One-third Russian fighter jets old and unsafe: report

MOSCOW Fri Feb 6, 2009 5:40am EST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - About one-third of all Russian fighter jets should be written off as obsolete because they are unable to fly, the Kommersant business daily reported on Friday, quoting defense ministry and military officials.

Russia grounded all of its MiG-29 fighter jets last December after two of the aircraft crashed near the same airfield in eastern Siberia in just as many months. One pilot died.

Flights of MiG-29s have resumed since then, but hundreds are simply too old even to take off, Kommersant said.

"Russia's Defense Ministry for the first time recognized that around 200 of its MiG-29s are not just unable to cope with their combat tasks, but simply cannot take off," the paper said.

The report could hit Russia's reputation as a leading arms exporter and undermine Kremlin attempts to project Russia as a revived military power.

Both of the MiG-29s that crashed in eastern Siberia had been in service since 1985, Kommersant wrote.

"The main cause of the crash of the MiG-29 aircraft was the destruction of the keel in the air due to corrosion," the paper quoted Lt.-Gen. Sergei Bainetov, head of the Defense Ministry's flight safety department, as saying.

"Those fighter jets on which corrosion was not detected -- and they make up approximately 30 percent of all (MiG-29) jets -- have been allowed to resume flights."

The Defense Ministry could not be reached for comment.

Russia's armed forces now have 291 MiG-29s, but around 200 MiGs are unsafe and have to be grounded for good, the paper said. That would take out of action about a third of all Russia's fleet of fighter jets, which totals some 650 aircraft.

The report is likely to tarnish the image of the Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter, codenamed Fulcrum by NATO, which had been considered to be one of Russia's most advanced military jets. It was designed in the 1970s.

Last April, Algeria returned to Russia 15 MiG-29SMTs, saying the aircraft contained some substandard parts.

In December, soon after the last crash of the MiG-29, Russia announced it would give Lebanon 10 MiG-29s as a gift, adding that the aircraft were not new and each warplane had a different degree of wear. Russia promised to modernize the jets "to normal export standards" before delivery.

(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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