- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - A large part of Russia’s fighter jet fleet has been found unsafe during inspections made after a MiG-29 plane lost part of its tail on a training flight, the air force said Friday.

The air force grounded the entire MiG-29 fleet after the Dec. 5 crash in southern Siberia, an area where another of the jets had crashed in October. A check of the planes’ condition began as a military panel investigated the cause of the December crash.

Air force spokesman Col. Vladimir Drik said Friday that about 90 MiG-29s had been found unsafe to fly and would need repairs. Over 100 of the planes have been cleared for flights, and a number of others remain to be checked, he said.

Drik did not say how many MiG-29s the air force has. Russian media reports put their number at about 300, and the entire fighter fleet at some 650.

Drik would not say how long repairs of the faulty planes and checks of the remaining part of the fleet could take.

“That will depend on the availability of funds,” he told The Associated Press. Drik refused to provide a cost estimate or give any further details on the planes’ condition.

Air Force Lt.-Gen. Sergei Bainetov said investigators continued looking into the reason for corrosion that caused the tail section to break off in December, Interfax news agency reported.

The twin-engined MiG-29, codenamed Fulkrum by NATO, has been in service with the Soviet and then Russian air force since the 1980s. The two other types of fighters in the Russian inventory, the Su-27 and the MiG-31, also date from the 1980s.

The military may find it hard to afford costly repairs of the planes now, when slumping oil prices have drained the government coffers. During eight years of Russia’s oil-driven economic boom, the military has upgraded only a few dozen fighter jets.

Grounding of the MiG fleet has dealt a blow to the Kremlin’s effort to revive the nation’s military and project its power worldwide. It may also jeopardize Russia’s efforts to increase arms sales.

In a humiliating blow to Russia, Algeria last year returned 15 MiG-29s, saying the quality was poor. Moscow has dismissed the claim, and the Russian military said it would commission the planes this year.

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