Iranian MiG-29 blasts target out of the sky in Bonkers low-level display (updated)

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Combating various types of air targets at close range with heat-seeking missiles is a bread and butter for any fighter pilot. However, it doesn’t happen that often that we see this process put to the test from start to finish in a live-fire setting. Now a video has surfaced showing how one of the world’s most mysterious air forces is doing just that, with an Iranian fighter firing an infrared guided missile at a target at close range and at impressively low levels.

The video in question that was brought to our attention by a Twitter user @AmirIGM, is undated but very clearly shows a MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet of the Islamic Republic of the Iranian Air Force, or IRIAF, participating in a live fire-air-to-air missile exercise alongside an F-5 Tiger II jet – apparently a two-man -Seat model F-5F – from the same service.

The MiG-29 and F-5 initially fly in fingertip formation, with the Fulcrum hidden behind the American fighter’s left wing. When the MiG is level with the F-5, it launches an aerial target that then grazes in front of the Fulcrum. The F-5 pulls off to the right and shortly thereafter the MiG fires a single missile under its right wing. The missile leaves a noticeable trail of smoke, then hits the target and detonates. The time between the missile lift-off and the explosion is no more than about four seconds.

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MiG-29 and F-5 fly in close formation at the start of live-fire missile training.




What we are seeing fired from the MiG-29 is clearly a Vympel R-73 heat-seeking air-to-air missile, a popular and widely used Soviet weapon known in the West as the AA-11 Archer. It was used in 1984 but remains a widely recognized weapon (IRST) due to its high maneuverability and the fact that it can be determined by the pilot’s visor attached to the pilot’s helmet, as well as by the aircraft’s radar or infrared search and tracking -Sensor.

Vitaly V. Kuzmin / Wikimdia Commons

An R-73 air-to-air missile on display. Black stripes on the weapon indicate an inert cartridge.




While only a rough estimate, this attack appears to be very near the bottom of the R-73’s envelope, with the rocket’s single-stage rocket engine burning between four and seven seconds, with the maximum time of controlled flight being 23 seconds .

The maximum range of the R-73 is about 19 miles for a frontal target and reduced to about 9 miles for a rear attack. Against a close-range tail-on target, like this one, the minimum take-off distance also matters, and the R-73 can be launched from less than 1,000 feet.

What is being shot down here is less obvious, but it appears to be a missile target rather than the more commonly seen tow target deployed by another aircraft via a cable reel, or a free-flying target that is shot down from the ground or even from a drone. Another Twitter user, @ maysam21901, identifies the store as the TDU-11 thermal target, a US-developed Cold War-era device based on the popular Zuni unguided missile. For its target role, it has an additional flare to reinforce its infrared signature. As the same source points out, it is compatible with an AIM-9 Sidewinder launcher, and that appears to be happening here. However, because it flies fairly straight and flat, the TDU-11 isn’t exactly a particularly sophisticated target, especially for a missile like the R-73 that can attack targets with maneuvers of up to 12G.

US Air Force

A diagram of a TDU-11B target missile from a 1981 U.S. Air Force weapons manual.




It is not clear if this live-fire exercise was part of a larger exercise or even for public consumption, possibly during one of Iran‘s regular war games. Perhaps it was both an exercise and a performance, especially considering it was held at such a low level and apparently above members of the public; Regardless, the video provides us with relatively rare images of one of the leading Iranian air defense fighters in action.

The IRIAF’s MiG-29s, while old, represent a relatively powerful capability for an air force that has been severely crippled by the sanctions imposed in response to its nuclear program, which has prevented the acquisition of new combat equipment for many years.

The first batch of 18 MiG-29s was acquired by what was then the Soviet Union and delivered to Iran in June 1990. Four more MiG-29s were evacuated from Iraq to Iran during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

The importance of the Iranian MiG-29 is reflected in its role as an air defense for the Iranian capital Tehran, as well as an escort of VIP aircraft. A demonstration of the capabilities of the Fulcrum and its primary short-range missile armament is important to ensure that this important part of the Iranian air defense network continues to function as advertised.

DARA ZARBAF / Wikimedia Commons

An IRIAF MiG-29 at Mehrabad Airport, Tehran, in 2019.




A live-fire exercise of this type, which barely reflects most aerial combat scenarios, provides pilots and ground crew alike with valuable training with the rare chance of real-world experience of end-to-end use of an infrared guided missile.

It is particularly noteworthy that the R-73 shown here is apparently not a special training missile, but a live version with a warhead and the usual motor and infrared control package, which is evidenced by the rather massive fireball that hits the target as MiG peels off. The Archer has a rod-shaped warhead that holds just over five pounds of explosives.

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A bright fireball signals the demise of the target missile.




This would have given the Fulcrum pilot a level of realism that would be impossible to reproduce in a simulator, or with completely inert weapons that would not fire from the rail and finish the battle.

Video of R-73 missiles fired by Russian MiG-31s ​​during a training exercise:

In this previous article, you can read about how live-fire exercises help both missiles and weapon systems work properly. But for Iran in particular, testing live missiles is of additional importance, since stocks of these weapons are now decades old and each missile only has a limited lifespan. The challenges that this situation brings with it were met in fascinating ways by the IRIAF, e.g. MIM-23 surface-to-air missiles as air-to-air weapons for the F-14, although the success of this and similar projects has been limited.

Against this background, proven solutions such as the MiG-29 and the R-73, despite their advancing age, remain an important part of the Iranian ability to defend its skies, at least until all kinds of new combat equipment can be procured.

Update, October 28th: Kash Ryan, a close observer to the Air Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran provided some more information about this type of live fire demonstration, indicating that the same combination of aircraft and missiles had performed a similar feat over Iran at least once before. The year 2019 is the semi-official Tasnim News agency reported that a “MiG-29 successfully intercepted and destroyed the missile fired by the F-5 aircraft by firing R-73 optimized missiles”. A photo published at the time confirmed that it was a two-seat MiG-29UB.

Mohammad Hasanzadeh / Tasnim

The F-5 and MiG-29UB that participated in the 2019 Live Fire Exercise.




Another picture, this time from the semi-official More News agency, provides a much better representation of the target missile fired from the F-5 during the same exercise in 2019:

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