MFI: MULTIFUNCTIONAL FRONT-LINE FIGHTER
January 12, 1999 marked an important event for the MIG Aircraft Research and Production Complex and its partners: a roll-out ceremony of a new aircraft, a prototype of the fifth-generation fighter. This date also marked an intermediate result in efforts started over 15 years ago. The MiG-29 and MiG-31 fighters were still under testing when the Design Bureau formulated a concept and proposed a strategy to develop this new machine. In 1983, with the Air Force research institutes, and the institutes of aviation and electronic industries (TsAGI, GosNIIAS, TsIAM, etc.) actively involved, "The Complex Purpose-Oriented Program" and the Air Force and Air Defense tactical and technical assignments were approved to initiate the development of design proposals.
The MFI fighter was to meet the following requirements:
- supermaneuverability (a capability to fly at supercritical angles of attack, at increased level of sustained and available g-loads and high turn-angle rate, which require a greater thrust-to-weight ratio and improved wing aerodynamic efficiency);
- supersonic flight with afterburner disabled;
- low detectability in radar and IR wave bands;
- short takeoff and landing runs;
- a significant reduction in flight hour cost, ground crew, size and weight of non-standard ground support equipment;
- a new layout of onboard equipment and a new arrangement of cockpit information and control instruments; a high level of integration.
With these requirements satisfied and a new generation of weapon systems, engines and avionics developed, the new aircraft would not only surpass all fighters of previous generations, but also outperform those developed under the ATF program launched by the United States approximately at the same time.
The MFI program also called for a "locomotive" approach for the designs and technologies to be applicable to other aircraft types.
Other MFI versions were also envisaged, such as a reconnaissance aircraft, a deck fighter, as well as a cheaper and less sophisticated "light" version. It was proved that, in terms of cost efficiency, a combined force of "heavy" and "light" fighters in a 1:2 ratio is optimal for our Air Force.
At the conceptual and preliminary design phases (the conceptual and preliminary designs were accepted in 1987 and 1991, respectively), following extensive aerodynamic tube tests, computations, and analysis of various aerodynamic configurations, including a forward-swept wing, a canard configuration was chosen and an adaptive wing equipped with a multitude of deflecting surfaces to ensure high aerodynamic efficiency at both subsonic and supersonic speeds and at supercritical angles of attack. It was obvious that the implementation of these concepts would only be possible if a sophisticated fly-by-wire control system, including thrust vector control, were developed.
Several dozen engines were tested on ground stands and a subsonic flying laboratory. A dedicated MiG-25-based flying laboratory was used to test the Al-41F engine at about Mach 2 speeds.
Much effort was made to develop new types of equipment and armament, as well as produce technologies and materials for airframe and aircraft systems.
Measures were taken to reduce airframe's specific weight, including the employment of large-size structures made from composite materials.
In the early 1990s, design documentation was issued and construction of the fighter prototype commenced. The first prototype (Article 1.44) was designed for testing the aerodynamic configuration, fly-by-wire control system, general-purpose aircraft systems, engines and airframe units vital for structural strength tests. It was also planned to build flying laboratories to test equipment and armament systems, prototypes for the final phases of flight tests, and standard production models. Until 1997 the design work was supervised by R. Belyakov, General Designer, and G. Sedov, Chief Designer. In 1997 they retired and became advisors.
To proceed further, two more aspects had to be dealt with.
1. Beginning from the E-150, MiG-23 and MiG-25 aircraft, to test a new aerodynamic configuration and power plant, the MiG Design Bureau had never equipped the first prototype aircraft with avionics and armament suites, since tests on the assessment of the aircraft flight and engine performance require a generous amount of tests and time. Besides, one should take into account possible breaks in tests due to the introduction of modifications into airframe and engines. To test the aircraft equipment and armament, it is more desirable to use dedicated flying laboratories, for example, those built on the basis of the MiG-31 aircraft. This is not only the MiG's unique experience. This policy is pursued by all major aircraft developers. For example, nobody in the world regards the first three EFA prototypes as aircraft which do not correspond to the basic conceptual design and they are not treated as mock-ups. Mock-up models do exist and have been displayed at aerospace exhibitions, but they are mock-ups only. Such a model of the MFI fighter was also made.
2. Special techniques have been developed to gradually increase the aircraft stealthiness. Today, Western companies invest heavily in the development of fifth and fourth+ generation fighter aircraft. For example, the French Air force expects to receive the new Rafale fighters for its operational units as early as 1999. Several prototypes of each type are being tested by the USA (F-22), Britain and Germany (EFA), and Sweden (Gripen).
Unfortunately, the funding of such projects by Russia's Ministry of Defense is not sufficient, while the financial potentials of Russian MAPO MIG, and the Sukhoi Aviation Military Production Complex are very limited.
The first MFI prototype has long been kept at the MiG's flight test station, where its systems and engines underwent a series of tests and adjustments and where high-speed taxi runs were made. Concurrently, ground stand tests were run at the MiG complex and by its partners. Specifically, the development and adjustment of integrated control system took much time and effort. However, much work has been done to accelerate preparation of the vehicle for the first flight, which, according to the MIG new management headed by N. Nikitin, is considered a priority task. Preparations for MFI's first flight will be completed in the near future and we hope that when our readers receive this issue, the aircraft will have already made its maiden flight.
According to experts, the MFI can serve as a basic design for the joint development of fifth-generation fighters.