Since its induction into service in the Russian Air Force in 2019, the future of the MiG-35 fighter medium-weight fighter has remained highly uncertain.
Initial plans for Russia to field over three dozen of the aircraft appear to have been abandoned as part of a broader trend to phase out medium-weight aircraft from service, with the six fighters purchased widely seen as primarily to stimulate foreign demand in the program.
Nevertheless, the development of new features for the MiG-35 has frequently been reported, ranging from laser weapons to new forms of artificial intelligence, in apparent efforts to make the aircraft appear more competitive against sophisticated foreign rivals. The MiG-35 is a direct successor to and derivative of the MiG-29.
This aircraft first entered service in 1982 and has proven a significant export success, and is heavily based on the enhanced MiG-29M design with very important visual similarities and commonality in the large majority of components.
The MiG-35’s future depends on its ability to sell abroad, where it competes with the MiG-29M, which is built on the same production line at the Sokol Aircraft Plant. After the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the MiG-29 was almost exclusively exported.
A notable feature reported for the MiG-35 by some Russian media outlets but often overlooked is its compatibility with the R-37M air-to-air missile, which at Mach 6, is both hypersonic and the fastest in the world.
The R-37range M’s is unmatched by foreign designs other than China’s, but it was originally developed for Russia’s largest fighter/interceptor, the MiG-31BM/BSM, which is over twice the size of the MiG-35 but can carry only six of the oversized missiles and lighter armaments.
The R-37M has more recently been made compatible with Su-35 and Su-30SM/SM2 heavyweight fighters, which can reportedly carry up to four but are expected to deploy up to two.
Due to the toll, the extreme weight would take on their flight performances. For the much lighter MiG-35, the ability to deploy the missile practically remains in question.
The fighters are only expected to be commonly configured with one or two R-37Ms should they ever deploy them. Furthermore, while the MiG-31 can fire the missiles the furthest due to its very high altitude ceiling and speed, the range of R-37s fired from the MiG-35 is expected to be significantly shorter.
Beyond the issue of weight, the ability of the MiG-35’s sensor suite to guide a missile out to distances of 400km, which is the R-37 M’s maximum range, remains in serious question, and the fighters would likely be forced to rely heavily on networking with other assets that have more powerful sensors.
The Russian Air Force’s sole MiG-35 unit is unlikely to integrate such a missile, but it may be intended to give the fighter a longer engagement range than its foreign rivals to attract foreign interest.
Suppose the MiG-35 program continues beyond the first six airframes. In that case, export clients and the Russian Air Force may be more interested in equipping MiG-35 units with the lighter R-77M missile developed for the Su-57 stealth fighter, which has a 200km engagement range and AESA radar and active phased array antenna guidance.