Cold War Era

Aggressor Fulcrums: the story of the Soviet Air Force MiG-29 Unit Tasked to Simulate USAF F-15 Eagle Fighter jets

Some MiG-29s were painted up to make them resemble the F-15 – the wingtips and stabilator tips were painted yellow with a black outline, this visually altered their shape, making them appear to be raked as on the F-15 when seen from a distance.

The MiG-29 was designed in response to a new generation of American fighters, which included the F-15 and F-16. Designed as an air defense fighter, this dual-purpose aircraft also possessed a ground attack capability. The task of producing a “frontal” or tactical fighter for the Frontal Aviation Regiments of the Soviet Air Force went to the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (MiG OKB). Employing all the technical data available about the most advanced Western aircraft, the MiG designers started working on the MiG-29 in the early 1970s, and the first prototype made its first flight on Oct. 6, 1977. US reconnaissance satellites detected the new fighter in November 1977, and NATO gave it the designation “Fulcrum.”

Production started in 1982, and deliveries to Frontal Aviation units started in 1983. By comparison, the USAF’s first operational F-15As arrived seven years earlier in 1976, and its F-16As entered operational service four years earlier in 1979.

In 1989 the first MiG-29s were delivered to the 1521st Aviation Base (AvB) located at Maryy-1 Air Base (AB). This was a very special outfit within the structure of the Soviet Air Force. In the early 1970s the top command of the Soviet Air Force decided that the valuable experience of aerial combat gained in the Arab-Israeli wars should be put to good use and implemented in all units. Also, the top command was aware that the US Air Force and the US Navy had set up special ‘aggressor’ squadrons emulating the performance of Soviet fighters and Soviet tactics in order to train their own pilots in aerial combat techniques. Therefore it was decided to establish the Soviet Air Force own ‘aggressor’ unit.

As reported by Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Mikoyan MiG-29 & MiG-35, while this name is not to be found in any official Soviet document (after all, the Soviet Union was officially a peace-loving nation!), informally the 1521st AvB was known as the ‘aggressor’ unit among fighter jocks. Maryy was chosen as the home base for this special unit because it offered favorable weather conditions throughout the year, enabling intensive flying training. The 1521st AvB became the proving ground where all Soviet Air Force fighter units honed their skills and passed the test for their ability to defend the nation’s airspace.

The pilots of the ‘aggressor’ unit could pride themselves on their excellent airmanship, and they were tough adversaries in mock combat. The two squadrons of the 1521st AvB were mostly staffed with Pilots 1st Class and Sniper Pilots (official Soviet skill grades); the ‘snipers’ always made up 35-40% of the lot. Flying two sorties per day, the pilots had to shoulder a high workload, and before long they no longer cared who they were up against – they were prepared to take on even the devil, or a squadron of devils!

Each fighter regiment arriving at Maryy-1 AB for a check-up had to complete the following disciplines:

  • check-up of the individual pilots’ flying skills, including complex manoeuvres and aerobatics;
  • ultra-low-level flying over terrain devoid of natural landmarks (desert areas); –
  • dogfighting and check-up of the unit’s QRA performance; –
  • tactical exercises performed by the entire regiment and individual squadrons;
  • live missile launch and gunnery practice against remote-controlled target drones manoeuvring in such a way as to emulate a given type of adversary aircraft and in accordance with the current tactical situation.

(Here it should be noted that if 100% accuracy was achieved in the latter discipline the aircraft was awarded red ‘kill’ stars. Some machines carried as many as nine ‘kills’ below the canopy!)

A typical ‘pair versus pair’ mock combat session looked like this. Each pair (the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’) had its own combat control radio channel; before the mission the leader of each pair would arrange with his command, control and communications officer to report the position of the other pair to him at certain intervals. The dogfight lasted up to ten minutes. If a pilot managed to latch onto his opponent’s tail he would report to his C3 officer: ‘Target in sight!’, then activate the radar lock-on mode and switch his radio to the opponent’s frequency, informing him: ‘I see you! You’re under attack!’ Unless the other pilot could shake off the pursuer immediately, the dogfight was discontinued because it was an obvious ‘gotcha’.

The date of the checkout session at 1521st AvB was set individually for each regiment at the beginning of the practice year. As the day drew near, the entire unit’s resources were committed to the preparation for ‘the Maryy experience’. The unit could ill afford to fail the test because the results reflected the unit’s training and combat readiness level, and getting an A in the course was not easy at all.

The 1521st AvB’s Squadron 1 began re-equipping with the MiG-29 (izdeliye 9.13) Fulcrum-C which took over from the MiG-21bis fighters flown previously. The fighters were delivered in the standard factory finish of dark greenish grey over neutral grey. Now, whereas the MiG-29 (izdeliye 9.12) Fulcrum-A had no set camouflage pattern and the finish of individual aircraft varied considerably, the camouflage of the later version was pretty much standardised. On the Fuclrum-C the extremities of the airframe – the forward fuselage, the outer wings, the upper halves of the fins and the stabilator tips – were painted a darker colour, making the aircraft appear more compact when seen from a distance; the colour division line on the wings ran strictly chordwise from the inner/outer LE flap section joint to the TE flap/aileron joint. Also, on the Fuclrum-A the black anti-glare panel terminated in line with the front of the windshield, whereas on the Fuclrum-C it continued all the way to the rear of the windshield.

Of course, the aircraft earmarked for the e ‘aggressor’ unit received no special treatment, being delivered in the standard camouflage scheme. This created a problem: in a group dogfight the pilots had difficulties telling friend from foe, especially if they were flying the same type of aircraft. As was usually the case, the idea of applying quick identification markings to the ‘aggressor’ aircraft arose at the ‘grass roots’ level; the commanders thought over the initiative and eventually approved it. Soon the drab colours were gone and the resident MiGs received special markings and nose art. However, this was by no means a ‘flight of fancy’ matter – indeed, a scientific approach was used! Some MiG-29s were painted up to make them resemble the McDonnell Douglas F-15 – the wingtips and stabilator tips were painted yellow with a black outline, this visually altered their shape, making them appear to be raked as on the F-15 when seen from a distance. Angled black stripes converging in a black and yellow chevron were applied aft of the cockpit, making the canopy appear longer and more similar to that of the Eagle.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-15C Eagle 36th TFW, 22d TFS, BT/79-051 / 1981

As for the nose art (this was allowed, since the aircraft were supposed to represent NATO fighters), this was left up to the technicians, and each aircraft was slightly different. ’31 Red’ was probably the most colourful MiG-29 at Maryy. In addition to the ‘F-15 disguise’ it sported a sharkmouth, a so-called ‘brandy stripe’ (kon’yachnaya polosa, lit. ‘Cognac stripe’) – a yellow quick-identification stripe with stars similar to those found on brandy bottles – on the centre fuselage and the legend Aviabaza Maryy aft of the cockpit, while the fins were adorned with the badge of Squadron 1 (a winged ‘1’ superimposed on a red arrow) and a sabre-toothed tiger. The result was quite impressive!

The airmen at Maryy-1 AB recall that ’31 Red’ was meant to be a sort of pattern aircraft; however, for various reasons not all of the unit’s MiGs were painted up this fashion. For instance, ’21 Red’ lacked the ‘brandy stripe’. The fighters coded ’23 Red’, ’25 Red’, ’26 Red’, ‘ 28 Red’ through ’30 Red’ and ’32 Red’ had no tiger motif; instead, ’30 Red’ sported a leaping leopard painted below the canopy to starboard.

The unit’s Squadron 2 flying MiG-23MLD ‘swing-wing’ fighters was originally due to re-equip with Su-27s, but, as it often happens, there was a last-minute change of plans and the unit soon began receiving heaps of high-time early-production Fulcrum-As from all across the nation. These, too, received special markings to assist friend-and-foe differentiation; a few weeks after being taken on charge the newcomers were recoded in an orderly fashion (the codes were again red)and adorned with artwork.

The most colourful ones wore a large sharkmouth and a white triangle on the upper fuselage extending aft from the cockpit; this incorporated the base’s crest (a shield with an eagle breaking an aircraft in two) on both sides. The outer face of the fins carried the squadron badge – a hornet superimposed on a red lightning bolt – and the letters ‘AM’ (that is, Aviabaza Maryy) above it. When the unit came under Turkmenian jurisdiction after the demise of the Soviet Union, the letters were removed because in the Turkmen language am is an obscene word.

Of the 24 MiG-29s based at Maryy-1 AB, several single-seaters of both varieties and one MiG-29UB were flown to Zherdyovka AB (Tambov Region, Russia) in August 1992. In keeping with a Russian government directive most of the MiGs stationed at the latter base were transferred to the Kazakhstan Air Force in late 1995/early 1996.

Mikoyan MiG-29 & MiG-35 is published by Crecy and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Digital Combat Simulator and TSGT Michael Ammons / U.S. Air Force

This model is available to order from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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