In the mid–1960s, the United States Air Force (USAF) encountered difficulties over the skies of Vietnam when supersonic fighter bombers like the F-105 Thunderchief which had been optimized for low altitude bombing were found to be vulnerable to older MiG-17s and more advanced MiGs which were much more maneuverable. In order to regain the sort of air superiority enjoyed over Korea, the US refocused on air combat using the F-4 Phantom multi-role fighter, while the Soviet Union developed the MiG-23 in response. Towards the end of the 1960s, the USAF started the "F-X" program to produce a fighter dedicated to air superiority, which led to the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle being ordered for production in late 1969.
At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet response was necessary to avoid the possibility of a new American fighter gaining a serious technological advantage over existing Soviet fighters. Thus the development of a new air superiority fighter became a priority. In 1969, the Soviet General Staff issued a requirement for a Perspektivnyy Frontovoy Istrebitel (PFI, roughly "Advanced Frontline Fighter"). Specifications were extremely ambitious, calling for long range, good short-field performance (including the ability to use austere runways), excellent agility, Mach 2+ speed, and heavy armament. The Russian aerodynamics institute TsAGI worked in collaboration with the Sukhoi design bureau on the aircraft's aerodynamics.
By 1971, however, Soviet studies determined the need for different types of fighters. The PFI program was supplemented with the Perspektivnyy Lyogkiy Frontovoy Istrebitel (LPFI, or "Advanced Lightweight Tactical Fighter") program; the Soviet fighter force was planned to be approximately 33% PFI and 67% LPFI. PFI and LPFI paralleled the USAF's decision that created the "Lightweight Fighter" program and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and Northrop YF-17. The PFI fighter was assigned to Sukhoi, resulting in the Sukhoi Su-27, while the lightweight fighter went to Mikoyan. Detailed design work on the resultant Mikoyan Product 9, designated MiG-29A, began in 1974, with the first flight taking place on 6 October 1977. The pre-production aircraft was first spotted by United States reconnaissance satellites in November of that year; it was dubbed Ram-L because it was observed at the Zhukovsky flight test center near the town of Ramenskoye.
The workload split between TPFI and LPFI became more apparent as the MiG-29 filtered into front line service with the Soviet Air Forces (Russian: Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily [VVS]) in the mid-1980s. While the heavy, long range Su-27 was tasked with the more exotic and dangerous role of deep air-to-air sweeps of NATO high-value assets, the smaller MiG-29 directly replaced the MiG-23 in the frontal aviation role.
Introduction and improvements
In the West, the new fighter was given the NATO reporting name "Fulcrum-A" because the pre-production MiG-29A, which should have logically received this designation, remained unknown in the West at that time. The Soviet Union did not assign official names to most of its aircraft, although nicknames were common. Unusually, some Soviet pilots found the MiG-29’s NATO reporting name, "Fulcrum", to be a flattering description of the aircraft’s intended purpose, and it is sometimes unofficially used in Russian service.
The MiG-29B was widely exported in downgraded versions, known as MiG-29B 9-12A and MiG-29B 9-12B for Warsaw Pact and non-Warsaw Pact nations respectively, with less capable avionics and no capability for delivering nuclear weapons.
In the 1980s, Mikoyan developed the improved MiG-29S to use longer range R-27E and R-77 air-to-air missiles. It added a dorsal 'hump' to the upper fuselage to house a jamming system and some additional fuel capacity. The weapons load was increased to 4,000 kg (8,800 lb) with airframe strengthening. These features were included in new-built fighters and upgrades to older MiG-29s.
A Russian Air Force MiG-29UB trainer
Refined versions of the MiG-29 with improved avionics were fielded by the Soviet Union, but Mikoyan’s multirole variants, including a carrier-based version designated MiG-29K, were never produced in large numbers. Development of the MiG-29K carrier version was suspended for over a decade before being resumed; the type went into service with the Indian Navy's INS Vikramaditya, and Russian Navy's Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier.
Mikoyan had developed improved versions of the MiG-29, called MiG-29M/M2 and MiG-29SMT. On 15 April 2014, the Russian Air Force placed an order for a batch of 16 MiG-29SMT fighters.
There have been several upgrade programmes conducted for the MiG-29. Common upgrades include the adoption of NATO/ICAO standard-compatible avionics, service life extensions to 4,000 flight hours, safety enhancements, greater combat capabilities and reliability. In 2005, the Russian Aircraft Corporation “MiG” established a unified family of 4++ generation multirole fighters: the aircraft carrier–based MiG-29K, front-line MiG-29M and MiG-35 fighters.
On 11 December 2013, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin revealed that Russia was planning to build a new fighter to replace the MiG-29. The Sukhoi Su-27 and its derivatives were to be replaced by the Sukhoi Su-57, but a different design was needed to replace the lighter MiGs. A previous attempt to develop a MiG-29 replacement, the MiG 1.44 demonstrator, failed in the 1990s. The concept came up again in 2001 with interest from India, but they later opted for a variant of the Su-57. Air Force commanders have hinted at the possibility of a single-engine airframe that uses the Su-57's engine, radar, and weapons primarily for Russian service.