UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!



Air Defense Fighter Aviation (Istrebitel'naya Aviatsiya) had the mission of preventing aircraft and cruise missiles from entering Soviet airspace. The Russian term istrebitel'nyi in Istrebitel'naya Aviatsiya does not correspond directly to the English "Fighter" but rather Istrebitel'nyi means more literally "destructive", "destroying", "annihilating". In wartime Fighter Aviation would strive to establish air superiority and provide air cover for Frontal Aviation's deep strike and ground attack aircraft.

The main focus of fighter aviation efforts is on protecting the main strike group, airfields, SSM deployment areas, key CPs, and logistics installations. The Soviets expected enemy air power to attack across a broad frontage with a large number of aircraft operating in small groups echeloned both in height and depth. To repel such attacks, the operational formation of fighter aviation is in several echelons, including two to three at low altitude and two at high altitude. The purpose of the first echelon is to engage the enemy on distant approaches. For this mission, it uses the best pilots to conduct independent "free hunt" sweeps in enemy airspace, beyond the reach of friendly SAMs. The PVO commits the second echelon in the area of the line of contact or somewhat over it. Fighters on standby at airfields reinforce and develop the operations of forward fighter elements. To intercept small groups or individual aircraft, each fighter division has a sector of responsibility. Within that sector, it destroys targets according to the decision of the fighter division commander, by the simultaneous commitment of not more than one-third of the available aircraft.

During the 1980s demands placed on air forces were great and growing. In the past, it was unlikely that substantial numbers of aircraft would be able to switch roles, from the counterair battle to offensive air support. This should be more likely in the future, at least from a technological viewpoint. New aircraft types and improved munitions were increasing both capabilities and flexibility. Nevertheless, given the time and casualties required to establish air superiority, it remains uncertain whether changing roles from a defensive to an offensive posture could be achieved within a time frame acceptable to the ground forces. Still, this possibility is important when assessing any defensive strategy.

One feature of the Soviet design process, prototype modeling, specified that newly designed aircraft fell into two categories, "test" (opytnye) and "experimental" (eksperimental'nye). Test models were designed to serve as prototypes of forthcoming series production aircraft, and with emphasis on feasibility and existing technologies. Experimental aircraft were not intended for series production but were built to test a particular new technology or flight characteristic -- record-breaking speed, new maneuvers, a new design principle, etc.

The conservatism of Soviet aircraft design policy was exemplified in the stress on innovation through incremental improvement. While experimental prototypes (I and Ye series) occasionally introduced major improvements in technology, the predominant pattern was gradual upgrading. For example, the transition from the MiG-19 to the delta-wing MiG-21 involved five intervening prototypes: (1) the Ye-50, a sweptwing aircraft with an upgraded MiG-19 engine; (2) the Ye-2A, a sweptwing model with the MiG-21 production engine; (3) the Ye-5, a deltawing prototype with the same fuselage and engine as the Ye-2A; (4) the Ye-6, a preproduction series very similar to the Ye-5; and, finally, (5) the production version, the MiG-21F/Fishbed-C.

The other major avenue to qualitative improvement employed by the Soviets was to borrow from Western technology and experience. In 1985 the US Defense Department reported that Soviets had estimated that by using documentationon the US F-18 fighter their aviation and radar industries saved some five years of development time and 35 million rubles (the 1980 dollar cost of equivalent research activity would be $55 million) in project manpower and other developmental costs. The manpower portion of these savings probably represented over a thousand man-years of scientific research effort and one of the most successful individual exploitations ever of Western technology. The documentation on the F-18 fire-control radar was said to have served as the technical basis for new look-down/shoot-down engagement radars for the latest generation of Soviet fighters. US methods of component design, fast-Fourier-transform algorithms, terrain mappingfunctions, and real-time resolution-enhancement techniques were cited as key elements incorporated into the Soviet counterpart. Moreover, F-18 and F-14 documentation served as the impetus for two long-term research projects to design from scratch a new radar-guided air-to-air missile system. The documentation also was instrumental in formulating concrete specifications to develop new Soviet airborne radar countermeasures equipment against the F-18 and F-14.

Designed to compete with the F-15, the MiG-29 entered Soviet service in 1983. The MiG-29 was designed in response to a new generation of American fighters, which included the F-15 and F-16. Designed as an air defense fighter, this dual-purpose aircraft also possessed a ground attack capability. The task of producing a "frontal" or tactical fighter for the Frontal Aviation Regiments of the Soviet Air Force went to the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (MiG OKB). Employing all the technical data available about the most advanced Western aircraft, the MiG designers started working on the MiG-29 in the early 1970s, and the first prototype made its first flight on Oct. 6, 1977. The radars used on earlier Soviet fighters had been unable to distinguish aircraft flying below them from ground clutter, and low-flying aircraft could avoid detection. With the Phazotron NIIR N019 Doppler radar (NATO designation "Slot Back") capable of detecting a target more than 60 miles away, infrared tracking sensors, and a laser rangefinder carried on the MiG-29, a pilot could track and shoot at aircraft flying below him.

The reputation earned by the Mikoyan design bureau's fighters during the Cold War made the term MiG (derived from Mikoyan-Gurevich) a common euphemism in Western aviation circles for any adversary fighter aircraft. Yet, the culmination of fighter design during the Soviet era came not from this establishment but from the rival Sukhoi bureau. By the early 1980s, Sukhoi's T10-1 prototype, first flown in 1977, was the subject of much scrutiny by Western intelligence agencies, who dubbed it "Flanker A." As the prototype evolved into the Su-27 or "Flanker B" production model, word of its potential as a fighter spread as well. The book's pictures and text drive home the point that this is a big airframe with a large internal fuel load, extensive avionics capacity, and the capability to carry numerous weapons. For all its size, however, the Flanker proved itself agile as well.

By the late 1980's, concern arose among US military planners about the aging design (first flight in 1972) of the F-15 and the possible loss of future air superiority of the fighter. Soviet fighters such as the MiG 29 and Su-27 had demonstrated remarkable maneuverability and performance. In addition, fighter technology had taken enormous strides forward with the introduction of stealth, or low observable, technology. There was also growing American concern over the increased effectiveness of the Soviet air defense system that posed a highly lethal environment for the F-15.

As of 1991, the US Administration expected the Soviet Union to field two new types of fighter aircraft early in the 21st century, though at that time some analysts believed Soviet economic problems might slow or prevent this continued modernization.

With the end of the Cold War, Soviet fighters that could be seen in the West only in classified photos were performing at air shows over America's heartland. No F-15 or F-16 aircraft, flown by American or allied nations, had ever been shot down in air combat, but these two aircraft types have, between them, shot down over 150 opponents ranging from MiG-21's to MiG-29's and Mirage F-1's.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list