Between November 2019 and November 2020, the Indian Navy lost three of its MiG-29K fighter jets to accidents and the rest of them had maintenance issues, including engine problems.
On Nov. 26, an Indian MiG-29K crashed in the Arabian Sea after taking off from the country’s flagship, the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. While the co-pilot managed to eject and survive the crash, the pilot was killed and his body wasn’t found until over a week later.
Previous crashes occurred on Feb. 23, 2020, and Nov. 16, 2019. The first loss of an Indian MiG-29K occurred on January 3, 2018, when one of those jets veered off a runway and caught fire. In all these accidents all the pilots managed to eject on time and survived.
India bought a total of 45 MiG-29Ks from Russia in two orders made in 2004 and 2010. Long before any of these crashes, there were reservations about this choice. For example, when a Russian MiG-29K trainer crashed killing both pilots on June 23, 2011, it “cast a shadow on the credibility of the aircraft itself” in India, reported Defense News at the time, citing Indian Defense Ministry officials.
Then, in July 2016, the Controller and Auditor General of India charged that India’s MiG-29K fleet “is riddled with problems relating to [its] airframe, RD MK-33 engine and fly-by-wire system.”
Russian carrier aircraft are, in general, prone to accidents. When Russia deployed its sole aircraft carrier, the troubled Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syria’s coast in late 2016 it lost a MiG-29K and a Su-33 in separate accidents within mere weeks of each other.
Consequently, India may well decide to procure a different jet for its growing fleet of aircraft carriers going forward.
But what are its options?
India’s air force recently acquired 4.5-generation Dassault Rafale multirole fighter jets from France. There is a single-seat version of the Rafale with a stronger airframe built for the French Navy. India might also seek the U.S. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet navy fighter jets.
It’s unlikely New Delhi would consider requesting more sophisticated stealthy fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II jets from the United States. There is a carrier version of the F-35, the F-35C, as well as a short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) version, the F-35B. No versions of the F-35 has yet been cleared for export to India by the United States. Also, Washington may very well forbid any sale of that aircraft to India once New Delhi takes delivery of the advanced S-400 air defense missile systems it ordered from Russia.
At this early stage, it’s difficult to predict what India will ultimately decide to do.
“To start, there is a bit of confusion about the Navy’s fighter plans,” said Angad Singh, Project Coordinator with the Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Strategic Studies Program, where his research focuses on air power and defense.
“I don’t think any acquisition program is driven by the recent crashes, but the Navy certainly is not happy with the reliability of the MiG-29K in service.”
In December 2016, India announced a program to acquire imported fighters and released a request for information (RFI) shortly afterwards.
“This was explained as a replacement for the domestic LCA [Light Combat Aircraft]-Navy, which was under development at the time, and was not measuring up to the service’s expectations,” he said. “However, the RFI mentioned 57 aircraft as the likely quantity to be procured, and that suggested a wholesale replacement of even the existing carrier fighters, the MiG-29Ks.”
Since then there has been little movement from the Indian side, with a crucial step in the procurement process, the ‘Acceptance of Necessity,’ not been granted by the Ministry of Defense’s Defense Acquisition Council as of writing. Approval of the Acceptance of Necessity “essentially confirms that a procurement step is justified, and lays out what the Ministry expects to spend on it.”
Boeing has pitched its F/A-18 Super Hornet as an option for India and recently showcased that jet’s capability to launch from a land-based ski jump. However, Singh points out that that particular ski-jump was “not representative of Indian carrier decks.” The Indian Navy’s two operational carriers today, the Vikramaditya and the Vikrant, both have ski-jumps, which lessen the types of navy fighters that can operate from them.
New Delhi might instead seek to develop its own fighter altogether rather than import additional new aircraft. India’s Navy Chief recently said that a new domestic fighter program is being pursued that is expected to deliver aircraft by around 2032. He also said that the program is intended to replace the MiG-29Ks, which Singh points out “calls into question the entire rationale behind an import.”
“Fundamentally, it hinges on what the Navy hopes to achieve — whether a quick replacement of the MiG-29K with another imported fighter, taking some pressure off the eventual indigenous twin-engine carrier fighter project, or whether they can soldier on with the MiG-29K for another decade (still well short of its service life on paper) and go straight to the domestic jet,” Singh said. “The latter obviously renders any import moot.”
If India does ultimately decide on importing new navy fighters, Singh predicts that Boeing will become the frontrunner since “they have done the most work toward de-risking and validating their offering and are the only ones to have done physical flight testing.”
Furthermore, the F/A-18 Super Hornet can fit on the aircraft elevators of India’s carriers, albeit only barely. The French Rafale, on the other hand, would require physical modifications to do so while the F-35B/C wouldn’t fit at all.
“All technicalities aside, I think all these hinges on funding, which doesn’t seem likely at the moment, given the difference between what the new Chief of Defense Staff seems to think the Navy should be doing, and what the Navy itself plans on doing,” Singh said.
“As a political appointee and the principal point of contact for the government on military matters, the CDS likely carries more weight.”
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