A Ukrainian air force MiG-29 while on a tour of North America in 1992.Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The MiG-29 is the Ukrainian air force’s most numerous fighter—even after a drunken officer accidentally rammed one of the twin-engine jets in his car last year, destroying it.
Tallies vary depending on the source, but Ukraine probably possesses between 37 and 70 MiG-29s, all of them inherited from the Soviet Union back in 1991.
The powerful but short-ranged fighters with their smoky RD-33 engines almost certainly outnumber Ukraine’s best jets , the roughly three-dozen Su-27s that fly from twin bases flanking the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
But don’t expect the MiGs to make a serious dent in an attacking Russian force in the event the massive Russian army staging along the Ukrainian border goes on the offensive.
The biggest problem might not be the aging MiGs. A pilot shortage could ground many of the planes.
More than 200 MiG-29s were on Ukrainian soil when the Soviet Union collapsed 31 years ago. The MiG fleet dwindled over the next two decades as Kiev sold some of the jets to foreign buyers and put into storage excess airframes it couldn’t afford to crew and maintain.
On paper, the Ukrainian air force operated 80 MiG-29s on the day, back in February 2014, that Russian troops invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. But more than half of the MiGs were in Crimea at the time. The Russians captured 45 of the fighters.
Most of the MiG-29s were in disrepair and unflyable. The Russians actually dismantled many of them and shipped them north to mainland Ukraine.
A year later, Kiev could muster just 19 MiG-29s. As the war expanded and the Russians backed anti-government separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, the Ukrainian air force was so desperate for serviceable jets that it armed one of the MiG-29s belonging to the service’s Ukrainian Falcons aerobatic team and sent it, special livery and all , streaking over the heads of separatist fighters.
Russian and separatist air-defenders shot down two Ukrainian MiG-29s over Crimea, but the number of MiGs in service steadily expanded as engineers uncrated and rebuilt the jets from Crimea and also pulled additional airframes out of storage.
Today three brigades with six squadrons between them fly MiG-29s from three bases—one each in the western, central and southern regions of Ukraine. If Russia attacks, the MiG force might face an enemy fighter fleet many times its size.
And it’s not even clear there would be enough pilots for Kiev to get all its MiG-29s airborne at the same time. As recently as a year ago, the Ukrainian air force faced an crisis even greater than the looming obsolescence of its entire front-line fleet. It was running out of pilots.
Most air forces try to keep three pilots on the roster for every single-seat plane in the inventory. That ratio allows pilots to rest, train and perform administrative duties without unnecessarily idling flyable airframes.
The Ukrainian air force would need around 400 pilots to sustain a three-to-one ratio. But in the summer of 2021, the service copped to a mass outflow of manpower. As many as 70 aircrew had quit the force in 2019 and again in 2020, many of them citing low pay, burdensome paperwork and training that wasn’t adequately preparing them for war with the Russians.
Five young pilots declined to extend their contracts at the same time in July 2021. “Of course, this is a serious challenge to the air force’s tactical wing,” the flying branch told Kyiv Post. “And if this tendency continues, this will quickly lead to a serious decline in the fighter force’s combat readiness.”
It’s unclear whether the looming Russian threat has led to a patriotic surge in aircrew retention. But even under the best of circumstances—a 70-strong fleet with plenty of pilots—the Ukrainian MiG-29 force faces daunting odds if Russia attacks.
Follow me on Twitter . Check out my website or some of my other work here . Send me a secure tip .