MiGs Stay Grounded 2 Months After Crash

A significant part of the Russian Air Force fleet has been grounded for two months after a MiG fighter lost its tail on a training flight, and a report said Friday that at least a third of the nation's fighter jets are unsafe and should be written off or repaired.

A MiG-29 crashed in southern Siberia on Dec. 5 during a training flight, killing its pilot. Another such plane had crashed in the same area in October.

Air Force spokesman Colonel Vladimir Drik said Friday that the entire MiG-29 fleet has remained grounded as a military panel has been looking into the cause of December's crash, which occurred when a part of the jet's tail section broke off. Drik said the ban on all MiG-29 flights will remain in place until the investigation ends.

The grounding of the MiG fleet will dent Russia's pride, dealing a blow to the Kremlin's effort to revive the military and project power worldwide. It will also hurt Russia's efforts to increase arms sales.

The twin-engined MiG-29, codenamed Fulcrum by NATO, has been a mainstay of the Soviet and then Russian Air Force since the 1980s.

Drik would not say how many MiG-29 the Air Force now has, but Kommersant quoted an aircraft industry official who put the number at 291.

The number would represent nearly half of the entire fighter jet fleet of some 650, Kommersant said. The two other types of fighters in the inventory, the Su-27 and the MiG-31, also date from the 1980s.

Kommersant quoted a former Air Force chief, retired General Anatoly Kornukov, as saying Russia needed to mothball or start costly repairs of its entire fighter jet fleet.

The report said officials had determined that December's crash was caused by corrosion, the reason for which remained unclear. It quoted a military industries official, whom it did not identify, as saying the reason is simply age and wear and tear.

The jets' lifetime can only be extended after costly repairs, and the Air Force has failed to do that, the report said.

Drik refused to comment on whether the Air Force would refurbish the fighters and how fast it could happen.

He said a decision on what to do with the MiG-29 fleet would be made after the probe into the crash is completed.

Despite a steady rise in defense spending during the past eight years, the military has modernized only a few dozen of Su-27s and MiG-31s.

The prospects of upgrading the arsenals now look bleak after slumping oil prices have drained government coffers.

Kommersant said the Air Force had cleared about one-third of MiG-29s for flights after a detailed inspection of their condition, but Drik dismissed the claim, saying all planes of the type remain grounded.

The decline of military industries will likely make it difficult to modernize the jet fleet even if the government comes up with cash. Observers have said aging equipment, an exodus of qualified industrial personnel and lack of key components would make it difficult for the nation's defense industries to meet weapons orders.

Kommersant said an aircraft-making plant in Lukhovitsy near Moscow has struggled to meet the Indian order for a carrier-borne version of the MiG-29, producing only two such planes in the past few years.

In a humiliating blow, Algeria last year returned 15 MiG-29s, citing poor quality. Moscow has dismissed the claim, and the Russian military said it would commission the planes.

Russia also said in December that it would deliver 10 MiG-29s from the military stockpiles to Lebanon free of charge. It promised to upgrade them before delivery.