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The Russian media has published numerous stories debating the reasons behind the crash on 13 November of the MiG-29KUBR fighter jet. The initial Russian ministry of defence announcement stated that the aircraft, belonging to the air wing of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov – currently deployed in the Mediterranean to support Russian efforts in Syria – crashed into the sea during a training flight due to a technical malfunction. The crash is another example of Russian equipment malfunctioning, pointing to wider issues with the design of Russian weapons systems.
According to non-Russian sources, the plane – which was the third of a trio of aircraft returning from a reconnaissance mission over targets around the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo – was asked to delay landing and maintain a holding pattern after the second jet broke a cable of the carrier’s ‘Svetlana-2’ arrestor while landing, incapacitating it for the next aircraft. Russian reports on 21–23 November described the situation on the landing deck as ‘a complete mess’. What was supposed to be a period of three-to-four minutes between landings turned into a longer interval, during which the plane suffered a twin engine shutdown, forcing the pilot to eject, and causing the aircraft to plunge into the sea.
The Russian explanation of events seems to imply that the engines shut down because ‘they were no longer receiving fuel’. However, media reports stress that the jet ‘had absolutely no technical failures’ when it fell into the sea.
This raises questions about the actual sequence of events. First, the Russian suggestion that a lack of fuel was to blame for the crash is contradicted by other versions of the events. US intelligence sources (allegedly monitoring flights leaving the Russian carrier) reported that the jet turned away from the mission almost immediately after take-off. Initial official Russian reports also noted that ‘the aircraft has interrupted the training mission due to malfunction’, and specifically referred to an engine fault as the possible cause of the accident.
In addition, the pilot of the MiG that crashed, Colonel Igor Matkovskiy, apparently reported a sudden fault in his jet’s engines. Colonel Matkovskiy is the chief of combat training service for Northern Fleet aviation and has completed over 200 landings on the Admiral Kuznetsov, making him one of Russia’s most qualified carrier pilots.
Second, although the poor training standards in Russia’s naval aviation have been put forward as an explanation for the crash, the alleged incompetence of the carrier’s deck crew seems to be exaggerated. In past instances when the arrestor cable has broken they have reacted well.
For example, in September 2005, a Su-33 fighter was lost when the arrestor cable snapped as the aircraft was in the final stages of deceleration; nevertheless, the next plane landed in just under 15 minutes. Carrier landing safety control footage shows that all four cables were restored within that time.
Additionally, MiG-29 fighters take off without the use of afterburners, and the jet’s maximum flight duration exceeds three hours, which implies – in the case of a return attempt undertaken soon after take-off – that even a reduced fuel load would suffice to maintain a holding pattern until the crew, whatever their level of training, managed to restore the arrestor’s functionality.
MiG-29 fighters have experienced faults on other occasions during the current Middle East mission. In fact, another MiG-29 aboard Admiral Kuznetsov became non-operational due to a technical fault during the carrier’s transition to the Mediterranean. Previously, Russia had lost two other MiG-29s, on 23 June 2011and 5 December 2014.
Furthermore, a 2016 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India disclosed that the Indian Navy’s MiG-29K/KUB (the ‘R’ in the Russian fighters stands for ‘Russian’, to describe differences in avionics) suffered a high failure rate in the fighters’ FADEC (full authority digital electronic control) system, based on the Russian BARK electronic engine control unit. This led to the withdrawal of ‘40 engines (representing 62 per cent of 65 engines) ... due to design related defects/deficiencies’. The issue had serious flight safety implications, since in-flight engine defects had led to ten cases of single engine landings.
The Indian report also noted that the plane’s serviceability rates had ranged from 16% to 38% since the aircraft’s induction into Indian inventories from 2009/10, and until March 2015.
The Russian media’s current attempt to attribute the loss of the MiG-29 solely to the deck crew’s incompetence appears to be a face-saving measure aimed at diverting criticism away from the flaws in the Russian weapons systems being aggressively marketed on international markets.
Indeed, Russian aviation industry representatives expressed earlier this year the hope that India would purchase 20 more MiG-29 aircraft. However, with India – the only operator of the plane apart from Russia – facing difficulties with its existing aircraft, and with evidence emerging from the 13 November accident that it was at least partly caused by engine malfunction, potential customers may well wonder whether this represents a more systemic technical failure.
Worryingly for the Russian military aviation industry, its other pitch to the international markets, the MiG-35 land-based multirole fighter, is also based on the MiG-29KUBR, and it has already lost out on tenders in both India and Egypt. And, needless to say, the reputational damage the industry is experiencing owing to apparent flaws in its basic design capabilities is obstructing the Kremlin’s progress in using arms sales to expand its international influence.
Aaditya Dave is a Research Assistant at RUSI.
Dr Igor Sutyagin is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI.