MiG-29 vs. F-16 – which is the better fighter aircraft?

What is better? Air Force Technology from the East or the West?

The comparison of Eastern with Western fighter jets is very popular. It is an often discussed topic on forums and of course many (if not most) opinions are a bit biased. But it is interesting that after the downfall of the Soviet Empire and the end of the East block we now have countries with both – Western and Eastern technology. And we have NATO countries flying with MiGs. Even the US Air Force purchased MiG-29s from Moldova. But of course the research results and tests are not really public, one would lose an advantage if too much information is public. The Polish Air Force is currently operating the F-16 and the MiG-29. And Poland bought the 24 MiG-29s which German Air Force/Luftwaffe inherited from East German Air Force (Luftstreitkräfte der NVA) for a symbolic EUR per piece. It is interesting to talk with pilots of such “mixed” fleets, they usually identify themselves with the fighter jet they fly. MiG-29 pilots highlight the advantages of the MiG, F-16 pilots accentuate the strengths of the Fighting Falcon. And both are right!

Different roles – different fighter jet. How to compare them?

MiG-29 vs. F-16 - the two fighter jets compared
Picture: A drawing from the 1992 Fulcrum-Flanker review by General Dynamics.

One needs to be aware that both MiG-29 and F-16 were developed in different circumstances, which had an impact on different requirements towards the jets. F-16 was designed to be a cost effective, light multirole (fighter-bomber) jet that could be a support to the more expensive F-15 Eagle. On the other hand the MiG-29 is a typical air-superiority fighter jet. For MiG-29 designers range and avionics were not as crucial as powerful engines, high altitude flights, rate of climb, speed and the ability to take off from really shabby runways.
Those differences are visible in the construction of both machines. The MiG-29 Fulcrum has two engines (Klimov RD-33 afterburning turbofans) – officially for better aerodynamics, in fact for more power and safety reasons. The Eastern construction is also equipped with two vertical stabilizers helping the pilot keep stability after starting the engine.
Western specialists saw the F-16 as safe enough with just one engine. But the US designers saw the need to improve the cockpit and general ergonomics. It resulted in single piece bubble canopy (with exceptional field of view), the pilot’s seat is reclined at an unusual tilt-back angle of 30°, multifunctional displays and general automation. All these features led to enhancing pilot’s combat effectiveness. The MiG-29 is not equipped with the above.

Combat capabilities MiG-29 Fulcrum vs F-16 Fighting Falcon

German MiG-29 and USAF F-16
Actually, the comparison is between Mikoyan MiG-29A Fulcrum and General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcon. Why? It is because first MiGs entered service in early 80’s, the same time as Falcons in C version.
Neither of the two fighter jets is able to attack the target from large distance (over 100 km or 62 miles). If they are flying towards each other – at medium distance it would probably be MiG to be detected first, as F-16C has a better radar (with all-weather capability with BVR (beyond-visual-range) AIM-7 and AIM-120 air-air missiles), so it would give the F-16’s pilot more time for reaction.
In case of the air combat between the two, if they both would fire the missiles it is hard to predict which would succeed as technical data for R-27R (AA-10 Alamo) are inaccurate. Russian sources show the range of 100 km, but if that’s true, its range is really limited to the radar range of the jet. The AMRAAM efficiency is not as high as the Western specialists say, but F-16 would still probably have advantage here, as AMRAAM is actively guided and the pilot can fire the missile first and then make a maneuver.
In case of the dogfight at short distance – advantages of Eastern construction become visible. The MiG-29 is more maneuverable, the reason why the performance of MiG-29 and Su-27s at airshow is always very impressive – especially the versions with thrust vectoring (TVC), eg the Sukhoi Su-37 and the Mikoyan MiG-35 (MiG-29 OVT).
It is always hard to clearly point which jet is better, or assess the quality of the aircraft. There are number of crucial differences between MiG-29 and F-16 not even mentioned here. But both of them are great aircrafts: in general older pilots tend to favor the MiGs as when they control the stick they “feel” the jet, in opposite to the joystick of the F-16.
What about the cannons? The Western M61 Vulcan has much higher rate of fire (6,000 rounds per minute comparing to GSz-30-1 1,500 rounds/min) but the Eastern GSz-30-1 is 30mm caliber (comparing to M61 is 20mm). So one Russian bullet makes much more damage than the American one. It is worth mentioning that combined with its laser rangefinding GSz-30-1 is extremely accurate and able to destroy the target with as little as 3 to 5 rounds. Another interesting feature of the eastern MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-29 Flanker is the IRST (Infra-red search and track). It was most successful when the Indian Air Force Su-27 had 9:1 wins against the American Air Force F-15 in a joint exercise.
So it appears for the compared versions that F-16 should be more successful at medium distance air combat, but MiG-29 in short distance dogfight. But the results of combat missions really depend on possessed weapon system options and commander’s skills (superior pilot training). It strongly depends how much training the fighter pilot gets, and what quality of training. There are rumors that North Korean MiG-29 pilots can not fly that often because of the lack of fuel the Korean People’s Air Force faces. Also, Air Forces with combat experience have a know how others don’t get, especially when the air force does not profit from foreign know-how.

Kill/Loss ratio favors the F-16, not the MiG-29

A study found F-16 has a 92:13 kill/loss ratio, with MiG 29 having a 16:28 kill/loss ratio. Largest share are Israeli Air Force with 52 claimed kills (2 unconfirmed), the Pakistani Air Force with 24 kills claimed. Turkish Air Force is third. As discussed above, this can have different reasons and doesn’t necessarily mean the F-16 is so much better.

The newer MiG-29 versions with the helmet mounted sight coupled with the AA-11 Archer missile gives the MiG-29 a great kill zone. Swiss Air Force F/A-18 pilots were very impressed by the German MiG-29 when they had a joint exercise with German Luftwaffe MiGs before they were sold to Poland. The ability to target enemy aircraft has proved to be a success, so that helmet mounted sights have become requirements on any new fighter program.

Another nice thing about the MiG-29 is that tourists can fly it. No joke. There is a MiG-29 UB two seater available for fighter jet rides in Russia. More information here.

Below you can see a MiG-29 vs. F-16 dogfight. Deblin Airshow 2010, by the Polish Air Force.

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