The Indian Navy plans to deploy 20 of its 45 MiG-29 carrier-borne fighters to the Himalayas to reinforce air force jets flying patrols over a disputed region bordering China.
The MiG-29Ks are supposed to fly from the fleet’s new aircraft carrier Vikrant. But Vikrant is years behind schedule, freeing up the MiGs and their pilots for land-based operations.
Desperation on the part of the air force might also be a factor in the decision to send navy fighters into the mountains.
Indian media first reported the MiG deployment on Tuesday. “They might be used for carrying out operational flying in the eastern Ladakh [region] along the Line of Actual Control,” a government source told news agency ANI.
The Line of Actual Control is the demarcation 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.
In early June, Chinese forces killed 20 Indian soldiers in a skirmish along the Line of Actual Control. Forty-three Chinese soldiers also were injured or died, according to press reports. Indian and Chinese warplanes and helicopters are patrolling the border zone as the standoff continues.
The navy intends for its MiG-29s to fly from the fleet’s aircraft carriers. But right now there’s just one carrier in service—Vikramaditya, a refurbished former Soviet vessel. Her air wing includes 18 MiGs.
The balance of the navy’s MiG fleet, minus jets in the training fleet or in maintenance, is destined to fly from Vikrant, India’s first locally-made flattop. Vikrant was slated to enter service in 2016 but problems with the vessel’s arrestor gear and other equipment have delayed completion. It could be 2023 before Vikrant deploys for the first time.
That leaves the bulk of the MiG-29K fleet, and many pilots, idle. Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author, said India plans to send its MiGs to the Himalayas in order to give the pilots a chance to fly missions in combat conditions.
Make that extreme combat conditions. 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 the 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, making it among the loftiest airfields in the world.
Despite early problems with engine-reliability, the MiG-29 with its 27-ton maximum weight apparently functions better in the Himalayas than heavier fighters such as India’s Su-30 do. Air force MiG-29s have been flying from Leh for months, now. New Delhi is upgrading the airfield in Leh for safer nighttime operations.
Desperation might also is a factor in the Indian MiG-29K deployment. The Indian Air Force has a requirement for 40 fighter squadrons but, in fact, has just 28 squadrons. Separate efforts to buy 83 locally-made Tejas light fighters, 144 foreign-made medium fighters and 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30s as attrition-replacements all have hit snags in New Delhi’s famously byzantine bureaucracy.
The air force could need the navy’s help patrolling the Line of Actual Control, although Indian officials of course don’t describe it that way. “Can we not bring some of the naval fighter jets to the land borders?” said Gen. Bipin Rawat, the chief of the defense staff. “There is not much of a difference between sea flying and desert flying.”
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