India’s Fighter Modernization: Add MiG-29s to the ListApr 28, 2011 14:31 UTC by Defense Industry Daily staff
The Indian Air force is dealing with the same fighter modernization numbers crisis that affects a number of air forces around the world. Its MiG-21s are retiring fast, and so are the subsequent generation of MiG-23/27 and MiG-25 aircraft. At the same time, India’s locally-developed Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas) program has been beset by numerous problems and ongoing delays, raising questions concerning its readiness and ability to begin filling some of that void in time. India’s MMRCA light-medium fighter competition will fill other gaps with 126 imported fighters, but it has yet to produce a winner, let alone a delivery date.
As the timelines for replacements stretch, India’s defense planners are concluding that more upgrades will be necessary in order to keep their existing fleet viable. February 2006 reports discussed a decision to upgrade India’s existing fleet of MiG-29B, MiG-29S, and two-seat MiG-29UB “Baaz” (Falcon) aircraft as well, in order to give them multi-role capabilities and improve their ability to carry advanced weapons. December 2006 reports from MosNews et. al. indicated that a contract has been signed, but it wasn’t until March 2008 that a deal was finalized. Instead of arriving by 2010, therefore, they began arriving in 2013, at the MiG-29 fleet’s air base in the Punjab region, overlooking Pakistan and Kashmir.
The Numbers Problem
By 2010, the IAF will have phased out most of its 300-or-so MiG-21s, the 16-18 aircraft in its only remaining swing-wing MiG-23 ground attack squadron, around 100-110 related swing-wing MiG-27M Bahadur ground attack fighters that are not being upgraded, and the MiG-25 Foxbat strategic reconnaissance jets (already phased out).
125 MiG-21 Bis interceptors and 40 upgraded MiG-27ML fighters will remain. India’s updated MiG-21 ‘Bisons’ caused a lot of trouble for American jets at COPE India 2004 & 2005, but are not expected to last beyond 2016.
India continues to field over 100 SU-30MKI aircraft, under a joint agreement with Sukhoi. These aircraft will be the high end of India’s air power, and are competitive with or superior to top-end European fighters and American F-15 variants.
At the lower end currently occupied by the MiG-21s, an initial order has been placed for 24 of HAL’s LCA Tejas light fighters. They are currently expected to arrive by the end of 2010, but that will not even begin to dent the fighter gap. Further orders are held up by the fact that key design choices for the full production “Tejas II” upgrade remain in limbo.
With MMRCA unlikely to even produce a contract by the end of 2010, India is forced to look to upgrades of her most modern legacy fighters, in order to maintain competitive strength. The IAF’s Mirage 2000 fleet has been the subject of numerous reports concerning upgrade agreements and supplementary buys, none of which have come to fruition yet.
That leaves India’s MiG-29 fleet of air superiority fighters. Under a proposed set of upgrades, these planes would see a set of improvements that would address their biggest deficiencies, insert important upgrades, and give them full multi-role capability. A total of 54 single-seat fighters and 8 trainers are being refurbished.
Wanting a New Baaz: The Upgrades
IANS reported in December 2006 that India was “finalizing” a proposal to have its fleet of MiG-29 lightweight fighters refurbished for $888 million by the Russian company RSK-MiG, which has a dedicated upgrade set designed to turn older MiG-29 air defense fighters into multi-role MiG-29SMT/UBTfighters. India’s focus on its domestic industries will ensure that its modifications will include their share of unique attributes and equipment, in addition to the standard set – an insistence that is now causing problems for the program.
The 62 upgraded “MiG-29UPG” fighters are expected to remain in service for 10-15 more years, with their flight-hours lifetimes extended from 25 years/2,500 hours to 40 years/ 3,500 hours.
The planes will be fitted with upgraded weapons and a new avionics suite, including the Phazatron Zhuk-ME radar. The Zhuk-M/ME is a derivative of the baseline Zhuk radar, but its acquisition range has increased 1.5 times, with a wide scan and tracking area of + / – 85 deg. in azimuth and + / – 60 deg. in elevation. It also adds terrain following mode, and ground target acquisition including high-resolution SAR.
Normally, these moves would accompany weapons upgrades. India’s MiG-29s are already believed to be capable of firing the R-77/AA-12 “AMRAAMski” medium range air-air missile, but photos consistently show the R-27/ AA-10. The new systems will offer certain R-77 compatibility, along with the ability to mount precision air-to-ground weapons. Upgraded electronic warfare systems round out the package, to improve survivability against modern threats.
In terms of aerodynamic performance, India’s MiG-29s will be upgraded with extra fuel tanks in a thickened center spine, but the MiG-29 upgrades will continue to suffer from “Soviet short-legs syndrome.” Adding mid-air refueling capability completes the upgrade, offering dramatic changes to the fighters’ deployment range. Unspecified engine modifications may also correct some of the problems experienced with the R-33 engine, such as the visible smoke trails that have already been addressed in the MiG-29M2. Local R-33 engine production will offer much improved maintenance turnaround time, which will hopefully improve the Indian MiG-29 fleet’s poor overall availability record.
This will not quite bring the older MiG-29s up to the status of the MiG-29M2 multi-role aircraft, let alone the thrust-vectoring MiG-29OVT/MiG-35 model that Russia offered for India’s MMRCA competition. Nevertheless, India will be left with an aircraft that is comparable to the F-16C as a strike fighter, with air-to-air performance that is arguably superior to all but the F-16E/F Block 60s with their ultra-advanced AESA radar.
RSK-MiG will be the sole vendor to perform the upgrades and service life extension tasks, delivering the first 6 aircraft from Russia and then supplying upgrade kits. Other components may come from a range of Indian, Russian, French, Israeli (Elbit has its own MiG-29 ‘Sniper’ upgrade program), and other vendors, per Indian specifications. The MiG-21 Bis upgrade worked that way, and the $130+ million MiG-27ML upgrade sources equipment from Russia, Israel, and Britain (Vinten optical pod), among others.
India Defense has more details re: the IAF’s overall upgrade programs, including timeline slippages on the upgrades. DID has noted before that this is not an unusual problem; India’s defense industry is heavily state-owned, and it also has unique systemic problems in its defense procurement apparatus.
A Better Baaz: Program Updates
April 27/11: Problems obtaining spares for its Russian equipment have driven India to look elsewhere, issuing RFPs to the global market for:
“…spares for MiG-23, MiG-27 [DID: incl. engines] and MiG-29 combat planes, IL-76 heavy-lift planes, IL-78 midair refuelers, all Mi-series of helicopters, Pechora and OSA-AK air defence missiles and P-18 and P-19 radars [plus AN-32 aerial transport engines].”
This may help to explain why the MiG-35 didn’t even show for Aero India 2011, and wasn’t shortlisted for the M-MRCA competition.
Feb 9/11: At Aero India 2011, RIA Novosti quotes UAC CEO Mikhail Pogosyan is quoted as saying that:
“The first upgraded [MiG-29] plane, I think, will be delivered in 2011… The whole [Indian MiG-29] upgrade program will be carried out on schedule agreed with the Indian side, and it will take several years to implement it.”
That is later than the program goal of mid-2010, in part because of shortcomings on the Indian side (vid. Nov 2/09 entry). The proof, as always, will be in the delivery.
Feb 4/11: RAC MiG says that “On February 4, 2010, a MiG-29UPG fighter [upgraded for India] carried out its first test flight [today]. The flight lasted for an hour and was flawless.” RIA Novosti.
March 25/10: Thales announces a contract from RSK-MiG to deliver IFF1 Combined Interrogator Transponder (CIT) and Cryptographic National Secure Mode (NSM) equipment, as part of the 63-plane MiG-29 retrofit. The first CIT will be delivered to RSK-MiG in 2010, but comprehensive secure identification capability isn’t expected to be in India until mid-2011.
The IFF CIT equipment chosen in the TSB 2500 family offers a modern digital identification capability, compliant with the latest NATO Standard MKXA2 modes and ICAO3 standards and regulations. It can securely operate either with cryptographic national mode or with the Mode 4 / Mode 5 NATO modes. This will enable Indian Air Force MiG-29 fighter aircraft to be interoperable with western military aircraft, and so avoid friendly fire in coalition situations. See also Zee News.
Nov 23/09: India’s Ministry of Defence offers an update on the upgrades, which reiterates basic details but does not discuss the key issue of expected completion times:
“The government signed a contract for upgrades of MiG-29 aircraft with M/s Russian Aircraft Corporation (RAC MiG) on 7 March 2008. The MiG-29 aircraft upgrade is planned in two phases namely Design & Development (D&D) phase in Russia and series upgrade in India. Upgrade of six aircraft in D&D phase commenced from August 2008. The series upgrade for the remaining aircraft is expected to be carried out in India from June 2010 onwards. The cost of the upgrade of the MiG-29 aircraft is 964 Million US Dollars.”
Oct 6/09: Reports from India say that all of the upgraded MiG-29SMTs will be stationed at Adampur Air Force Base, located in the northwest Punjab region overlooking Pakistan and Kashmir. Adampur is also the home base for India’s Garud commandos, who performed superbly at an American Red Flag exercise in 2008. An unnamed IAF officer is quoted as saying that the 1st lot of 6 upgraded MiG 29s is expected to reach Adampur by mid-2010, with the remaining aircraft arriving by the end of 2013.
Sept 18/09: Russia’s RIA Novosti quotes an unnamed “Russian defense industry source” who says that Russia will finish upgrading India’s MiG-29s in 2013.
Aug 2/09: The Hindu reports that India’s MiG-29 upgrade could be delayed by a year or more. The first upgraded MiG-29 was scheduled to fly into India in March 2010, but the entire project is reportedly being held up by IAF non-performance.
India typically insists on including an array of locally-developed electronics in military orders, and the MiG-29 upgrade is no exception. In order to accomplish that, the contract stipulates that the IAF must give RSK MiG the associated list of equipment, dimensions, and specifications. That list has yet to be finalized, leading officials at RSK MiG to tell The Hindu that they now expect a delay of at least 8 months.
Under the contract, RSK MiG is to upgrade the first 6 aircraft in Russia, then ship kits that will allow the IAF’s 11 Base Repair Depot (BRD) at Nasik to handle the other 56 planes. A total of 14 more refurbished MiG-29s were supposed to roll out of 11BRD between April 2010 – March 2011, but the delay at RSK-MiG is likely to translate into a delay of at least a year for Nasik.
March 16/09: The Times of India reports that Russian decision to ground its MiG-29 fleet after a couple of accidents caused by the disintegration of the plane’s tail fins, will not extend to the Indian fleet. It quoted an unidentified “senior officer,” who said that:
“We continue to fly our MiG-29s, which were inducted in the mid-1980s, from our airbases at Halwara and Jamnagar. We have our own method of regular maintenance and other technical checks, which are underway… Our checks are stringent since we operate our MiG-29s also from coastal airbases (Jamnagar) and Russian metallurgy is susceptible to salinity.”
That was prescient, as Russia’s accident investigation eventually cited structural faults in the aircraft due to corrosion on the fin root ribs. The Times of India report adds that 6 Indian MiG-29s are already in Russia for upgrades. The rest will reportedly be run through the IAF base repair depot at Nasik, thanks to transfer of technology arrangements, with project completion scheduled for 2014.
The problems in Russia will, however, delay delivery of new MiG-29K naval variants to the Indian Navy.
March 7/08: India and Russia sign an INR 38.4 billion (about $952 million) contract to upgrade its MiG-29 fighter jets over the next 3 years. The plan is intended to help the Indian Air Force extend the service life of its 69 Mig-29 aircraft (5 squadrons) from the present 25 years/ 2,500 flight-hours to 40 years/ 3,500 flight-hours, while adding upgrades and ground attack capability.
The Times of India reports that the first 6 Mig-29s will be upgraded in Russia, while the rest be done at Ohjar AFS near the western city of Nasik, using equipment kits supplied by RAC-MiG. Ohjar is currently the overhaul center for MiG-21sw, 23s, 37s, and 29s, and an anonymous Indian official quoted by Agence France Presse was clear on the reasons for making it the program’s center:
“The pre-condition was a “precaution” against delays in the modernisation of the MiG-29s which are among the main combat planes in India’s inventory. “We learnt our lessons with the MiG-21 project,” he added, alluding to years of delay in the promised upgrade by Russia of the jets.”
The usual 30% foreign industrial offset rules also apply to this deal, and will be fulfilled by setting up setting-up simulator centers, spares depots and service centers for maintenance and repair of the aircraft and its Zhuk family radars. When these moves are added to the 2006 agreement to license-produce the R-33 series 3 engine in India (q.v. Sept 4/06 entry), it becomes clear that India has is also addressing its MiG-29 fleet’s history of long service delays, by removing its dependence on Russia. Sources: Times of India | RIA Novosti | Russia InfoCentre | Pravda | Agence France Presse | Avitation Week | Domain-b |
Aug 29/07: India MoD release:
“There has been some delay in upgradation of MiG-21 Bison, NavWASS Jaguar and MiG-27 aircraft due to delays in design and developments phase. The projects are closely monitored to mitigate the delay.”
Dec 14/06: MosNews reports that this deal is signed for around $850 million, with work to be carried out exclusively by RSK-MiG. The deal reportedly covers 66 aircraft (down 1 due to a November 2006 crash), and will feature more powerful radars, advanced avionics and a new engine variant as well as air-to-air re-fueling capabilities.
Sept 4/06: Kommersant reports that a deal has been done to produce RD-33 Series III jet engines in India. These engines will be an improvement on the existing RD-33 Series I and II engines currently installed in India’s fleet.
- Air Force Technology – MiG-29 Fulcrum High-Performance Combat Aircraft, Russia
- Bharat Rakshak – MiG-29 Fulcrum. Details India’s specific variants. Most Indian aircraft are MiG-29Bs, downgraded from Soviet MiG-29As by removing Soviet IFF & datalink equipment, and reportedly a slightly downgraded radar as well. The MiG-29SMT upgrade will represent a major step forward for the aircraft, on multiple fronts.
- Wikipedia – Zhuk Radar.
- Bharat Rakshak has a lovely photo gallery of Indian MiG-29s.
- DID – India’s Fighter Upgrades: Mirage 2000s Finally Get a Deal. Parallel modernization program. A Jaguar modernization program also seems to be going ahead.