By Matthew Czekaj
Those in the market for a used, fourth-generation, Soviet, air-superiority jet fighter need look no further than Hungary. The Central European country is putting up eight of its 24 remaining MiG-29 Fulcrums for tender. The Hungarian government has declared a minimum bid for the package of fighters at no less than 3.46 billion forints ($18.3 million). All bids must be in by September 15, and the deal has to be wrapped up by October.
The announced sale is the final chapter in Hungary’s experience with the MiG-29. The Hungarian air force flew a MiG-29 on air patrol for the last time [link in Polish] in December 2010 and in same month made announcementsof plans to seek bids to sell the phased out fighters by spring 2011. Yet, talk of replacing the Fulcrums was raised long before then. In 2007, for instance, Hungary wanted to trade them for Russian Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-24 military helicopters (Itar-Tass, October 29, 2007). Hungary initially received 28 MiG-29s, then valued at $800 million, from Russia in 1993, in a deal to pay off Soviet debt to Budapest. Hungary subsequently maintained and modernized them over the next decade despite early pressure to purchase second-hand F-15s from Belgium or F-16s from the US (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 6, 2001).
In terms of capabilities and mission profile, the MiG-29 is often compared with US-built F-15s and F-16s. It boasts superior maneuverabilityat low speeds, is slightly faster than the F-16 and its handling made it a favorite among Hungarian fighter pilots. However, the MiG-29’s performance comes at a cost. Its engines are extremely inefficient and fuel-thirsty. The plane also has a short mechanical lifespan, and spare parts are difficult to come by. The Hungarian air force was often forced to cannibalize some of its MiGs to keep the rest flying. The plane’s acquisition and costly upkeep coincided with steep government cuts to Hungary’s armed forces. Moreover, Hungary’s drive toward NATO membership necessitated military hardware that was more compatible with Western allies. Hence, Budapest ended up purchasing Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighters to replace its aging MiG-29s.
The Fulcrum can be found throughout the former Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, the Balkans and in countries that enjoyed close political and economic ties with the USSR during the Cold War. However, the MiG-29 is fast becoming a rarity in Hungary’s immediate neighborhood. A prominent exception to this trend has been Poland, which has continued to purchase and receive [link in Polish] more MiG-29s from its neighbors since the 1990s. Warsaw is now in the midst of modernizing a portion of its own Fulcrums with up-to-date electronics, tracking, navigation and computer hardware – upgrades that will cost 126 million PLN ($43.4 million) until 2014 – despite having invested heavily in second-hand F-16s from the US in recent years. As a result of Poland’s continued dedication to the MiGs, there are increasing rumors that Warsaw may be considering buying the Hungarian planes now up for sale.
A Polish purchase of the Hungarian jets could be good news for the Baltic States. The Balts have no air forces of their own; they rely on NATO overflight patrols, which include Polish MiG-29s. An attack in Baltic airspace would also result in part in an automatic response [link in Polish] from Poland’s Fulcrums. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia thus have robust Polish air power in their own best interest.
Whether or not Hungary’s ultimately ends up selling MiG-29s to its Visegrad neighbor, it is clear that operation of this legacy Soviet fighter in Central Europe and the NATO alliance will continue for the foreseeable future.