A number of Israeli media outlets have reported that the Russian Air Force is planning to deploy its newest and most advanced class of fighter, the MiG-35 medium weight platform, to its leading military facility in Syria – Khmeimim Airbase.
The MiG-35 entered service in 2019, and alongside the much heavier Su-35 it is Russia’s only class of ‘4++ generation’ combat jet.
Unlike the Su-35, which entered service in 2014 and has seen over 100 aircraft enter Russian service since, the MiG-35 has not yet seen large scale orders from the Defense Ministry with less than two dozen ordered.
This reflects the fact that the Russian Air Force has over the last three decades shown a strong preference for heavyweight combat aircraft.
Although they cost more to operate and are more expensive they usually benefit from overall superior flight performances, longer ranges and weapons payloads, and the ability to accommodate larger sensors and electronic warfare suites.
The Su-35 was first deployed to Syria in early 2016, following a Turkish attack and shoot down of a Russian Su-24 strike fighter, in order to deter further NATO attacks on its personnel in the theater.
Although less expensive and lighter than the Su-35, the MiG-35 benefits from newer avionics and sensor technologies and notably integrates basic artificial intelligence to act as a pilot assistant.
This does not necessarily mean that the MiG-35 is a more capable aircraft than the Su-35 or other Russian designs. Its radar, for example, although slightly more advanced, is still a lot smaller than that on the Su-35 which means its situational awareness may in fact be comparable or inferior.
The key benefit of the MiG-35, however, is that its maintenance requirements and operational costs are very low – reportedly 80% lower than even its predecessor the MiG-29 – meaning it is ideal for countries with smaller budgets or those which seek to field more larger fleets of high-tech aircraft at a lower cost.
The MiG-35 is notably the only major class of Russian fighter not to have been deployed to Syria, with its predecessor the MiG-29 having deployed to Khmeimim airbase late in 2017, and even the Su-57, which has not yet joined the Russian Air Force and is still a prototype, having been dispatched to Khmeimim multiple times.
The MiG-35 is considered the Russian Air Force’s most sophisticated class of fighter today, and there are a number of benefits which could be gained from deploying it to Syria.
The first its that the unique opportunity for combat testing could provide the Air Force with much needed operational experience, and also potentially help to further refine the design as was done with the Su-35 after it was deployed.
The second is that the aircraft’s deployment against remaining jihadist insurgents in an active war zone is a tried and tested means of improving foreign interest in a platform and demonstrating to the world that the operator has faith in its capabilities.
In the case of the MiG-35, the fighter is likely to see more export sales than sales to the Russian Air Force itself, much as was the case with its predecessor from the same medium weight range the MiG-29, meaning that marketing the fighter abroad is particularly important.
It is for these two reasons that analysts have long predicted a deployment of the MiG-35 to Syria is likely.
Some of the leading potential clients for the new fighter include Belarus, Egypt, India, Iran, Algeria, North Korea and possibly even Syria itself later in the decade – with all these countries already operating the MiG-29 and showing an interest in acquiring more advanced Russian fighters.
Military Watch Magazine / ABC Flash Point News 2020.