If your adversary knows your tactics, strengths and weaknesses or you play the same tactics as your enemy playing then you lost the war before the battle started. Bring lots of surprises to the battle fields, produce ambiguity in front of your adversary and back it up with your strengths in a real combat that your ambiguity was to overwhelm enemy with firepower.
The Indian Air Force needs new fighters. It needed them pretty badly before the current conflict with China over a stretch of the Himalayas that both countries claim. Now it needs them even worse.
On Monday, Chinese forces killed 20 Indian soldiers in a skirmish along the disputed India-China border running through the towering mountain range. Forty-three Chinese soldiers also were injured or died, according to press reports.
So it should come as no surprise that India this week reportedly placed a $780 million order with Russia for 33 mothballed fighters, enough to reequip two squadrons. What’s weird is which fighter types New Delhi reportedly is buying.
The Indian Air Force reportedly long had planned to buy the extra planes to bolster the service’s existing arsenal of around 230 Su-30s and 60 MiG-29s. The air arm also plans, in coming years, to buy 83 locally-made Tejas light fighters as well as 144 foreign-made medium fighters.
All the new fighters—the Sukhois, MiGs, Tejas and medium fighters—are part of an effort to grow the air force from 28 front-line squadrons to 40, the number New Delhi considers adequate to fight both Pakistan and China at the same time.
The Rafale, Su-30 and MiG-29 are candidates for the medium-fighter requirements. American firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing also are vying for the multi-billion-dollar contract with, respectively, a highly upgraded F-16, dubbed F-21 and the F/A-18E/F. Swedish company Saab is offering its Gripen fighter.
Kashmir Skirmish: India used French Mirage 2000, Not Russian MiG-29
“Your air force has got 200 to 250 Su-30s,” Tom Cooper pointed out. “Still, when you want to bomb a terrorist gang in the neighboring country, you need almost 40-year-old Mirage 2000s, instead.”
Cooper was referring to the February 2019 clash between Indian and Pakistani forces over disputed Kashmir, roughly in the same region where Indian and Chinese troops would collide more than a year later.
Indian Air Force Mirage 2000s initiated the combat with a precision strike on a suspected terrorist base inside Pakistani territory. Pakistan responded with F-16s. When the dust settled, the Indians had lost a single MiG-21 fighter.
Those same Mirage 2000s had been decisive during an earlier conflict in Kashmir back in 1999. India’s Russian-made fighters had struggled to strike Pakistani bases high in the mountains. But a single coordinated strike by Mirage 2000s hauling Litening camera pods and laser-guided bombs succeeded in knocking out a key Pakistani headquarters.
“In these attacks, the target was acquired through the Litening pod’s electro-optical imaging sensor at about nine miles out, with weapons release occurring at a slant range of about five miles and the aircraft then turning away while continuing to mark the target with a laser spot,” Air Force Magazine noted in 2012.
Cooper’s point is that, for decades, the Mirage 2000 has been a more effective fighter in Indian service than the Su-30 has been. The Rafale, the French-made successor to the Mirage, likewise is among India’s better fighters. But the country has ordered just 36 Rafales.
Tom Cooper, an author and aviation expert, expressed his surprise that the Indian air force reportedly wants Su-30s and MiG-29s to meet its emergency requirement for a couple squadrons worth of jets. The Su-30, while seemingly impressive on paper, lacks performance and combat capability compared to Western models.
The Su-30 not only lacks the latest precision air-to-ground ordnance, it doesn’t perform well from the high-altitude air bases that support Indian operations along the so-called “Line of Actual Control,” the border between Indian and Chinese forces in the Himalayas. Diplomats drew that line as part of truce talks following a bitter, bloody border war in 1962.
The Su-30MKI is only 45% available for any given combat mission and less than half of Su-30MKI is operational meaning almost 100 Su-30MKI is operational out of 250 Su-30MKI,– Indian Air Force’s actual operational capability is less than publicly available data that is 32 squadrons.
The Indian order includes 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30s, according to press reports. But one aviation expert believes the Sukhois in particular are a poor fit for mountain patrols.
Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in the Indian city of Leh supports Indian warplanes for operations over the Himalayas. The Indian army’s ongoing efforts to improve a road between Leh and an Indian outpost just a few miles from Line of Actual Control might be what incited the current clash.
Kushok Bakula Rimpochee’s 9,000-foot runway is situated 11,000 feet above sea level. The Su-30 doesn’t work well in those conditions, according to Cooper. “They’re happy if the jet can launch while carrying two [air-to-air missiles],” Cooper wrote. “And brake-discs and tires must be replaced after every single sortie.”
The lighter MiG-29 apparently functions better in Leh than the Su-30 does. But that doesn’t mean the old MiG is the right choice for India. The MiG-29s New Delhi plans to buy from Russia apparently are outdated models that Russian workers will refurbish before handing over. “They are simply not up to the task,” Cooper said of the MiG-29s.
It should be obvious. Indian firm HAL builds the Su-30s under license in India. Buying Sukhois funnels Indian money to Indian companies. Although, as Cooper pointed out, with adequate political will India could license the Rafale, too.
“The experiences of last year should’ve brought the Indians to their senses,” Cooper said. “They could’ve bought more Rafales.”
Cheap & Nasty
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 R-77 which India has stockpiles, are highly maneuverable, are well suited to combat at all altitudes and are compatible with a wide range of advanced munition types.
The Indian Defense 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 not 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.
The Su-30MKI fighter’s presence in the Kargil War was considered a dud to deter Pakistani F-16s from intervening in operations, with the Su-30 deploying R-77 beyond visual range missiles and failed to intercept F-16C.
MiG-29 Is Not A Match Against J-10C
Indian MiG-29s have since been upgraded to the MiG-29UPG standard, which is considered one of the capable variants of the MiG-29 aircraft.
Despite its upgraded capabilities however, the MiG-29 is unlikely to be able to counter the new generation of 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 fighters.
The J-10C, for example, benefits from a high composite radar cross section reducing airframe, integration of a powerful KLJ-7A AESA radar and WS-10B engines.
Chinese PL-15 Active-radar Homing Missile
The 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.
This among other factors gives modern Chinese fighters such was the J-16, which deploys the aforementioned PL-15 missiles and integrates a large and powerful AESA radar, significant advantages.
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 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. Although Su-30MKI lacks an AESA radar guided air to air missile like the PL-15, their R-37M missiles are considerably faster and have a longer range than their Chinese counterparts.
The Su-30MKI, as India’s most capable aircraft, has significant advantages over the MiG-29 including manoeuvrability, electronics, more Israeli sensors, a higher endurance and access to much longer ranged missiles for air to ground, anti shipping and air to air engagements.
Chinese Knows Ins and Outs of Russian Fighters
China has recently taken delivery of 24 Su-35 aircraft, and in the next two years, China will make a decision to either procure additional Su-35s or buy Su-57E. Chinese knows all too well about Sukhoi and Mikoyan manufactured fighter jets, having Su-30MKI and MiG-29 fighters will have no tactical advantages over Chinese military. Indian Su-30MKI armed with semi-active radar homing R-77 missile proved useless against Pakistani F-16C armed with AIM-120C AMRAAM, the same event will reoccur if Su-30MKI face J-10C fitted with AESA radar, armed with PL-15 active radar homing long-range missile.
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 capabilities detecting adversary at long range.
Ultimately beyond further enhancements to the Su-30MKI, India’s most viable option to seriously counter China in the air will be to look to next-generation American, French and Swedish aircraft to improve its fleet’s performance.
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