by Tech. Sgt. Pat McKenna Airrman Magazine - May 1998

The United States can't pass up a good deal any more than a garage sale groupie. So when the Republic of Moldova put 21 MiG-29 dual-role fighters - capable of carrying nuclear weapons - on the auction block last October, the Pentagon snatched them up before bargain hunters from unfriendly countries could get their paws on them.

Under terms of the agreement, the United States and Moldova won't disclose the purchase price of the jets. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, however, said, "it was quite reasonable."

The Pentagon pounced on the planes after learning Iran had inspected the jets and expressed an interest in adding them to their inventory.

"It was on their shopping list. And we are very happy to have them in our hands rather than the Iranians'," Cohen said.

ImMiGrating to America

Funding for the sale came from the Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which removes weapons of mass destruction from former Soviet states, hence stemming their flow to rogue states.

Moldova made the deal because they could no longer afford to fly the jets, which guzzle gas like a 1966 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.

"Not only couldn't the Moldovans afford the fuel bill, they couldn't keep up with the maintenance costs either," said Capt. Michael Davison, who led the team recovering the MiGs. "Their aircrews and maintainers hadn't been paid for almost six months."

Davison and a team of 40 airmen, including engineers, aerial port personnel and security forces, spent 24 days last October and November at Markuleshti Air Base in Moldova, packing up and shipping the jets, missiles and equipment. Enlisted members composed a majority of the team, representing several commands and agencies like the Air Intelligence Agency, Air Mobility Command, and U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

"The Moldovans were shocked that we allowed enlisted technicians, especially women, to put their hands on the aircraft," Davison said. "They just don't do that there."

Moldova rests on the Black Sea, wedged between Romania and Ukraine. The cash-strapped former Soviet state - about the size of Maryland - relies on agriculture as its chief resource, and has fallen on hard times.

"Things we took for granted, they didn't have, like running water or heat in their buildings. I was cold the whole time I was there," said Davison, who hails from Mansfield, Mass. "Despite the conditions and their circumstances, the Moldovans bent over backwards for us; they were very gracious."

From Oct. 20 to Nov. 2, 1997, loadmasters and aerial port experts squeezed two MiGs apiece, sans wings and tails, into the cargo holds of C-17 Globemaster III transports from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. The Charleston airlifters delivered the MiGs to the National Air Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio.

"When the last MiG was loaded in Moldova, the base commander there, who was this bear of man, turned his head away and cried," Davison said. "It was tough to watch. The MiG pilots knew it was best for their country, but they were sad to see them go."

Behind the Iron Canopy

Now, the Fulcrums sit grounded, in various stages of disassembly in hangars scattered across Wright-Patterson. In one hangar, formerly occupied by the 906th Fighter Group, eight MiG-29s, which are about the same size as the Navy's F-18, look as worn and weather-beaten as a New Mexico windmill. If you swiped your hand across the fuselage of one of the jets, it'd come away green. The Moldovans touched up the planes with spray paint.

"They weren't too concerned about looks," Davison said, "but how they flew."

NAIC engineers will comb over the Fulcrums, literally putting the jet under the microscope.

Huddled around one of the Fulcrum cockpits, two Air Force sergeants dissected the jet's avionics, shaking down its electronic innards.

If the NAIC can discover how the Fulcrum works, Air Force pilots might gain an edge if they face the Fulcrum in future combat. The MiG-29 is a widely exported aircraft, flown by the usual suspects like Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Cuba. According to Davison, it's one of the leading threats to U.S. air operations challenging our F-15s and F-16s.

"Getting the Fulcrum C was huge," said Davison, an aeronautical engineer by trade. "These are the first indigenous Fulcrums we've seen up close and personal.
"Now we get to see things we haven't seen before. We get to put our fingers on them and thoroughly evaluate them," he said. "It's a unique opportunity. We can find out its weaknesses and limitations, and pass that on to the warfighter so they can defeat them."

The NAIC is the Air Force's single, integrated intelligence production center, and the DOD's primary producer of foreign air and space intelligence. Its mission, dating back to 1917 and the Army Signal Corps' Foreign Data Section at McCook Field in Dayton, is to assess and evaluate the air and space threat from potential enemies, ensuring American troops aren't surprised on the battlefield.

Davison works as the chief engineer in the center's foreign materiel exploitation facility: a 35,000 square-foot building boasting a 50-ton crane, where teams of techno-investigators reverse engineer, test and analyze captured or purchased foreign high-tech air and space gadgets and gizmos.

On the Fulcrum, engineers and technicians will scour the plane and study every subsystem, searching for the best way to beat the MiG in combat.

"We'll find out how [the avionics] work and what frequencies they use," Davison said. "We'll learn everything we can about the airplane."

According to Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, the service will fly a "few" of the jets to learn more about their aerial capabilities. He denied reports, however, that the Air Force might use the jets to form a Red aggressor squadron, pitting the MiGs against American fighters in mock dogfights.

So what's next? Davison wouldn't elaborate on what's on his wishlist, saying, "We're interested in all foreign hardware." However, he wouldn't mind running his magnifying glass over the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, flown by the Russian home defense interceptor force, Kazakhstan, several other former Soviet states and China.

Anybody want to make a deal?

Although Iran already flies the less-capable Fulcrum A, it doesn't own any of the more advanced C-models. Of the 21 Fulcrums the United States bought, 14 are the frontline Fulcrum C's, which contain an active radar jammer in its spine, six older A's and one B-model two-seat trainer.

Along with the Fulcrums, aircraft test equipment and a supply of spare parts, the United States also received 507 air-to-air missiles, including 344 AA-8 Aphids, 112 AA-11 Archers and 51 AA-10 Alamos.