A video doing the rounds on social media showed one of the world’s most secretive air forces demonstrating its combat capabilities using Soviet-origin MiG-29 fighter aircraft.
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In the video, a MiG-29 Fulcrum of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) was seen participating in a live air-to-air missile exercise alongside an F-5 Tiger II. The Soviet-era MiG-29 and the twin-seat F-5 were seen flying in a fingertip formation in the beginning, with the Fulcrum tucked in behind the American-made fighter jet’s left-wing.
As the MiG-29 came to the same level as that of the F-5, the latter launched an aerial target, which zoomed past the MiG-29. The F-5 then steered away to the right and just a few seconds later the MiG-29 launched a missile aiming to shoot down the aerial target.
The MiG-29 launched missile then perfectly struck the target and destroyed it, leaving only a trail of smoke behind. The exercise got over within seconds.
According to Kash Ryan, a closer observer of the IRIAF, the same combination of the aircraft and missiles was involved in another exercise in the recent past. Iran’s Tasnim news outlet had reported in 2019 that “MiG-29 successfully intercepted and destroyed the missile fired from the F-5 aircraft by firing R-73 optimized missiles”.
Video🎥: Missile launched by IRIAF F-5, subsequently immediately intercepted by IRIAF MiG-29, likely using R-73 AAM.
(yes, you read that right) pic.twitter.com/dVmw1gJyFO
— Aᴍɪʀ (@AmirIGM) October 27, 2021
Images released by the news outlet confirmed the involvement of a MiG-29UB in the exercise. Another image released by the Mehr news agency provided a clearer view of the rocket fired by the F-5, during the 2019 exercise.
The missile being fired from the MiG-29 in the latest exercise appears to be a Vympel R-73 heat-seeking air-to-air missile, a widely used Soviet-designed weapon which is known as AA-11 Archer in the West.
The Russian-made missile entered service in 1984. It’s known for its high levels of maneuverability and the fact that it can be designated via the pilot’s helmet-mounted sight, as well as by the aircraft’s radar or infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, according to The War Zone.
In a rough estimate, this engagement appeared to be at a lower limit of the R-73’s envelope. The single-stage rocket motor burned between four and seven seconds and the maximum time of controlled flight was about 23 seconds.
The R-73 has a maximum range of 31 km for a head-on target and it reduces to approximately 14 km for a tail-on engagement.
In the case of a close-range tail-on target, the minimum launch distance is also an important factor. The R-73 can be launched from a distance of less than 1,000 feet. It is still unclear if the latest exercise was a part of a larger exercise or if it was meant for public display or just part of Iran’s regular wargames.
Iran’s aging MiG-29 fleet still forms an important part of its air force given that the Islamic nation is barred from acquiring new aircraft owing to US sanctions linked to the former’s nuclear program.
It acquired the first batch of 18 MiG-29s from the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1990. Four more MiG-29s had been shifted to Iran from Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Besides protecting VIP aircraft, Iranian MiG-29s play a crucial air defense role for the capital Tehran. Live-fire exercises offer a great opportunity to pilots and ground crew to imbibe valuable training in infrared missiles.
The R-73 seen in the current video is a live version of the missile, with a warhead along with the usual motor and infrared guidance package, which is clearly evident by the massive fireball seen on the target as the MiG turned away. Due to this, the MiG pilot would have been provided with a level of realism, which is impossible to be replicated by a simulator.
The first MiG-29 was developed and inducted into service with the Soviet Air Force around 40 years ago for countering the American F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Falcon. The aircraft has been operated by more than 25 countries, including the US which used the aircraft for evaluation and testing purposes. India was the first export customer of these MiG-29 fighter jets.
While the warplane has an airframe design, which is half a decade old, these jets are seen as a tough competitor against the US fighter jets. The MiG-29s are appreciated by experts for their high level of agility, maneuverability and reliability.
They have seven external weapon hardpoints and can carry up to two R-27 air-to-air medium-range missiles; six R-73 and R-60 air-to-air short-range missiles; four pods of S-5, S-8, S-24 unguided rockets. It can also carry air bombs weighing up to 3,000kg and a 30 mm built-in aircraft gun with 150 rounds of ammunition.