MIG-29 Fulcrum vs F-16 Viper

Which is better: MiG-29 or F-16?

A drawing from the 1992 Fulcrum-Flanker review by General Dynamics.
Note that side and planform views do not match. Here goes credibility;)

Is fighter X better than fighter Y?

This is the kind of question that gets discussed all the time, but doesn't really have an answer.

First, best for what? Every fighter is designed with a particular set of requirements in mind. "Fighter" is a fairly general term that covers a multitude of missions. A Tornado F.3 or a MiG-31 is an excellent long-range interceptor, but you wouldn't want to send one of them up against an F-16 or an Su-27 in a dogfight.

Second, the aircraft itself isn't the only factor involved, or even the most important one. Put two aircraft of similar (or even somewhat different) capabilities up against each other, and by far the most important factor is the relative skills of the two pilots. It's widely believed that superior pilot training was the main reason why American F-86 Sabres consistently gained air superiority over technically superior Russian MiG-15s in the Korean War.

Third, even apparently identical fighters can differ enormously in their electronics fit; and in modern fighters, the electronics is at least as important (not to mention expensive) as the airframe. Export versions of fighters are normally much less capable in the electronic sphere than the equivalent models for the home air force, even when the aircraft have the same designation; does anyone expect the F-16Cs exported to, say, Egypt to be anywhere near the capability of the F-16Cs in USAF service? Older aircraft can be upgraded to modern electronic standards at a fraction of the cost of new fighters, an option increasingly popular in these days of tightened defence budgets (for example, the RNZAF recently upgraded its Skyhawk fleet with a radar and avionics suite equivalent to that of the F-16A).

Most of the modern generation of fighters are fairly similar in performance. Leaving out specialised interceptors such as the Tornado and MiG-31 mentioned above, if almost any two modern fighters came up against each other in a dogfight, pilot skill would certainly be the main deciding factor. We can (and certainly will) argue endlessly about the relative merits of, say, F-16 vs Sea Harrier, or F-22 vs Su-35 (both the subject of recent discussion on this newsgroup; Harriers versus conventional fighters is a particularly hardy perennial), and there are real differences there; but such technical details are not the most important thing in combat.

Gneral Dynamics concluded in 1992 in their F-16/MiG-29 comparison:

- Good Aerodynamics - But Compromised by Construction
- Inferior to F-16 Supersonically, Parity at Subsonic Speeds, Slight Superiority at Very Slow Speeds

Flight Controls
- Manual System Limits Use of Full Capabilities But Allows for Superior Pilot Individualized Capabilities

- Head-Down Concept and Poor PVI Integration Decreases Effectiveness

- Look-Down, Shoot-Down Radar. Flexibility, Modes Limited by Controls & Displays
- State-of-the-Art INS
- Radar Warning Receiver - Low Technology But Good Coverage
- HUD: Limited Capability - Augmented by Helmet Mounted Sight
- IRST: A-A, Slavable to Radar and Helmet Mounted Sight
- Helmet-Mounted Sight System - Slow, Yet Capable
- Further Advancements Expected With Appearance of New MiG-29 Versions

Lot's of "buts", don't you think;)?

Luftwaffe MiG-29s flew on several ocations against Falcons. One such experience described by a USAF pilot in Aviano Vigileer's article which might give you some idea about how it went.

There is also an article in Air & Space Smithsonian April-May, 1995 which describes the problems Luftwaffe has to deal with after unification and incorporation of MiG-29s in their active units.

Subject: Re: MiG29 vs F16?

This has just been written up in Air Forces Monthly. The F-16C Wing based in Spain sent a group down to the ACM range in Sardinia (which I am not going to attempt to spell Decmommm..) at the same time as the Luftwaffe Mig-29/F4 wing had slots. Seems the German pilots are good enough but the Avionics on the Migs are still a real pain. Comments like 11 seperate switches to launch a missile vs 1 for the F-16! The Radar is not as good as that in the F-4s (so the Luftwaffe uses mixed formations). The Head mounted AA-11 site system is great, giving a 45 degree cone of engagement and the Mig-29 can out point the F-16C at most speeds but the F-16C can maintain energy better.

From the ACM reports the Luftwaffe's Mig-29s are better than an F-16A and not as good as the F-16C. So far the Luftwaffe does not have a very high level of experience flying the type, comments were than non of the Luftwaffe pilots have more than 400 hours on type only 2 or 3 more than 300 and most only about 200. Not having equivalent figures I don't know how that compares with USAF norms for an operational squadron.

Alexei Gretchikhine wrote:

"Could you possibly give me some numbers, references etc. which would have comparison of AIRFRAMES of F-16 and MiG-29. Until now from the literature I have has the idea (perhaps uncorrect one) that at least the airframe of MiG-29 is better than one of F-16. That is how many Gs it can pull, aerodynamic properties. MiG-29 may lag in avionics, FBW, engines but NOT airframe. I believe that there are no G-limiter on MiG-29, because pilot will pass out, or G-Lock, at much lower Gs than would harm the airframe. There was at least one ocasion when MiG-29's arframe was deformed after pulling some Heavy Gs (12?) but a/c was capable of coming back to the base. Being a later design (and more progressive lifting/blended body design) than the F-16, the Mig-29's airframe in my opinion is superior to F-16's."

If I remember correctly, the MiG-29 does not have a g-limiter but does have a alpha limiter.

As far as an airframe comparison goes, both aircraft have their advantages. The MiG is better below about 325 KEAS. If it can suck the F-16 into a slow-speed turning fight, the MiG will easily best the Viper. The Viper, on the other hand, holds the edge in the high speed fight. It also has superior control characteristics due to its FBW. As far as airframes go, both aircraft are very close; the pilots would probably decide the fight.

In weapons systems, there is a gulf. Despite the attempts to paint a rosy picture of F-16s hosing multiple AMRAAMs off into a furball of Fulcrums in a "real-life fight," this is uncertain as to effectiveness. Getting a target sort on multiple bogies is rough, and the chances of dropping multiple Fulcrums with AMRAAMs before they can answer with an R-27 or R-73 is pretty slim. Due to delays in acquisition, unrealistic performance requirements, budgetary constraints, and just plain arrogance, Russian aircraft have the ability to field better missiles than we had given them credit for.

The other gulf is in sensors. Although the F-16 has a superior radar, the MiG has an IRSTS(Infra Red Targeting System). With this, the MiG can _passively_ track the Falcon from surprisingly long range. I have read many authors belittling the capabilities of IRSTSs, remembering the old AN/AAR-4 used on Century-Series fighters, but the new IRSTS are a different breed. Blazing away with a radar not only makes you a hunter, but it makes you a target. You can't always run silent and rely on AWACS, either. With the advent and fielding of aerial-ARMs like the R-27P, R-24P, Kh-31P and KS-172, anything with a radar running--especially an AWACS--is being set up for a surprise attack. For those who are uninitiated, Russian missiles can outrange AMRAAMs if they are not limited by the requirement to home on a radar return off of an F-15 and F-16. However this option certainly would be curtailed in a heavy ECM/ECCM environment.

I don't want to come off as critical of US equipment, which I believe is still superior to any other nation's. I just want to point out that the US can't afford to deny its equipment's shortcomings. The US should take the results of the F-16 vs. MiG-29 training as a warning. Imagine if they had been facing Su-37s!

"BTW article in AW&ST states something like this: "F-16 can get on tail of MiG-29 after all, blah blah..... .....But we should remember that MiG-29 were carrying underbelly tanks(!) and six pylons and two mock/training AA missiles (as opposite to clean F-16(?))" I wonder how things would look if the MiG's driver will jettison the fuel tank. (I don't think you can even use the cannon on MiG-29 with underbelly fuel tank, so no one with get into furball dogfight with one)"

The underbelly tanks were undoubtedly empty, and therefore had a minimal impact on flight performance. The MiGs were carrying six pylons because they _always_ carry six pylons. F-16s can jettison their pylons, and their fuel tanks have a built-in pylon. The MiGs needed that fuel tank because of their very short range. In marked contrast to the F-16--which has surprisingly long legs (longer than the F-15A, surprise!)--the MiG can't go far without fuel tanks. To my knowledge, none of the Luftwaffe's MiGs have been modified to carry underwing fuel tanks, so they went into battle carrying their max fuel load. Later MiGs were modified to carry underwing tanks, and to fire their cannon with the belly tank in place. All Fulcrum engines smoke like locomotives, and have a disturbingly short TBO.

Scout says:

"I just can't recall the Fulcrum being employed in combat in large numbers. Other than the ones that ran away from the USAF during Desert Storm."

MiG-29s have seen limited combat on at least four occasions:

(1) Syrian Air Force MiG-29s were the first to see combat, against the F-15s and F-16s of the Israelis during 1990-91 in a number of small air battles over the Golan region and/or southwestern Lebanon. Rumor has it (unconfirmed) that at least one MiG-29 was shot down, probably by an F-15C.

(2) Iraqi Air Force MiG-29s were, of course, involved in Operation Desert Storm, when 5 of their number were shot down in aerial combat during the first 3 days of the war. A sixth crashed itself during an air-to-air engage- ment against an F-15E strike package (in the process, managing to shoot down its own wingman, a MiG-23 "Flogger," and the only confirmed "kill" by a MiG-29 to date. At least five or six others were destroyed on the ground, and four flew to Iran (including one MiG-29UB "Fulcrum-B."

(3) Yugoslavian Air Force MiG-29s saw combat as ground-support fighters during the early stages of the war in Croatia and Bosnia. At least one was shot down by ground fire, and the others have all gone to seed in Serbia. None were involved in air-to-air engagements.

(4) A dozen ex-Moldovan MiG-29s were sold to secessionist rebels in southern Yemen in 1994, and piloted by Moldovan mercenary pilots. One of these was shot down on a ground support mission, and six others were destroyed on the ground when government forces recaptured the Southern capital of Aden. The remaining five are now in storage, and will probably be re-sold.

(5) MIG-29s were engaged and destroyed by NATO Aircraft over Kosovo during NATO airstrikes. Iraq took delivery of its first 18 "Fulcrums" in 1987, the year before the Iran-Iraq War ended, so it's possible that some Iraqi MiG-29s saw limited ser- vice in the war, but given the time necessary to train pilots and ground crew, and make new aircraft operational, it's likely that the war ended before the MiGs saw any serious fighting. Also, by that time, the Iranian Air Force was almost non-operational due to a lack of spares and a conservative use doctrine, and so air-to-air engagements were fleeting and usually not decisive.

MiG-29s may also have seen limited combat in the Chechnya operation last year in Russia, although it seems that Su-27s and MiG-31s were used in the CAP role, while Su-24s and Su-25s were the main ground attack machines. If any "Fulcrums" saw combat, their numbers were extremely small.

The following is an excerpt from an article at Lockeed's Code One Magazine web site about an exercise between American F-16s & German MiG-29s. Great anecdotal info on the MiG-29's flight model and cockpit considering we can now fly it:

The most impressive aspect of the Fulcrum's performance for the American pilots was its low-speed maneuverability. "In a low-speed fight, fighting the Fulcrum is similar to fighting an F-18 Hornet," explained Capt. Mike McCoy of the 510th. "But the Fulcrum has a thrust advantage over the Hornet. An F-18 can really crank its nose around if you get into a slow-speed fight, but it has to lose altitude to regain the energy, which allows us to get on top of them. The MiG has about the same nose authority at slow speeds, but it can regain energy much faster. Plus the MiG pilots have that forty-five-degree cone in front of them into which they can fire an Archer and eat you up."

The off-boresight missile, as described in the opening scenario, proved to be a formidable threat, though not an insurmountable one. "Some of their capabilities were more wicked than we originally thought," said McCoy. "We had to respect the helmet-mounted sight, which made our decisions to anchor more difficult. In other words, when I got close in, I had to consider that helmet-mounted sight. Every time I got near a Fulcrum's nose, I was releasing flares to defeat an Archer coming off his rail."

"Before coming here, some of our pilots may have thought of the MiG's helmet-mounted sight as an end-all to a BFM fight," explained Lt. Col. Gary West, commander of the 510th. "We have found that it is not as lethal as we had expected.

We encountered some positions-particularly in an across-the-circle shot or a high-low shot and in a slow-speed fight-where a Fulcrum pilot can look up forty-five degrees and take a shot while his nose is still off. That capability has changed some of the pilots' ideas on how they should approach a MiG-29 in a neutral fight. Below 200 knots, the MiG-29 has incredible nose-pointing capability down to below 100 knots. The F-16, however, enjoys an advantage in the 200 knot-plus regime. At higher speeds, we can power above them to go to the vertical. And our turn rate is significantly better. By being patient and by keeping airspeed up around 325 knots, an F-16 can bring the MiG-29 to its nose. But the pilot must still be careful of the across-the-circle shot with that helmet-mounted sight.

"We have done very well on neutral BFM engagements," continued West. "We have tried single and two-circle fights, depending on how much lead turn we had at the merge. Without exception, we have been able to use finesse or power to an advantage after at least a couple of turns. I don't think any F-16 pilot has gotten defensive and stayed there. As always, and this applies to any airplane, success depends on who is flying."

Three pilots from the 510th received backseat rides in one of the JG-73's two-seat MiG-29 trainers. Capt. Sparrow was one of them. "The MiG is harder to fly than the F-16," said Sparrow. "The Soviet airframe is great, but the avionics are not user friendly. After flying in the backseat of the Fulcrum, I got a feel for how spoiled we are in the F-16. I always felt good about the F-16, but I wouldn't trade flying the F-16 for any other aircraft, foreign or domestic.

"The Fulcrum doesn't have the crisp movements of an F-16," Sparrow continued. "You need to be an octopus in the MiG-29 to work the avionics. Those German pilots have it tough. Just to get a simple lock on and fire a missile may take a half dozen hands-off switches or so. We can do the same with a flick of the thumb while we are looking at the HUD. F-16 pilots also have a significant sight advantage. A couple of hundred feet advantage can make a difference in air-to-air combat; the actual difference is more significant than that. MiG-29 pilots have a tough time checking their six o'clock. Their canopy rail is higher. They can lose sight of us even when flying BFM."

"Their visibility is not that good," agreed McCoy, one of the other two pilots who enjoyed a spin in the Fulcrum. "Their disadvantage is a real advantage for us. F-16 pilots sit high in the cockpit. All the MiG-29 pilots who sat in our cockpit wanted to look around with the canopy closed. They were impressed that they could turn around and look at the tail and even see the engine can."

"Besides visibility, I expected better turning performance," McCoy continued. "The MiG-29 is not a continuous nine-g machine like the F-16. I tried to do some things I normally do in an F-16. For example, I tried a high-AOA guns jink. I got the Fulcrum down to about 180 knots and pulled ninety degrees of bank and started pulling heavy g's. I then went to idle and added a little rudder to get the jet to roll with ailerons. The pilot took control away from me in the middle of these maneuvers because the airplane was about to snap. I use the F-16's quick roll rate like this all the time with no problem.

"I also tried to do a 250-knot loop," McCoy recalled. "I went to mil power and stabilized. As I went nose high, I asked for afterburner. I had to hamfist the airplane a little as I approached the top of the loop. I was still in afterburner at about 15,000 feet and the jet lost control. The nose started slicing left and right. I let go of the stick and the airplane righted itself and went down. It couldn't finish the loop. In the F-16, we can complete an entire loop at 250 knots."

Like Sparrow, McCoy climbed out of the MiG-29 cockpit feeling better about the F-16, especially its automation. "The biggest instrument in the MiG-29 cockpit is the clock," McCoy said. "It took me a while to understand this. But a large clock is needed to keep track of the time after launching a missile. When they launch a missile, they have to consider their shot range and the type of missile they are shooting and estimate how long it will take to impact before firing. When they take a five-mile Alamo shot, for example, they have to calculate mentally the time required for the missile to reach its target so their radar can illuminate it for the duration. They fire and watch until they know when they can turn away. That procedure is a real disadvantage if they're flying against someone who shot a missile at them at about the same time. "F-16 pilots don't have to think about these things," McCoy continued. "We have great automation. When we launch a missile, the airplane performs all the calculations and displays a countdown on the head-up display for us. When we're within ten miles, we want our eyes out of the cockpit looking for flashes or smoke from an adversary. That's why our head-up display is focused to infinity. We can view information without refocusing our eyes to scan the horizon. Inside of ten miles, Fulcrum pilots are moving their hands around flipping about six switches, some they have to look at. I am moving one, maybe two switches, without taking my hands off the throttle and stick."

German Fulcrum pilots realize the limitations, and advantages, of their aircraft. "If you define an F-16 as a third-generation fighter, it is not fair to speak of the MiG-29 as a third-generation aircraft because of its avionics," said Lt. Col. Manfred Skeries, the deputy commander of the JG-73. "Aerodynamics, now, are something different." Skeries is the former commander of all East German fighter forces and the first German pilot to fly the MiG-29. His comments came after he received his first flight in the F-16.

"The MiG-29's avionics are a shortcoming," admitted Capt. Michael Raubbach, a Fulcrum pilot of the JG 73. "Its radar-warning and navigational equipment are not up to Western standards. The Russian idea of hands-on throttle and stick is not the same as it is in the West. It is true that we have to look in the cockpit a lot to flip switches. And the way information is provided and the accuracy with which it is provided-in the navigational equipment in particular-doesn't allow full employment in the Western concept.

"Our visibility is not as good as an F-16 or even an F-15," Raubbach continued. "We can't see directly behind us. We have to look out the side slightly to see behind us, which doesn't allow us to maintain a visual contact and an optimum lift vector at the same time. This shortcoming can be a real problem, especially when flying against an aircraft as small as the F-16. But as a German, I can't complain about the MiG's visibility. The aircraft offers the greatest visibility in our air force."

There are NO confirmed or unconfirmed reports of any MiG-29 kills in any theater of conflict, while at least 8 have been shot down by other fighters.*

Next Comparison: SU-27 vs F-16

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