The MiG 1.44/1.42; Mikoyan’s DIY “What-If?”

March 13, 2023

The Cold War saw a whole host of technological advances take place, particularly (and not really surprisingly) in military fields. And fighter aircraft were one of the key places that the respective competitors poured huge amounts of resources and capital, leading to leaps in capability between the end of the Second World War up until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

With the importance of air power firmly established by World War Two, both factions sought to create the very best fighters they could so that in the event of an actual conflict breaking out between the United States and the Soviet Union their respective militaries would be able to control the air space around the battle grounds.

Though we can all no doubt argue about which side was dominate at whatever particular period during the latter-half of the 20th Century as various new fighters came into service, by the end of the standoff both sides had truly formidable aircraft flying; the United States with their Teen-Series and the Soviets with the MiG-29 and Su-27 pairing.

In fact, probably nothing better demonstrates the evolutionary drive in fighter design created by the Cold War than the fact that all of these aircraft – though admittedly hugely upgraded electronically – basically form the core of the majority of capable air forces to the current day. Because as the Cold War ended, another generation of jet fighter was about to enter service; the fifth generation.

These, combining stealth characteristics with cutting edge technology, represented as much a step up from their predecessors as they did to theirs.

Nothing quite typifies this like the F-22 Raptor.

The ultimate of the Cold War designs, the F-22 is still arguably the most formidable fighter aircraft to enter service. This aircraft began development in 1981 as the USAF and the DoD recognized the threat that the new MiG-29 and Su-27 represented to American air dominance aspirations.

But it was only the fact that the aircraft was well along on its development cycle when the Cold War ended that allowed it to survive the huge cuts in military spending that occurred with the end of the confrontation, and then with much reduced numbers purchased than originally intended.

Not so fortunate was the Soviet’s equivalent; The MiG 1.42, which would be limited to this single example, the prototype 1.44.

 

This would also have the provisional service designation of MiG-35 and the NATO codename “Flatpack”. Had the aircraft achieved service apparently NATO would have codenamed it “Foxglove”, though why they would allocate a new name for the production model baffles me so I am not sure that is true. But certainly, they must have suspected at the time that the new aircraft would become a mainstay of the Soviet Air Forces.

The 1.44’s development grew out of a recognition that the American’s would no doubt react to the Soviet’s fielding of the new MiG and Sukhoi fighters, so in 1979 the Soviet’s started thinking about what the future of air combat would require.

 

Preliminary studies were then conducted by the big Soviet aircraft builders, with a range of proposals put forward for different roles, but in 1983 MiG was ordered to begin development of a new fifth-generation fighter that would be their equivalent to the United States proposed Advanced Tactical Fighter – the program which ultimately led to the F-22.

The new design, designated as the MFI – which translates into Multifunctional Frontline Fighter – was to integrate stealth or stealthy characteristics with super maneuverability, cutting edge radar and electronics, the best weaponry available and the ability to super cruise at supersonic speeds.

To accomplish this MiG created an interesting design, the 1.44.

The aircraft was a canard delta wing which combined with an inherently unstable flight profile controlled with a fly-by-wire system was intended for optimal air combat maneuverability.

Combined with large under fuselage air intakes that kept the twin engines fed during the high angle of attack maneuvers experienced during hard combat flying, the 1.44 shares a number of design philosophy similarities with the Eurofighter, a broadly contemporary design which would, had things worked out differently, been one of the 1.44’s principal potential opponents.

Indeed, comparison between the two aircraft has led to speculation that the Eurofighter design provided some inspiration, but if you’ve read my article on the Ye-8, the original MiG 23, then you’ll know that MiG and the Soviets had been experimenting with this sort of planform for decades.

Plus, the 1.44 didn’t just rely on its aerodynamic profile to make it an expected dogfighter par excellence. Mikoyan also intended to add variable geometry jet exhausts which would have made the aircraft a truly exceptional acrobatic performer.

 

The engines also would have given the aircraft, theoretically, excellent performance. Powered by two AL-41F turbofans which provided 40,000lbf each, the service aircraft was expected to be capable of a top speed Mach 2.35 and have the ability to cruise at Mach 1.5 without using afterburner.

Additionally, this MiG-35 was hoped to be far stealthier than previous Soviet aircraft. The airframe, which heavily used aluminium-lithium alloys and titanium in its construction for maximum strength-to-weight saving ratios, was also to be coated in Radar Absorbent Material (RAM).

Studies were also made on how to make the radar cross section as small as possible while maintaining the aircraft’s combat effectiveness. This led to the conclusion that the aircraft should have its weapons housed in internal bays, the same idea reached by the designers of the F-22, but in the 1.44 prototype this was omitted. All told the “Flatpack/Foxglove” was anticipated to have twelve internal hardpoints and eight external underwing ones.

Additionally, the new aircraft would be fitted with a new generation of phased array radar to give a previously unparalleled detection and engagement capability.

If this all sounds like it might be a bit ambitious, well it was. By 1991 Mikoyan was able to get a suitable design into advanced conception and was issued a production order for the 1.44 demonstration prototype to be built…just in time for the Soviet Union to collapse.

To be fair, the ambitious goals Mikoyan set with the 1.44/42 project might well have been impossible even if the Cold War hadn’t ended, but the dissolution of the entire country certainly spelt the aircraft’s death knell.

Despite this, Mikoyan and the now Russian government persisted with the aircraft. By 1994 the incomplete 1.44 was able to conduct ground tests, though the aircraft was nowhere near capable of flight.

The terrible condition of the Russian economy meant that progress went at a crawl, and in 1997 the Russian government decided to pull the plug on the program, with the single 1.44 as the only aircraft close to completion and four of the 1.42 production aircraft in various stages of construction. Despite this, Mikoyan managed to keep development staggering on until, in the year 2000, the 1.44 actually took to the air.

The aircraft made a top speed of 370mph (600km/h) and stayed at an altitude of a 1,000m (3,300ft), which is to be expected for a first flight but, despite the test pilot telling the assembled press present that the aircraft flew well, no further flights took place for another two months.

The second flight represented the final one for the aircraft and it has since then resided in a museum.

The “Flatpack” has been a source of speculation since then. Some look at the aircraft as one of the greatest “what-ifs” in history, a true Russian answer to the F-22. Others point out that the aircraft would seem to have been unlikely to meet such high promise because of the different design philosophies it used and also that the curtailed test program indicates that actually, the whole aircraft may well have been a dud from the beginning.

Certainly, Mikoyan’s great rival, the Sukhoi company, wasted no time in the aftermath of the failure of the 1.44 project and it is their latest fighter, the Su-57, which is now Russia’s fifth-generation fighter.

 

There is also another route of speculation concerning the 1.44 and a possible link to the development of the Chinese Chengdu J-20.

 

Observers have long wondered about the decision of the Chinese to build their own fifth-generation fighter with canards, like the 1.44, but a unique choice in amongst the other designs for fifth-gen aircraft as canards are recognized as being problematic for stealth aircraft. Mikoyan’s heavy investment in the 1.44, and China’s subsequent purchasing of copious amounts of Russian military technology post-Cold War, have led to speculation that the J-20 is a development of the earlier aircraft. Indeed, one Russia engineer went on the record as saying that he believed the J-20 was inspired by the MiG 1.44.

Personally, I am dubious. While it is possible that the Chinese were able to acquire design data and expertise from Mikoyan or some of their designers for use in the J-20, the very different air intakes would indicate that the Chengdu design draws more from studying the design ideas of the F-22 or Su-57 than the 1.44.

And the use of canards is hardly unique, or indeed unknown to the Chinese, who utilize the concept on their J-10 fighters. But as for the MiG 1.44, well, it will no doubt continue to be one of those aircraft that people argue about for some time to come.

 

Sources/Related:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikoyan_Project_1.44

https://topwar.ru/84541-mig-144-mfi-istrebitel-5-go-pokoleniya-2000-goda.html

https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/why-russias-mig-144-5th-generation-stealth-fighter-was-lost-cause-70081

The Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-8; Original MiG-23

Yak-41; Soviet Super Harrier

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