The Case of Indian Acquisition of Mig-29s: Why Buy a 40-Year Old Aircraft?
By Lt Gen VK Saxena (Retd)
Amid the tense situation at the border with China, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday (2 July) approved a proposal for procurement of 21 MiG-29 fighter aircraft, along with upgradation of 59 Mig-29s, and 12 more Su-30 MKI aircraft.
To strengthen the armed forces for defending the borders, the Defence Acquisition Council meeting, chaired by Rajnath Singh, accorded approval for capital acquisitions of various platforms and equipment required by the three services.
“Proposals for an approximate cost of Rs 38,900 crore were approved,” a Defence Ministry statement said.
While the MiG-29 procurement and upgradation from Russia is estimated to cost Rs 7,418 crore, the Su-30 MKIs will be procured from HAL at an estimated cost of Rs 10,730 crore.
This article analyses the above deal and brings out the compulsions of the IAF to in go in for an aircraft built 40 years ago, and lying mothballed till now. It also flags some critical imperatives which need to be addressed as a matter of operational expediency sooner than later.
REVISITING THE COMBAT CAPABILITIES OF MIG-29
MiG-29 Fulcrum designed by the Mikoyan Design Bureau, Russia is a twin-engine air superiority fighter which was initially optimised for air-to-air combat role. It was inducted in the Soviet Air Force in 1982 and in the Indian Air Force (IAF) during the period 1986-1991. MiG-29 is still a formidable and a lethal war machine which acts as a second line of defence for the IAF after its Su-30 MKI.
The aircraft has twin RD33 turbofan engines capable of delivering enough thrust to make it a Mach 2+ aircraft at altitude. Its ferry range extends to 2,100 km with a service ceiling of 18,000 meters. The aircraft is optimised both for short range air-to-air-combat, as well as, for Beyond Visual Range (BVR) engagements. For the first role, it has R-60 infrared (IR) homing missile with a range of 8 km, for the latter, it has two Air-to-Air Missiles (AAMs); R-27 Vympl in two range versions of 40 and 80 km and a shorter range R-73 AAM effective up to 30 km.
The aircraft is equipped with IR Search and Track (IRST) Sensors to detect track and engage targets emitting IR radiations. It has a three axes autopilot and enjoys high manoeuvrability even though it does not have ‘Fly-by-Wire’ controls like all contemporary fighters of today.
MiG-29 can execute 9g manoeuvres similar to F-16s and all modern fighters. The aircraft is being operated by 30 nations across the world.
In 2007, the MiG-29 fleet of the IAF was put through a comprehensive upgrade by Russia at a cost of $865 Million. Besides new avionics kits, the upgrade involves the replacement of its outdated N019 Topaz air-intercept radar with a new Zhuk -AME Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar with a range of 160km.
Besides this, the upgraded version (called MiG-29 UPG) has enhanced BVR capabilities, an air-to–air refuelling capability for higher endurance, higher fuel capacity extending the ferry range of the aircraft by 40 per cent from 2,100 to 3,000 km, a new generation weapon control system with a capability to launch Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), capability to launch subsonic anti-ship missiles, a higher capability RD 33 turbofan engine, improved cockpit ergonomics featuring an enhanced Hands on Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) design. HOTAS refers to a capability in which a pilot can fly the aircraft without having to remove their hands from the controls.
This combined with the Head up Displays (HUDs) enables the pilot to focus on flying the aircraft, manipulating its sensors and engaging the targets rather than looking for controls in the cockpit. HUD is a transparent display that presents data to a pilot which he can see right in front of him without having to look down at flying instruments.
COMPULSIONS OF THE IAF
Currently, the IAF is facing serious challenges as to its depleting combat squadrons’ strength. The decision (read rationale) to go in for the MIG-29 at this point in time needs to be seen in the light of the above challenges. The authorised strength of the IAF is 42 squadrons, a figure it has never touched. The highest it has gone is up to 39.5 squadrons in early 1990s. There was a time when the fighter aircraft ratio between India and Pakistan was almost 3:1. This edge is currently down to 1.4:1. Assuming that the IAF reaches its authorised strength, the said ratio should settle down to about 2:1.
Even the current strength of 31 Squadrons of the IAF needs to be analysed on several fronts in order to correctly assess the challenges hidden behind this number.
The basic issue is that out of the 31 it is only about half the squadrons which are very potent, while the others half are riddled with multiple problems. The potent front-line combat strength is represented by 11 squadrons of Su-30 MK1 (242 aircraft), three squadrons (69 aircrafts) of MiG-29 and three squadrons (49 aircrafts) of Mirage 2000.
Su-30 MKI is indeed a front line air superiority fighter. 40 of these aircraft are getting upgraded by Russia. Such an upgrade will include new AESA radars, onboard computers, electronic warfare (EW) systems and the ability to carry the BrahMos -A supersonic cruise missile.
Mirage 2000 is also a front-line multirole fighter. India signed a $2.1 billion contract with Thales and Dassault Aviation in July 2011 for the upgrade of 51 Mirage 2000 to Mirage 2000 -5 Mk 2 standards. This includes incorporation of night vision capable glass cockpit, upgraded navigation and IFF systems, advanced multi-mode multi-layered radar, fully integrated EW suit besides several other features.
Apart from the above 17 squadrons, the balance 14 comprising of Jaguars (six squadrons, 139 aircraft), MiG-27s (reduced to 2 squadrons, 40 aircraft) and MiG-21s mostly Bison version (six squadrons, 121 aircraft) have issues related to vintage and challenges being faced in the upgrade.
Talking of MiG-21s, the retirement date for the upgraded MiG-21 Bison was earlier projected as 2014-17. This got changed to 2019 and now stands at 2021-22.
The Jaguar fleet which started induction in 1979-80 is also approaching its retirement. It was reported that the ongoing upgrade incorporating the new nav-attack system called Display Attack Ranging Intertial Navigation or DARIN III is also facing severe delays. The serviceability of the 118 jaguar fleet is a concern due to obsolescence, non-availability of spares and the assembly line of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) having been shut down.
As regards MiG-27s, though the aircraft started induction in the eighties (last HAL license-produced inducted in 1997), it had fundamental flaws with its R-29 B 300 turbojet engines besides 70’s era avionics With a history of multiple crashes, the last of MiG-27 ML was retired on December 29, 2017, leaving only two upgraded MiG-27 UPG in active inventory which are also due for retirement in a few years from now.
This explains the desperate need for the IAF to make up for the platform losses through fresh inductions.
Unfortunately, on the fresh procurement front, the situation is far from desired. 36 years after the approval of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project in 1983, the induction of Tejas is badly delayed. A huge order for 324 aircraft (Tejas Mk 1 -40, Tejas Mk 1A – 83 and Tejas Mk 2 – 201) is many years into the future. As per HAL’s assertion 123 Tejas will be provided by 2024-25.
Are More MiG-29s and Su-30MKIs Sufficient to Counter China?
Shortly following clashes with Chinese forces in the Galwan Valley area, the Indian Defence Ministry announced plans on June 18th for emergency purchases of 12 Su-30MKI and 21 MiG-29 twin engine multirole fighters from Russia. Russia will reportedly be able to deliver these aircraft within a period of a few months. The two fighter classes currently form the bulk of India’s fourth generation fleet, with over 250 Su-30MKI and over 100 MiG-29 fighters in service and several more on order, meaning that maintenance infrastructure and trained pilots are already available. Both fourth generation designs carry formidable sensors, are highly manoeuvrable, are well suited to combat at all altitudes and are compatible with a wide range of advanced munition types.
The Indian Defence Ministry has repeatedly emphasised the importance of realising plans to expand the Air Force’s fleet of combat aircraft from 32 squadrons to 42, and acquiring the MiG-29 in particular has provided a low cost means of moving towards this goal. While the fighters are formidable, they are from a medium weight range rather than a heavy one like the Su-30, and thus consume less fuel and are much cheaper to operate. Russia is thought to have over 100 unassembled MiG-29 airframes in storage and hundreds more assembled airframes in reserve, and unassembled airframes can be built and enhanced to a modern standard in a relatively short period providing a very quick and cost effective means to expand the fleet with a tried and tested fighter design.
India was the first foreign client for the MiG-29, which was designed to be able to go head to head with and outperform the F-16C Fighting Falcon and F-18C Hornet fighters in the U.S. Air Force and Navy. The fighter’s presence in the Kargil War was considered sufficient to deter Pakistani F-16s from intervening in operations, with the MiGs deploying superior beyond visual range missiles and boasting multiple performance advantages. Indian MiG-29s have since been upgraded to the MiG-29UPG standard, which is considered one of the most capable variants of the aircraft in the world with avionics, sensors and electronic warfare systems all far superior to those of the original design. Despite its advanced capabilities however, the MiG-29 is unlikely to be able to counter the new generation of elite fighter jets deployed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force – which include the J-10C ‘4++ generation’ lightweight platform and the J-16 and J-20 next generation heavyweight fighters. The J-10C, for example, benefits from a high composite radar cross section reducing airframe, stealth coatings, integration of a powerful AESA radar and more modern WS-10B thrust vectoring engines. Its PL-15 missiles have 2-3 times the range of those deployed by the MiG-29 and are guided by active rather than passive radars making them far more difficult to jam and evade. The discrepancy in capabilities is only more acute for heavier Chinese fighter classes like the J-16, which has been deployed under China’s Western Theatre Command near the Indian border.
While the MiG-29UPG is a formidable fighter, and can be considered more than a match for older Chinese fighter designs from the 2000s such as the J-10A and J-7G, deploying it near the Chinese border will not be enough to ensure a qualitative advantage or even parity against China’s newer aircraft. This being said, more MiG-29s could be deployed near the Pakistani border where they still enjoy a comfortable edge over Pakistan’s much lighter aircraft such as the JF-17 Bl. 2 and F-16C. This in turn could free up more elite fighter units to deploy to the northern border. The Su-30MKI, as India’s most capable aircraft, has significant advantages over the MiG-29 including superior manoeuvrability, newer electronics, more powerful sensors, a higher endurance and access to much longer ranged missiles for air to ground, anti shipping and air to air engagements.
This was published by our partner India Strategic