Incorporating an advanced aerodynamic design, the MiG-29 has a N-019 pulse-Doppler radar (NATO Slot Back) as its primary sensor; this is allied to an infre-red search and track for passive tracking of targets.
The 9-12 prototype made its first flight in 1977, and the type entered service with Soviet Frontal Aviation in 1986. Replacing MiG-23s, the MiG-29 was assigned dual air superiority and ground-attack roles. Fighter regiments were also tasked with tactical nuclear strike with 30-kT RN-40 bombs.
The basic MiG-29 has proved itself as a formidable close-in dogfighter. The pilot has a helmet-mounted sight to cue missiles onto an off-boresight target. The very agile R-73 missile remains widely viewed as the best close combat air-to-air weapon. However, the MiG-29s primary beyond visual range weapon, the R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) is no more than adequate. Furthermore, the RD-33 engines suffer from low maintainability, and the MiG-29 is also handicapped by its lack of range and endurance. The latter parameters were addressed by an improved 9-13 variant allocated the NATO reporting name Fulcrum C. This featured a bulged and extended spine, which houses both fuel and avionics, including an active jammer. Commonly nicknamed Gorbatov (hunchback), this variant was built alongside the standard 9-12 MiG-29s.
To address the shortcomings of the baseline MiG-29 the design bureau developed two radically-improved variants. Both the MiG-29M and naval MiG-29K fell victim to fierce spending cuts after the Cold War and their further development was halted. MiG MAPO chose to pursue more limited upgrade programmes for more immediate application to Russian and export baseline MiG-29s.
The MiG-29S upgrade was applied to a limited number of Russian 9-13 MiG-29s, the first phase introducing provision for underwing fuel tanks. It remains unclear if further phased improvements were applied. These included a doubling of the warload, provision for in-flight refueling and an upgraded NO19MP Topaz radar with simultaneous dual target engagement capability. The radar would have given compatibility with R-77 beyond visual range air-to-air missiles. Such features were subsequently offered for export MiG-29s, along with Western navigation and communications equipment as well as a bolt-on retractable in-flight refueling probe.
The standard export MiG-29S was known as the MiG-29SD for 9-12 airframes and as the MiG-29SE when based on the 9-13 airframe. Malaysia's MiG-29Ns are effectively MiG-29SDs. While these versions were marketed as air superiority fighters, the MiG-29SM stressed its multi-role capability with TV- and laser-guided air-to-surface weapons.
Pending the production of a fifth-generation fighter, the Russian air force is upgrading over 150 9-13 MiG-29s to a standard comparable to the MiG-29SMT (9-17); this first full standard prototype flew in 1998. The upgrade will include an N-019ME or MP radar, a modern glass cockpit, greatly increased internal fuel capacity, RD-43 engines, improved service-ability, addition of an IFR system, and increased combat load; not all of the features mentioned will be incorporated in the first phase of the upgrade. India's acquisition and upgrade of the former RNS carrier Admiral Gorshkov has attracted renewed interest in the MiG-29K. DASA, Aerostar and Elbit offer the Sniper upgrade that incorporates elements from the MiG-21 Lancer.
The MiG-29 was built in substantial numbers and was widely exported. After Russia, Ukraine is the next major operator with six regiments (including Fulcrum-Cs). Other operators are Belarus, Bulgaria, Cuba, Eritrea, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Malaysia, Peru, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Yugoslavia. The MiG-29s serve primarily as air defense fighters. All operators have small numbers of MiG-29UB two-seat conversion trainers.