Behind America's Plan To Buy 21 Russian MiG-29 Jet Fighters

Robert Beckhusen

Key Point: This is how U.S. pilots learn.

The MiG-29 was a maneuverable, deadly aircraft for its time.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, the newly independent states within its former domain inherited enormous stockpiles of weapons the Red Army left behind.

One of the most interesting cases involved the air force of the tiny former Soviet republic of Moldova. The new republic’s inventory consisted of 34 MiG-29 Fulcrums, eight Mi-8 Hip helicopters and a handful of transport aircraft — a sizeable force for such a small state. To put Moldova’s size into perspective, the country’s population is smaller than the metro area of Portland, Oregon.

Moldova couldn’t afford to maintain the fleet and, to make matters worse, was in a deep recession. Meanwhile, the United States feared Moldova would sell the MiG-29s to Iran, which could use them to bolster its own fleet of Fulcrums. Washington was also wary that Moldova might pass the technology to Iran’s rivals since the fleet included 14 MiG-29C variants configured to deliver nuclear weapons.

So in 1997, the United States deployed its most powerful tool to get the MiG-29s for itself. That tool … was money. Washington bought 21 of the MiG-29s — including 14 C models, one B model and six A models — and flew them in pieces on C-17 transport planes to Dayton, Ohio.

Not only was purchasing the jets a good way of ensuring they did not end up in Tehran’s hands, it gave Washington an opportunity to inspect one of the most sophisticated Soviet jets ever built. In exchange, Moldova received $40 million in humanitarian assistance, some army trucks and other non-lethal equipment.

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