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ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy Spotted on a Ukrainian MiG-29.

A picture has finally confirmed the identity of the launch platform for the Ukrainian ADM-160 (MALD) Miniature Air-Launched Decoy: the Soviet-era MiG-29 Fulcrum. Although there have been sporadic indications of MALD use, a small, cruise missile-like weapon designed to stimulate, confuse, and distract enemy air defenses rather than kinetically attack them, this is the first time it has been seen mounted on a Ukrainian aircraft.
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visual of AM-160 (MALD)  on Mig 29 Fulcurm in a low pass (Picture source: X)

The ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) is a miniature aerial decoy designed to mimic the radar signatures and flight characteristics of aircraft, with the aim of deceiving and distracting enemy air defenses. Developed by Raytheon, the MALD is powered by a small turbojet engine and can follow preprogrammed flight paths with a range of about 500 miles, providing extended loitering capability over target areas. Primarily used to support cruise missile strikes, the MALD enhances the chances of success by saturating and confusing enemy radars, thereby reducing the risk to actual aircraft and missiles. Its lightweight and versatility make it a valuable asset for modern air forces, including those of Ukraine, which have integrated it into their MiG-29 Fulcrum to improve their combat effectiveness.

The photo in question provides a clear view of the underside of a single-seat MiG-29 as it makes a low pass. A single MALD is mounted on each of the two inner wing pylons. Weighing around 300 pounds each, they are well within the payload capacity of the fighter's wing hardpoints. No other weapons are carried, although an external fuel tank is attached between the engine intakes. The date and location of the photo are unknown.

The first evidence of Ukraine’s use of the MALD in its war against Russia is now public. The first confirmed MALD wreckage appeared in May 2023, following an apparent airstrike in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine. By December 2023, more wreckage surfaced, this time in a field believed to be somewhere in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine.

The wreckage of another MALD allegedly crashed in the Kherson region in December 2023. We have also explored in-depth what MALD exactly brings to the Ukrainian war effort. Powered by a small turbojet engine, these weapons follow preprogrammed routes, including overflying target areas. This way, they can distract and confuse Russian air defenses, providing a better chance for Ukrainian missiles to reach their targets.

Specifically, the MALD is primarily used to support Ukrainian air-launched cruise missile strikes, which involve the Storm Shadow (supplied by the UK, and now Italy) as well as its French equivalent, the SCALP EG. To support this mission, the MALD has a range of about 500 miles, giving it significant loiter time as well.

The ADM-160s first appeared right when the Storm Shadow began to be used and in areas similar to their targets, which makes perfect sense. These decoys can be configured to have larger radar signatures than the missiles they assist, thus diverting enemy air defenses. Storm Shadow and SCALP EG have low-observable characteristics, significantly reducing the distance at which they can be detected by certain sensors. This, combined with meticulous route planning based on the latest intelligence on enemy air defense positions and capabilities, can greatly enhance the success chances of a cruise missile strike.

The need for additional measures to ensure the protection of the Storm Shadow and SCALP EG was dramatically demonstrated this weekend when images showed the apparent engagement of one of these latest weapons by Russian air defenses over the Luhansk region.

Interestingly, while it is now no secret that Ukraine is using the MALD, the supply of these weapons by the United States has never been officially disclosed.

However, as we have seen in the past, not only does the MALD offer a uniquely useful capability to Ukraine, but being able to deploy this weapon against some of the most advanced and dense air defenses ever assembled will have implications for the development of more advanced versions and other countermeasures.

MALD decoy crashed near Kherson in December 2023 (Picture source: X)

Given that the MALD can be loaded with the appropriate target data before launch, integrating it on the MiG-29 was likely not a major undertaking. With this in mind, it is very possible that units could also be launched by Su-24 Fencer strike aircraft and Su-27 Flanker fighters, although the former is prioritized for delivering Storm Shadow and SCALP EG cruise missiles themselves.

Once again, the MiG-29 demonstrates its remarkable versatility in Ukrainian hands. The Fulcrum remains the true workhorse of the Ukrainian Air Force's combat fleet.

Previously, it was the first Ukrainian platform on which we saw the high-speed AGM-88 anti-radiation missile (HARM) and the extended-range Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM-ER). The Fulcrum has also been seen with a specially adapted underwing pylon linked to the use of the JDAM-ER, which you can read about here. New cockpit displays might also contribute to enhancing the operational flexibility of these weapons.

More recently, the MiG-29 became the first known launch platform for the precision-guided Hammer bomb supplied by France.

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