, each lasting for three months.
In 2018, the Polish MiG-29 fleet has suffered from a crisis due to problems caused by the system for maintaining the fleet airworthiness after a crash on July 6, which led to a loss of an aircraft from the 2nd Tactical Air Base at Malbrok, killing the pilot. The entire fleet was grounded immediately after the crash, as the investigation had shown that the pilot got killed during the ejection attempt due to a malfunction of the K-36D ejection seat. In addition, there were other unspecified problems found with the MiG-29 fleet during the urgent technical inspection, which was ordered immediately after the crash. The fleet was returned to regular flights not earlier than November 5.
The Slovakian air force (VSOSSR, Vzdušné Sily Ozbrojených Síl Slovenskej Republiky) inherited the fleet of ten MiG-29s when Czechoslovakia split into two separate states on January 1, 1993. Further 14 brand-new Fulcrums, including a pair of two-seaters, were then delivered in 1994-1995, writing off Russia’s trade debt. By 2001, 23 MiG-29s were on VSOSSR service, with a single squadron at Sliac (1st Air Base), although serviceability was poor owing to a frequent lack of spare parts and the urgent need for overhauls.
In early 2001, the decision was finally taken to extend the MiG-29s’ life until at least 2010, requiring implementation of life extension program and minor avionics upgrades. In July 2002, RSK MiG signed a framework contract for the work with the Slovak Ministry of Defence, but it came to nothing. Then, in 2003, Slovakia signed an ambitious and costly CNI avionics upgrade, overhaul and SLEP contract with RSK MiG, covering delivery of 12 Westernised and life-extended MiG-29s. The initial modified aircraft took to the air for the first time in 2005 and the entire fleet was completed in February 2008.
An upgrade for 12 Slovak Fulcrums – ten single-seaters and two twin-seaters – was initiated in 2003 and its completion was reported in February 2008. Total cost amounted to $69 million, of which $50 million was offset against Russian trade debt owed to Slovakia (an amount covering structural overhaul and the SLEP component, and delivery of the Russian avionics used in the upgrade). The Slovak MoD, in turn, covered the remaining $19 million, which primarily paid for purchase and integration of Western-supplied CNI avionics systems. The upgraded single-seaters were designated as MiG-29AS and the two-seaters MiG-29UBS (‘S’ denoting Slovakia).
Upgrade work was completed by Russian and Western contractors, separated by a firewall to prevent leakage of sensitive data on the Western avionics. The Russian portion of the work was done by RSK MiG as main contractor and Russkaya Avionika as a principal sub-contractor. The Russian companies were denied access to the sensitive NATO equipment used in the Slovak upgrade, including the IFF and secure communications kit. BAE Systems integrated its AN/APX-113 interrogator/transponder IFF on the single-seaters and the AN/APX-117 transponder on the two-seaters. The AN/APX-113 was fully integrated with the MiG-29’s N019 radar, allowing reliable detection and identification of air targets during intercepts.
Western communication systems integrated onto the MiG-29AS/UBS include the Rockwell Collins AN/ARC-210 Talon UHF/VHF encrypted radio, while the new navigation suite incorporates the Rockwell Collins Miniature Airborne GPS Receiver, AN/ARN-147 VOR/ILS and AN/ARN-153(V) TACAN. All the newly installed systems were integrated via MIL STD-1553 primary and ARINC 429 back-up databuses. An ELT 503 emergency locator transmitter was also installed.
Russian avionics added during the upgrade comprised a BTsVM MVK-03 mission computer, MFI-54 multi-functional colour cockpit display, PUS-29 system control panel, VK-1 gun camera and VR-1 digital video recorder. The existing cockpit instruments were recalibrated from metric measurement system in Imperial used by the Western world.
The first upgraded aircraft flew again in December 2005. The upgrade was considered generally successful, but the distinct division between Russian and Western contractor responsibilities and lack of main integrator with overall control has created costly support problems. RSK MiG, for example, has released itself from responsibility for serviceability of the Western part of the upgrade package, which was supposed to have been directly supported by its suppliers.
A long-term power-by-the-hour support agreement with RSK MiG followed the upgrade, granting an availability rate of no less than 80%.
Five years later, in 2013 the Slovak press reported that fleet availability had slumped to 30%. As a consequence, a number of Slovak MiG-29s have been cannibalised for spare parts to maintain a small number of airworthy aircraft, just enough for QRA and pilot training. According to the local media, the annual investments in the maintenance of the MiG-29 fleet worth up to €50 million a year, while defence ministry spokeswoman admitted in May 2018 that payments to RSK MiG are 20 million a year plus 10 million for other work.
These well-publicised difficulties in maintaining the airworthiness of the upgraded MiG-29s and the rising costs of their support prompted Slovakia to initiate a search for alternative solutions in 2014; down-selection of the Saab Gripen was reported in July 2014, and in September the same year the country signed a letter of intent, together with the Czech Republic and Sweden to cooperate on Gripen usage, paving the way for its acquisition.
Serbia’s feet increase
Sixteen MiG-29s were delivered to Yugoslavia in 1987. The country’s break-up in the early 1990s saw Yugoslav MiG-29s used in anger as ground-attack aircraft; in 1999 the fleet suffered serious losses during the Kosovo war. Coalition fighters shot down as many as six of the MiGs and five more were destroyed on the ground in their hardened shelters or under camouflage netting in the open.
Only five aircraft survived the 1999 war and four of these remain with the Vazduhoplovstvo i Protivvazdušna Odbrana (VPVO, Serbian Air Force), serving with the 101st ‘Vitezovi’ Fighter Squadron of the 204th Air Brigade at Batajnica near Belgrade. They flew until April 2004 and were then grounded in anticipation of a major refurbishment effort. An agreement with RSK MiG was signed in December 2006, covering the overhaul and avionics upgrade of all five, plus an Antonov An-26 transport aircraft.
Serbian MiG-29s received an avionics upgrade, performed by RSK MiG using only Russian systems, including the VND-94 VOR/DME/MB and VIL-95 ILS and SO-96 air traffic control transponder in addition to a MFI-54 multi-functional colour display. The radars of the four single-seaters were refurbished and slightly updated for improved reliability and detection performance. Three aircraft were upgraded in 2008 and another one followed suite in 2011.
Today the Serbian Air Force operates three early-series single-seat Fulcrums and a twin-seater, all of which underwent an airworthiness restoration and modest avionics upgrade program in 2007, extending their service life by 700 flight hours or ten years, whichever is reached first. The small Serbian MiG-29 fleet should therefore be good for service until 2018, after which it will require additional life-extension work or replacement.
There were airworthiness issues due to a shortage of spare parts and consumables, however. All four aircraft were grounded for a three-month period in 2014, for example, for lack of otherwise inexpensive batteries, which Russia eventually donated as a goodwill gesture. The MiGs returned to the air in early September 2014, but Serbia’s small MiG-29 pilot community has very restricted flight training opportunities, since each Fulcrum driver is scheduled to amass only a maximum of 30 hours per year.
The process of replacing the existing MiG-29 and MiG-21 fleets with a new type has been very protracted. RSK MiG was very active in Serbia in 2012 and 2013, attempting to sell the new MiG-29M/M2 on favourable terms, including a low-interest $1.5 billion loan set to be provided by Russian banks (the deal was proposed within the package to include also helicopters and SAM systems). Serbia declined the offer in August 2014, owing to the unfavourable economic situation. The procurement of new fighter aircraft is no longer considered a priority and is not expected to happen until the mid-2020s, so the VPVO’s Fulcrums are expected to remain in service for a while longer.
In 2015, Serbian authorities made another attempt to obtain combat aircraft from Moscow. This time the request was for donation of second-hand MiG-29s as a part of a large package of Russian military aid to be provided to Serbia. In the event, Moscow agreed to donate six MiG-29s, with the Serbian government covering the upgrade and refurbishment of the aircraft. Two contracts were signed with Rosoboronexport, the first of which covering the avionics upgrade to bring the ex-Russian Air Force MiG-29s to the standard implemented on the existing Serbian Fulcrum fleet. The second contract covers the overhaul of the aircraft and delivery of additional RD-33 engines and other spare parts, plus a service life extension from 30 to 35 years, and then to 40 years at a later stage.
The six aircraft were transported to Serbia in October 2017, but soon one was sent back to Russia for overhaul at the 121st Aviation Repair Plant in Kubinka. The other five MiG-29s underwent an avionics upgrade at Batajnica and were scheduled for introduction in regular flight operations in the end of 2018.
The ex-Russian Air and Space Force MiG-29 will be good for use between 2017 and 2031, when the last of these will reach 40 years. RSK MiG has also announced a possibility to further extend the aircraft’s service life to 45 years.
Serbia has also expressed willingness to proceed with a Mig-29 upgrade, including integration of the RVV-AE active radar-homing air-to-air missiles together with guided air-to-surface weapons and radar upgrade. As far, this has remained on paper only, as there is no funding available.
Serbia is currently pursuing another venue for obtaining more MiG-29s, this time from Byelorussia. There is an agreement in principle for eight MiG-29s to be donated from Byelorussia under the conditions that the aircraft will be overhauled at the 558th Aviation Repair Plant at Baranovichi. It is though that as of early November, there was no final decision to proceed forward with the MiG-29 procurement from Byelorussia.
The Bulgarski Voennovazdyshni Sily (BVVS, Bulgarian Air Force) took delivery of 22 Fulcrums (including four twin-seaters) in 1989-1990. In the late 1990s, the fleet suffered serious availability issues because there were insufficient funds to buy spare parts or fund overhauls. After one year grounding, the BVVS Fulcrums recommenced regular operations from April 2001.
Following a change of government in July 2001, priority was given to making the Fulcrums airworthy again, with investment in overhaul and an avionics upgrade for the entire fleet. On March 27, 2002, a contract reportedly valued at $60 million was signed with RSK MiG to cover 20 aircraft. The Russian company awarded Thales a contract to supply new avionics, while system integration was supposed to be undertaken in co-operation with RSK MiG. The program suffered long delays from the start, however, and only its first stage was completed; six aircraft returned to service with overhauled engines (the work is thought to have cost $16 million) in September-October 2003.
A new contract was signed with the company in March 2006, this time covering airframe refurbishment, engine and system overhauls, on-condition maintenance transition and service life extension to 4,000 hours or 40 years; no avionics upgrade was foreseen in it. The contract involved 16 aircraft (12 single-seaters and four two-seaters) and was worth $48 million. The first jet having passed through the full range of maintenance and life-extension work was handed back to the BVVS in November 2007 and the entire fleet had been restored to airworthiness by May 2009.
The BVVS continues to operate a 15-strong fleet of 12 single-seaters and three two-seaters, used exclusively for territorial air policing missions as a national contribution to NATO’s integrated air defence system. A framework maintenance agreement with RSK MiG, covering a period of four years, was signed in September 2011, but for various reasons it had failed to deliver the expected increased availability rate. By early 2015, for example, the number of airworthy aircraft was described as barely enough to maintain QRA; the main cause for the low serviceability was the low budget allocated for the MiG-29 maintenance, which was far from enough to cover all requirements.
It is not yet clear if the BVVS will be able to secure funds for even a minor MiG-29 avionics upgrade for NATO compatibility in a part of its fleet, since it is impossible for the Fulcrum to continue in frontline service with its original navigation system. In January 2015, Bulgarian defence officials claimed that they would seek various contractors in the nearest future for MiG-29 support and possible minor upgrades, in order to lower the price tag.
This effort is to begin immediately after the existing support agreement with RSK MiG expired in September 2015. At the time the Bulgarian MoD began establishing links with Poland in a bid to use WZL-2’s expertise and experience. This relocating of work was explained by MoD as a way to reduce the political risk in relying on a sole Russian company, a risk that has increased through 2014 and early 2015 due to the crisis in Ukraine.
The attempt of establishing links with Poland brought some results in October 2015 as earlier in the same year the MiG-29 entered the headlines of the Bulgarian media on multiple occasions, due to its still-unresolved logistic support issues being highly publicised and politicised to hysterical heights. By mid-2015, the then defence minister, Nikolay Nenchev, has announced that he intended to completely cut the ties with the aircraft’s original manufacturer and design authority, RSK MiG, proclaiming that it would not enter into a new long-term maintenance agreement after the expiry of the existing one in September.
The formal reason cited by defence minister Nenchev referred to the European Union sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. These sanctions prohibit all exports and imports of arms and defence equipment to and from Russia. In fact, European Council Decision 2014/872/CFSP dated December 4, 2014 allows for the provision of Russian-sourced spare parts and services necessary for the maintenance and safety of existing capabilities within the European Union. This provision is valid for the MiG-29 maintenance but the Bulgarian MoD nevertheless refused to use this option and insisted to cut the ties with Russia altogether.
The country’s defence minister Nenchev has claimed that instead MoD was going to seek a wider cooperation with Poland to keep the MiG-29s in the air. A draft government-to-government agreement between Bulgaria and Poland on this subject was inked by both parties in November. Its first step foresaw an immediate lease by Poland of two RD-33 engines as a gap-filling measure. Then, as a second step, state-owned Military Aviation Works No 4 (WZL-4) in Warsaw was to carry out an overhaul of six Bulgarian RD-33 engines in 2016, which would allow the restoration of the airworthiness of three additional ‘Fulcrums’.
Engine overhaul is a costly, complex and protracted undertaking, and price per unit, as announced by the Bulgarian MoD, is €1.023 million. This price is almost the same as that agreed with RSK MiG during negotiations in April 2016, but a contract has never been inked with the Russian company due to reasons of political nature, as a sole decision of defence minister Nenchev.
This was, in fact, the only deal for MiG-29 support agreed with Poland as during negotiations in October 2016 it became clear that the Polish industry, represented by WZL-3 (airframe and systems) and WZL-4 (engines) had no capacity to provide the entire range of services, needed to maintain the airworthiness of the Bulgarian MiG-29 fleet. After it became clear that the Polish industry could not meet the expectations to provide the full range of MiG-29 support services, in the end of 2016, the Bulgarian MoD launched a series of open tenders to purchase engines and accessory gearboxes for its MiG-29 fleet as well as a package of various spare parts, which were urgently needed.
In the event, MoD concluded contracts with a local company, Aviostart OOD, acting as an RSK MiG representative, thus returning to the services of the Russian original manufacturer, albeit indirectly. It was an intermediary which won an open public tender for delivery of ten RD-33 engines (including four new and six used after overhaul) and seven new-build KSA-2A accessory gearboxes. The engines were priced at €21.83 million (US $25.72 million), and the KSA-2s, at €11.17 million ($13.16 million). In addition, the Ukrainian company Ukrinmash won a tender to deliver a package of spare parts at the price of €2.08 million (US $2.45 million).
In 2017, the Bulgarian MoD allocated a budget of BGN 26 million (€13.3 million or US $15.7 million) for MiG-29 support, but no contracts had been signed yet.
The new series in the MiG-29 support story opened on December 7, 2017, when the Bulgarian MoD launched on a public procurement procedure for awarding a contractor to provide integrated logistic support for its 15-strong ageing MiG-29 Fulcrum fleet comprising 12 single-seat and three two-seat aircraft. The procedure, this time, was de facto a direct invitation to RSK MiG, the MiG-29’s original manufacturer and design authority as the Bulgarian Air Force and MoD have at last arrived at the conclusion that it is the only company capable to provide a complex integrated logistic support services to the crippled Fulcrum fleet; this was also written in the tender documentation. Contract negotiations should start in the end of December and contract could be signed in early 2018. This was, in fact, delayed, and the negotiation process was finished in February, while a framework agreement was inked in March 2018.
The framework maintenance agreement comprises deliveries of spare parts and technical documentation, overhauls of parts and systems, implementation of heavy inspections (known as control-repair works required after every 1,000 flight hours), technician training, etc.
The eventual aim of the integrated logistic support, which covers a period of four years (2018-2022), is to restore the airworthiness of all 15 aircraft in the active inventory. According to the Bulgarian defence minister, Krasimir Karakachanov, by October 2017 only seven aircraft out of 15 were in airworthy condition, and a some of these machines had engines with a few hours of service life remaining.
The budget allocated for the MiG-29’s integrated logistic support for the four-year period amounts to €41.6 million ($49 million).
The procurement is in line with the previous announcements of defence minister Karakachanov who declared many times in public that the entire MiG-29 fleet should be maintained until the expiry of its 40-years-long service life in the late 2020s, and this activity should be undertaken by their original manufacturer. This is a testament for the willingness and capability of RSK MiG to cooperate with its East European customers, enabling the aircraft to remain in service much longer than originally planned, as they proved to be affordable to maintain and fly, even in NATO environment.
©New defence order. Strategy | 01 | 2019