2018 heralds the induction of two complementary new fighters into the Russian Air Force, the Su-57 heavy air superiority fighter and lighter MiG-35 multirole aircraft. The two platforms are expected to replace the Su-27 and MiG-29 respectively, which also entered service simultaneously in complementary roles 33 years earlier in 1985. While the Su-57 has been dubbed a fifth generation fighter, the highly sophisticated MiG-35 has been termed a ‘4++ generation’ platform due to its lack of a stealth profile - a requirement for the sixth generation. The fighter’s airframe shares a number of features with the older MiG-29, but incorporates a number of significant enhancements over its predecessor making it one of the most capable light fighters in the world - surpassed only by the U.S. Navy’s new F-18E Block 3.
Where the Su-57 gives Russia an analogous platform to the American F-22 Raptor, the MiG-35 was developed as an analogue to the U.S. F-35. The fighter compares highly favourable to its American counterpart, with significant advantages in payload (8 missiles as opposed to 4), speed (Mach 2.2 as opposed to Mach 1.6) and operational altitude (19km as opposed to 15.3). The MiG-35 carries highly capable air to air munitions, with a maximum engagement range of 130km, and retains an extreme level of manoeuvrability - making it perhaps the most manoeuvrable combat aircraft in the world able to withstand a g load of up to 10. A light airframe making extensive use of composite materials combined with powerful engines and three dimensional thrust vectoring systems, similar to those of the Su-35, are responsible for this.
The MiG-35 was designed with simple maintenance and a high sortie rate in mind, and remains one of the lowest maintenance modern fighters in the world - a stark contrast to the F-35 which has excessive maintenance requirements surpassed only by those of the F-22 Raptor. Indeed, the U.S. platform’s only advantages appear to be its superior range, marginally stronger radar radar and advanced radar evading capabilities - with the MiG prevailing by significant margins in all other fields. One significant determinant of the MiG-35’s performance will be its air to air missiles, as it remains uncertain whether the fighter will field the new K-77 air to air missiles which were designed for the Su-57. The advanced capabilities of these missiles, making use of new technologies to strike with an unprecedented degree of precision even at extreme ranges of up to 193km, makes them potentially a game changer for the MiG-35. Development of a shorter ranged and less costly derivative for the light fighter also remains a possibility.
According to Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, the MiG-35 has seen high demand not only from the Russian military, but also with a number of unnamed export clients. Middle Eastern states were notably named as the interested parties, and the MiG-35’s combination of low acquisition and maintenance costs, far lower than those of the Su-35 or Western made analogues, and advanced combat capabilites made it an attractive export. Its similarities to the MiG-29, allowing the platforms to share maintenance infrastructure, minimises operational costs for those states already deploying the older fourth generation light fighter. On likely client for the MiG-35 is Egypt, which was initially reported to have placed an order for up to 50 fighters in early 2014. Egypt has since placed an order for 48 MiG-29M fighters, the most advanced variant of the fourth generation platform which incorporates a number of the advanced technologies found on the MIG-35, and acquisition of the more advanced next generation platforms remains a distinction possibility. Other potential clients include a number of longstanding Western partners such as Morocco, Qatar, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, all but the last which have shown interest in Russian air defence systems and all of which have recently increasing their reliance on Russian made hardware. Whether the MiG-35 will see successes in other regions such as Africa and the Asia-Pacific remains to be seen.