In the 2+2 dialogue 2020 held between the USA and India, the proposal for F/A-18 super hornet block – III for the Indian Navy has been put on the table again. This journey started with an RFI in 2017 for the purchase of 57 carrier-based multirole fighter aircraft. It is believed that F/A-18 and Rafale M are the front runners in the competition.
Currently, India has one aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and soon INS Vikrant will be commissioned. The pride of any aircraft carrier is its air wing. Both Vikramaditya and Vikrant can carry 26 fighter jets along with 10 helicopters. Currently Navy has 42 Mig-29 k in two squadrons, one is deployed on Vikramaditya and another on INS Hansa (shore-based facility).
What’s in Mig 29K ?
Mig-29k is a carrier-based swing-role medium-weight twin-engine 4.5 generation fighter aircraft. With the first flight in 1988 and the introduction in the 2010 Indian Navy was the first customer, a combination of 45 Mig-29 K/KUB were purchased and 3 three of them have crashed.
It has been derived from the Mig-29 M family after reinforcement of undercarriage along with other modifications to make it carrier-capable. Two Klimov RD-33MK afterburning turbofan engines (Same as Mig 35) with 88 kN of max thrust can push it to Mach 2+ speeds. It has a max take-off weight of 24,000 kg and a combat radius of 850 km.
The aircraft can carry a payload of 5,500 KG on 8 hardpoints. The combination of 4 Kh-31A/AD or Kh-35U/UE in an antishipping role with Kh-31P/PD in an anti-radiation role can wreck carnage on any fleet. The air to air capability will be significantly boosted with Astra over its existing R77.
Overall, there is no doubt about its capability but there have been serious concerns about its maintenance.
Maintainability of Mig 29K
The audit in December 2014 revealed that many engines (approx. 60 percent of the stock available at that time) were either withdrawn from service or were rejected due to design-related defects or deficiencies, also the delivery of these engines started around 2010 so they were not old. This was the reason why Migs had to land using single-engine around ten times.
There have been reports of defects in airframe and very poor reliability of the fly-by-wire system as well. All these problems have seriously affected its availability, according to the CAG report of 2016 the availability of Mig-29K is not even 40 percent.
How deep are Navy’s Pocket?
We have discussed the carrier vs submarine in detail. Thus, we believe the IAC 2 is very crucial for the Indian Navy. However, the second Indigenous carrier (INS Vishal) likely may get pushed to later this decade, saving some extra CAPEX allocation with the Indian Navy.
Though with the limited funds Indian navy will have to decide if they wish to peruse an indigenous fighter project or buy from a foreign source. Since Indian Airforce likely will not join the program that was to spin an airforce variant of twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF) as ORCA (Omni Role Combat Aircraft), thus Indian navy will have to share a larger share in the project capital.
Buy or Make?
Though it may be possible for the Indian Navy to convince the Indian airforce to join the Indigenous development program. However, the requirements of both forces are different. The Indian Airforce requires an economical fighter jet to make up the numbers with “More bang for the buck”. On contrary, the Indian navy requires a fighter jet with cutting-edge technology that can dominate the sea in presence of enemy carriers. Though the chances are, the forces may agree and come on board to share the cost especially considering the latest unified push.
The issue however is the timelines of the TEDBF as the fighter jet is a decade away. The first indigenous carrier has completed the basin trial and likely to hit the sea trial by December 2020. The aircraft carrier will require 26 fighter jet to form its air wing.
Currently, the Indian navy has 42 Mig 29K/KUB in two squadrons. Usually, a squadron is based on INS Vikramaditya while another one is based on shore-based facility INS Hansa. To simplify the calculation let’s assume (Highly unlikely) the availability of the Mig29K is 80% thus at a given time 34 fighter jets are available and this number isn’t enough for both the carrier.
More Mig 29K or New fighter jet
The choice between the existing Mig29K vs a new type of fighter jet is not easy. Since the Indian Navy is operating the MIG29 K already the requirements like Spares, Logistics, Training, and weapon can be addressed at a lower cost but buying Mig29K in the year 2022 is synonymous to vouch that the Indian Navy will be operating Mig 29K even in 2042 (Average age of a Naval fighter jet is 20 years, followed by a major refit).
Buying a Rafale or a Super hornet poses a similar threat however these fighter jets will be upgraded with time. The Upgrade requirement in the case of Mig29K will be more eminent and thus India can exercise other means to acquire these fighter jet. The upgrade cost of Rafale or Super hornet should also be considered along with the option to integrate the future platform of Indian. Future platforms like Drone Swarms (Alpha S), Wingman drone, or Ghatak UCAV integration will push the current generation fighter into the next-generation category. The integration of these platforms with a Rafale or Super hornet should be evaluated.
Getting used (If available) Mig 29K offers an economical option that allows the Indian navy to operate this Mig 29K for another 8-10 years and then replace the Migs from both the carriers in 2030 onwards with TEDBF.
Production of TEDBF or What is the TEDBF is delayed?
Often when talking about the project of high importance executed by the defense public sector companies, the thing that stands out is timeline overrun. If the Navy decides to peruse twin-engine deck-based fighter jet and the system is not available by 2030 then it will pose a serious operational problem for the Indian navy.
However, with the experience of Tejas MK2 and onboard private partners, the delay in TEDBF is highly unlikely. If the twin-engine deck-based fighter jet hits production in 2030 then the aircraft for both the carrier will require at-least 5 years if the production rate is 24 aircraft per year. Thus, the Mig29K can be decommissioned in a phased manner from 2030 onwards.
Buying Rafale or Super hornet for stop gap
The obvious concern is the Mig29K is one of the finest naval aircraft available in the Indian Ocean region, but will the aircraft retain the edge till 2030? Acquiring 36 Rafale or Super hornet can provide the much-needed breather to the Indian navy as they can take on the best fighter jets from the Chinese arsenal at least for another 10 – 15 years.
This will also help the Navy to phase out the older aircraft till all the Twin engine deck-based fighter can be produced. However, if the 36 Rafale or Super hornet are acquired and TEDBF is to just replace the 40 odd Mig 29K of Vikramaditya then economically TEDBF doesn’t remain viable, though the equation changes if INS Vishal will have TEDBF. The Indian navy will have to make a decision, do they want a futuristic fighter jet or an aviation ecosystem for the future.
Options that Indian Navy has
The Indian navy has three options, and each has its own advantage and disadvantages. The leadership in the navy and MoD will have to evaluate each and decide what trade-off they want.
- 57 Carrier borne fighter jet – The Indian navy can acquire 57 fighter jet from abroad. This could be FA18 Super Hornet Blk III or Rafale Marine. The issue with the Rafale M is wing foldability, its wing isn’t foldable, and modification will be heavy on pocket. On the other hand, super hornet will have a completely new weapon package that will have logistical implications.
- More Mig 29K: Since the Indian Navy is operating Mig 29K already, acquiring some more will be comparatively cheaper. The weapons, spares, and training will be light on the pocket. However, the Mig 29K is half a generation behind FA18 block III or Rafale M. Acquiring Mig 29K in 2023 may not be a good technological investment, though the capabilities can be boosted with the integration of indigenous weapons like Brahmos NG, Rudra M, Astra, and Astra 2.
- Naval LCA: Though the Indian Navy isn’t interested in Naval LCA and want a twin-engine jet. The Naval LCA can be a breather jet saving much-needed capital. Navy needs a jet that can fly for more than 2 hours with 4 missiles and NLCA does not fit in that requirement. However, a mix of Mig 29K and NLCA on the carrier can provide the Indian Navy the time so envisioned TEDBF can be designed and produced.
The current situation actually highlights the planning lapse, the Indian military planners should have initiated the twin-engine deck-based fighter a little earlier. This would have enabled the production of the fighter jet while INS Vikrant was in the sea trials.