As we have reported earlier, In the middle of the standoff that India has with China, the Indian Air Force has pushed a proposal to the government for acquiring 33 new fighter aircraft, including 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30MKIs 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 emphasized the importance of realizing 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, higher endurance, and access to much longer-ranged missiles for air-to-ground, anti-shipping and air-to-air engagements. This being said, it too may not be the ideal aircraft to counter China’s new generation of fighters.
Unlike other similar derivatives of the same Flanker airframe design such as the Su-35 and J-16, the Su-30MKI has no stealth capabilities meaning it can be detected at a long range. This among other factors gives modern Chinese fighters such as the J-16, which deploys the aforementioned PL-15 missiles and integrates a large and powerful AESA radar, significant advantages.
China also deploys J-20 stealth fighters which enjoy even greater advantages, and while these have yet to join the J-16 in deployment under the Western Theatre Command facing India mass production of the aircraft makes the possibility of such a deployment likely in the coming years.
For India to more effectively shift the balance of power in its favour, it will need to make more substantial enhancements to the quality of its frontline fighter units. This will take more time, effort and expense than expanding the MiG-29 and Su-30 fleets, but could in the long term prove more cost-effective.
The most likely change in the near term, one in which the Air Force has shown considerable interest in pursuing, would be to purchase MiG-35 ‘4++ generation’ medium fighters as a successor to the MiG-29. These jets could prove much more cost-effective than the MiG-29 in the long run, as they not only use the same maintenance infrastructure and require very similar pilot training making a transition simple but they also have a much lower operational cost.
While they may struggle against heavier Chinese platforms such as the J-20 and J-16, the fighters should provide parity with the PLA’s J-10C jets and can be acquired at a low cost. Russia has also offered to build the jets under license in India, which could lead to a similar scale of production as the Su-30MKI.
The MiG-35s integrate powerful AESA radars and are compatible with a range of new standoff weapons which will likely make them overall India’s most dangerous fighters in a strike role. Although they lack AESA radar-guided air-to-air missiles like the PL-15, their R-37M missiles are considerably faster and have a longer range than their Chinese counterparts.
Looking to more costly and higher-end jets, the Indian Defence Ministry has continued to show interest in the Russian Su-57 heavyweight next-generation fighter – although it intends to wait until after the aircraft has seen some years of service in the Russian fleet and possible performance issues are solved before making a purchase.
With the aircraft entering mass production in July 2019, the possibility of an Indian acquisition in the not-too-distant future remains likely. The Su-57 can provide India’s fleet with parity with China’s new generation of heavyweight fighters, benefitting from a radar cross-section reducing profile and large internal storage bays for up to ten air-to-air missiles.
The Su-57 is particularly outstanding in its strike capabilities and is the only stealth fighter designed to deploy hypersonic ballistic missiles allowing it to pose a threat to Chinese airfields across the Western Theatre.
Its large and powerful AESA radar and unique cheek and rear-mounted sensors will place its situational awareness on a much higher level than existing Indian designs, while its very high endurance could reduce the need for large numbers of aircraft and allow the Air Force to instead rely on smaller numbers of more elite squadrons to cover more ground.
With the aircraft designed as a successor to the Su-27 air superiority platform, it is expected that multiple upgrade packages and enhanced derivatives will be made available to improve the jet’s performance over the coming decades – meaning investments made in the aircraft can continue to pay off for many years to come.
Ultimately beyond further enhancements to the Su-30MKI, such as the possible integration of AL-41 engines and Irbis-E radars, India’s most viable option to seriously counter China in the air will be to look to next-generation Russian designs to improve its fleet’s performance.