Sily Powietrzne (Polish Air Force) received its first MiG 29 in 1989, equipping the 1 ELT (Eskadra Lotnictwa Taktycznego) based in Minsk Mazowiecki, 45Km far from Warszawa. Between 1995-96 other 10 MiG 29 arrived from the Czech Republic, and the last batch in 2004 when Germany delivered 22 MiG 29G, and those last aircraft equipped the second squadron, the 41ELT based in Malbork.
The primary role assigned to both squadrons is the air defence of Warszawa and Northern Poland, with duties even in Lithuanian airspace. Malbork air base is located in a strategic area of NATO, is only 90km far from Russian border of Kaliningrad region, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania with access to Baltic Sea. The defensive system arranged in Kaliningrad has been projected to respond to the NATO enlargement, including the three Baltic republics. Russians deployed in the Kaliningrad region the best of its air defences, such as missiles S-400, Iskander M and Su-27 jets. If those missiles should be activated, they should impose a No-fly zone that would cover 1/3 of Polish airspace.
For these reasons the Polish government realized the need of having a capable air defence fighter jets lane, but at the time of the decision, the purchase of a new batch of F 16 Block 52+ was prohibitive for Polish cash, so the best solution was to up-grade the MiG 29 fleet.
In 2011 began the modernization program of the Fulcrums, then named MiG 29M and UBM. The works had been conducted by the WZL 2 ( Wojkowe Zaklady Lotnicze 2) in Bydgoszcz, in co-operation with Israeli Aerospace Industries, completed in 2014, which consisted in the placement of an multifunctional display, changing from analogic systems to digital systems, digital maps, substitution of mechanical gyros with a new laser system, substitution of metrical system with “feet” and changing Cyrillic letters in the cockpit with the occidental alphabet. Lt. Col. Piotr Iwaszko, the commander of 23BLT, explains that the major changings consist in the placement of Radiostation RT-8200, this is a second radio required by European air traffic control rules, to allow the flight in European airspace, double wave capable UHF/ VHF. It has a coding system HQ I/II and SATURN. Additionally WZL-2 equipped the cockpit with new control panel PS-COM-01 that helps to use the primary (original) radio R-862, MDP- computer, the mission computer, multifunctional MFCD displays, size 5”x4”, Aerodynamic data Computer ADC with its outside sensor TOT, MIL BUS 1553B, a capble bus that allows to connect variuos interfaces or additional displays like the new INSB-29, AVB-29 and HDB-29, digital audio+video recorder DVR and videocamera CTVS, UFCP display panel, platform EGI (the installation that combines INS and GPS and includes antispoofing SAASM), Antenna 10-150-11 for GPS and radio, located just behind the canopy, which allows to recognize the MiG 29 from 1-ELT from those one of 41-ELT, which doesn not have it.
This modernization program allows to extend the operational life for 40 years or better 4.000 flight hours and the MiG 29M of 23 BLT can stay in service until 2028., as Lt. Col. Artur Golawski, an officer of Sily Powietrzne in Warszawa, explains.
But the primary role of 1-ELT is air defence and the squadron keep ready for QRA two aircraft armed with two R-60 or two R-73 missiles. As Lt.Col. Artur Piskorz tells us, the most of the training mission is based to teach the air-to-air combat manoeuvres and tactics and to improve the time of QRA. A secondary percentage of missions are dedicated to ground attack role, “we fly usually once per week to Jagodne range, where we can use the cannon and FAB-100 bombs. We use Nadarzyce range if we have to train with FAB-500. The angle of attack for the cannon usually is 40grade, while for the bombs, usually, we do the first pass to verify the parameters of the target and to activate the bombs, and then we do a second pass, usually flying at 0.7 mach, and we lunch the bombs, and immediately we turn on the afterburners to avoid to be hit by fragments of the explosions. The targets usually are represented by old tanks or vehicles of Polish Army.”
After the conclusion of the alliance with Russia, one of the problems for Sily Powietrzne was to manage the supply of spare parts for the MiG 29, and Su 22, fleet. This problem was by-passed thanks to the presence in Ukraine of a factory which produce spare parts for MiG and Suchoj and to the good relationship with Ukrainian and Belarus, who can provide new parts to the Polish aircraft. Above this, the major overhaul of Tumanski RD-33 engines is guaranteed by WZL2 in Bydgoszcz.
Due to this, Polish Air Force is capable to solve the function of national QRA such even in Lithuania. In 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 the MiG 29 belonging to 1ELT and 41ELT performed the Air Policing Baltikum missions, operating from Siauliai air base, in Lithuania. During the mission, the Poles MiG 29 carried out the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) role, keeping 24/24 for all the time, two aircraft armed for QRA. In 2014 the Alfa-Scramble were 30, intercepting the V-VS aircraft, the most of the time they were transport aircraft, but sometimes the Polish MiG met even Su 27 and Tu 22. In term of costs, the deployment outside national borders did not particularly weigh on the budget designated by Warszawa for the Sily Powietrzne, because the total number of flight hours over Lithuania did not exceed significantly the number of flight hours that the MiG should have flown over Poland in those months.
One of the advantages of Sily Powietrzne is to keep in service three different heavy fighter jet, the MiG 29, the Su 22 and the F 16 Block 52+; this allows the air force to provide strike and reconnaissance missions with the Su 22, SEAD, interdiction and air defence missions with the F 16. The Fighting Falcon can, therefore, interact with the MiG 29 in the defence role, compensating for the lack of long-range capabilities of the MiG 29, which nevertheless provides major capabilities in terms of the dog fight. This allows the Polish air force to keep in service several air defence weaponry, including the AIM 120 Amraam and AIM 9 Sidewinder of the F 16 and the R-27, R-73 and R-60 missiles of the MiG 29.
Flying the MiG 29, as test pilot Lt.Col. Grzegorz Czubski explains, thanks even to the Modernization of avionics with the introduction of digital systems, is much easier than the older MiG 21 or MiG 23, “I manage mainly about the test of the aircraft after the overhaul conducted by WZL-2. During the flight test, the MiG is carried to the limit, performing all the combat manoeuvres, supersonic flight, and switching off one engine by one, and verifying the correct function of re-starting during the flight. I manage even the training of young pilots assigned to 1-ELT. The new pilots, after graduation, begin the flight path in Deblin, flying the PZL-130 and then TS-11 Iskra, and the duration of the course depends by the personal skill and how many pilots are attending it. There they learn the basic knowledge and tactics of military flight and formation flight.Once the pilot had been assigned to the MiG 29 fleet, the advanced training is carried out in the Squadron. They initially fly on the rear seat of MiG 29UBM, and once declared able to fly with the Fulcrum, the begin to accumulate flight hours becoming the leader of a formation of two aircraft, later of a formation of four aircraft and finally Squadron commander or instructor.”
“The MiG 29 has an impressionable maneuvrability”, Col. P. Iwaszko continues, “and this requires an excellent physical status and continue training to be able to resist to high G-forces, performing 6 hours per week of gym, swimming and running, and every pilot has to overpass the annual medical visit in the military Hosptial of Warszawa.”
Due to its capabilities, power, maneuvrability, low maintenance costs and to the interoperability guaranteed by the new modernization, the retirement of the MiG 29 in Polish service is still relatively far, probably no before of 2025. In October 2016, the Sily Powietrzne spokesman declared in an official press interview that Poland is looking at the option of ordering another batch of F 16 to replace the Su 222 and MiG 29 with a single, multi-role aircraft from 2022.
The specification states that the aircraft must be a modern design, capable of operating against airborne, ground and surface threats, in any weather conditions and in full cohesion with NATO systems. Given the current budget limitations and progress of other military programs, it is highly unlikely that such an acquisition will take place in the near future, so even the 2022 delivery timeframe will require a re-evaluation.Poland is even looking with interest to the F-35, but the final decision, had not already been taken, so for sure the Soviet-made aircraft will serve in the Polish skies over 2022.
Aviation Report and author thanks, Col. Piotr “Kuman” Iwaszko, Col. Artur Golawski, Lt. Col. Artur Piskorz, Lt. Col. Grzegorz Czubski, Mrs Ilona Morchal for the excellent collaboration.
Article and images: Andrea Avian