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MiG-35, F-16, Gripen or Better Choice?
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MiG-35, F-16, Gripen or Better Choice?, 4.1 out of 5 based on 49 ratings
Issue Net Edition | Date : 14 Aug , 2017

More Rafale jets for the IAF and the IN will reduce logistics burden and increase operational cooperation. Getting the Kaveri and the Uttam fixed in next three or four years is do-able and can be achieved if we closely monitor the development programme and make all concerned parties accountable – DRDO, ADA, ERDE, GTRE, HAL, IAF and SNECMA. We need to have a high powered coordination body that can drive it through. It is a great challenge but we have to answer it for our own good – in the hope of a brighter future for the IAF and for India.

All of a sudden, news of the MiG-35 started rolling in Indian newspapers. It started with the Director General of MiG Corporation, Ilya Tarasenko’s interaction with the press during the MAKS 2017 Air Show where he claimed that India has shown interest in MiG-35, which is 4++ generation aircraft capable of giving the American F-35, a run for its money. He said, “We are in the negotiation stage where talks on technical and technological specifications that the MiG can present to India and the requirements that India has for this aircraft are taking place.”

Talking about the aircraft, he claimed that when compared with the ‘basic’ MiG-29, the MiG-35 is a new aircraft with a new airframe, a new and more powerful engine (though it just gives seven per cent more power), fly-by-wire technology, new onboard equipment and weapons. Just about everything is ‘new’. In a nut shell, it is a ‘light’, low-cost and multi-role, easy to handle fighter. We need to see if all these claims are true, and what choice does the Indian Air Force (IAF) have?

Based on the proven and one of the best (and fearsome) fighters in its category, the MiG-29, Mikoyan bureau started developing the MiG-35 in the early 2000s and revealed it to the public in 2007. That explains why it looks very similar to the MiG-29. The MiG-35 is not a new aircraft, but a slightly upgraded MiG-29. By developing the MiG-35, the Russian aircraft industry did what it does best – providing a low-cost, evolutionary improvement to an already-proven design.

The MiG-35 does not offer much in comparison to the MiG-29 UPG that the IAF is operating…

The MiG-35 does not offer much in comparison to the MiG-29 UPG that the IAF is operating. It has few clear improvements such as the smoke-free RD-33MKB engine, which gives about seven per cent more thrust, but does not generate smoke. It appears that the Russians have finally fixed that annoying problem of smoke that would give away a fighter’s location within visual range. Due to its thrust vectoring nozzles, the MiG-35 has remarkable manoeuverability, even better than the MiG-29.

At a better price, the MiG-35 will be fitted with a Zhuk-MA AESA radar which has a definite edge over MESA radars. Indian MiG-29s UPG have Zhuk-ME radars. The MiG-35 has a simple state-of-the-art cockpit fitted with three LCD screens that make the pilot’s job much easier. There are few more marginal improvements that give nothing substantial to the IAF. Why should the IAF go in for the MiG-35 if the MiG-29 UPG can be upgraded with both these noticeable improvements – the engine and the radar? The IAF is already in the process of consolidating the types of aircraft it operates. Adding the MiG-35 to the IAF’s inventory will definitely increase its maintenance burden; but then, so would adding the F-16 from Lockheed Martin or SAAB Gripen.

Moreover, the MiG-35 is not a light, single-engine fighter that India is looking for. Perhaps that is why Ilya Tarasenko deliberately called the MiG-35 a ‘light’ aircraft. His claim that India has shown interest appears to be a marketing gimmick. So far, only Egypt has placed an order for 50 MiG-35 aircraft. Mikoyan desperately needs orders to keep the production lines open and the company alive. Mikoyan has produced legendary aircraft such as the MiG-21, the MiG-25 and the MiG-29 which have reserved their place in history forever. But during last 20 years, the Sukhoi Design Bureau has forged ahead leaving Mikoyan behind in this ongoing race for technological advancement. With the Su-27, Sukhoi has taken the development to the next level.

The Government of India (GoI) wants leading global weapons manufacturers to make their weapons in India and sell those to the world…

There are few more interesting developments. On 10th August 2017, IAF’s Jaguar, undergoing DARIN III upgrade program, flew with ELTA’s AESA radar. There are 28 other sensors that would enhance the capability of these plans to a whole new level. IAF will fly these Jaguars for another 10 years. The Rafale jet will also come with its AESA radar – RBE2. From a maintenance standpoint, adding a third kind of AESA radar, the ZHUK-MA, would not be a good decision. In all likelihood, the IAF will try to standardise its radar inventory as well.


Adding Mikoyan MiG-35 or Lockheed Martin F-16 or SAAB Gripen will increase the IAF’s logistics and maintenance burden. Any of these planes can be manufactured in India under the ‘Make in India’ initiative but primarily, they will just bring more jobs into India and not better technology. Only SAAB has proposed to share technology and to set up a development centre in India. But Gripen is using the GE-414 engine and a Selex Raven ES-05 AESA radar. It relies on foreign partners for two most critical and central components of any fighter. So the question arises – how much technology will SAAB be able to share with India?

Lockheed is less likely to share key technical components and Transfer of Technology (ToT) of engine and AESA radar would be a too far-fetched expectation. Moreover, the F-16 is a 40-year old aircraft that the IAF will need to fly for another 40 to 50 years. In a nut shell, forcing the F-16 down the IAF’s throat will be the worst ever decision in its history of 85 years.

Involving Dassault for engine and radar development will make us self-reliant in these two crucial areas…

The case of the MiG-35 has already been discussed. So none of these aircraft is likely to meet most of the key requirements of the IAF and the Indian government. The Government of India (GoI) wants leading global weapons manufacturers to make their weapons in India and sell those to the world. The requirement of the Indian armed forces is being used as an incentive to make the offer more lucrative. None of these aircraft will serve the IAF and the GoI’s goals for a long time while the F-16 is almost at the end of its life, the Gripen and the MiG-35 have almost non-existent foreign buyers.

Dasault Rafale

The Better Choice

There is a far better option that needs greater attention. Under the offset clause of the 36 Rafale deal, Snecma, a company that builds Rafale’s M88 turbofan engines, is working to sort out indigenous Kaveri engines issues. Readers would remember that Dassault had made a similar offer to invest $1 billion in the Kaveri programme while discussing the original MMRCA tender for 126 fighters. The DRDO has been working on the Kaveri engine for three decades now but developing a jet engine is not an easy task.

Only a few countries in the world have the technical capability to produce credible jet engines for fighter aircraft. If we are able to produce a Kaveri engine that can deliver 90kN thrust and further develop it to deliver 125 kN thrust, we will practically be in a position to standardise the entire IAF fleet with indigenous engines. This will save us a huge amount of money and will ensure our self-reliance. We will not have to look towards Russia for engine problems, replacements or spares. We will also achieve all the targets of the GoI’s ‘Make-in-India’ initiative – more jobs, technological advancement and greater chances of export.

As suggested earlier, the IAF and the GoI should consider buying more Rafale jets. In Sep 2016, India placed an order for 36 Rafales, which is too short a number to utilize a fighter platform effectively. It would not make much operational and business sense if we don’t increase their number in the IAF’s inventory. It might prove costly at present but will have long term benefits for us. If we place an additional order of, say three more squadrons for the IAF, they will get delivered by mid-2020s. By this time, the MiG-21 and MiG-27 would already be decommissioned and the Mirage, Jaguar and MiG-29 would be approaching the end of their service life. Additional Rafale jets would be there to replace fill the technological and operational gaps these three types of aircraft will create. During this time, we will have Tejas (with the Kaveri engine and Uttam radar) to replace the MiG-21 and MiG-27. By the end of the 2020s or mid 2030s, there will be just four types of aircraft in the IAF’s inventory:

Su-30 MKI

Compare it with the inventory list otherwise – LCA, MiG-29, Jaguar, Mirage, Rafale, Su-30 MKI, MiG-35/F-16/Gripen and FGFA. Scary sight!

Offset clause of the additional orders can be utilized to get French help to fix Kaveri, Uttam AESA radar and any other area like EW or Astra air-to-air missile. We need to understand that we don’t have reinvent the wheel. If we can get Dassault to help us fix these core components in shortest possible time, then why not?These crucial steps will pave the way for smooth and faster development of LCA MkII and AMCA. A fully equipped LCA will give leading aircrafts in its category a run for their money. There will be great chances of export because it will be very cost effective.

Involving Dassault for engine and radar development will make us self-reliant in these two crucial areas, not to mention, this will tremendously help in developing the naval version of the LCA as well. Indian Navy has rejected the LCA for insufficient thrust and is struggling with MiG-29K aircrafts because of its engines (RD-33) and a host of other problems. As per CAG report, serviceability of MiG-29K is less than 50%. That is the reason, the Navy is looking at other available options for its next batch of 57 fighters. Dassault is making all the efforts to get that deal too. Perhaps that is why, as recent news reports suggested, France made a friendly gesture by giving 31 decommissioned Jaguar aircraft to the IAF free of cost. The IAF will use these aircraft to cater for its requirement of spare parts.

Anyway, while giving a clear edge over our arch enemies, more Rafale jets for the IAF and the IN will reduce logistics burden and increase operational cooperation.

Once we get Kaveri fixed with the help of the French, it will produce sufficient thrust for the naval version of LCA. The Navy will have no objections accepting it. Comparing with its sister services, the Navy has a better record of local weapons/equipment acceptance.

The objective should be – meeting IAF’s requirement, keeping a qualitative and quantitative edge over enemy air force(s) and to develop local defence technological/manufacturing base. This will serve all our purposes.

Getting the Kaveri and the Uttam fixed in the next three or four years is do-able and can be achieved if we closely monitor the development programme and make all concerned parties accountable – DRDO, ADA, ERDE, GTRE, HAL, IAF and SNECMA. We need to have high powered coordination body that can drive it through. It is a great challenge; but we have to answer it for our own good – in the hope of a brighter future for the IAF, and for India.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Sumit Walia

is an IT Specialist. He is also a military history buff who continues to explore & research various facets of the Indian Military history in his spare time.

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16 thoughts on “MiG-35, F-16, Gripen or Better Choice?

  1. Rafale has a ferry range of more than 3700 kms as compared to 3000 kms of saab gripen and 2700 of mig 35 or 2000 kms of f16 block 70 approx as per info. Rafale can carry nuke weapons as well as conventional. It can carry mbda which can target aircraft at a distance of 100kms but is expensive. My first choice is rafale but I think mig 35 is also offering very good features

  2. excelletly argued on points… well preseneted… it lacks the decision depends on US and CHINA policy .. do we need US to counter china.. the road shown by author excellent if v have the strenght to go solo but do we .. that 2 against CHina??? its a rsiksy decision … depends soley on the politcal dispensation..
    risk can be reduced by hard hitting clause against tehy either fix kaveri engine else share their engine tech nad tot by fixed timel ine.

  3. The majority of Indian people particularly younger generation are passionate towards fighter planes, bombers, Aircraft carriers, warships and submarines. They think without these war equipment future war cannot be won. This is a wrong impression. All these equipment are developed in the 20th century when the rockets, missiles and radars are under development. So the fighter plane and bombers were used to carry the gravity Bombs. The Bombs used during 1971 war were not effective to destroy runways. It is difficult to develop fighter planes and its engine, So India decided to develop rocket, missile and radar. Now India is a superpower in rocket, missiles and radars. India has developed 36 types of missiles and rockets. Every success of PSLV rocket paves the way to develop new missiles. Govt decision to extend the range of Brahmos is a right decision. The extended Brahmos will cover the strategic location in Pakistan and China. From the website posted the cost of the Su-30 purchased by India to be RS. 1.61 billion and that over the years the life cycle cost to be Rs. 4.5 billion. per fighter….the breakup it gives is 300 hours before overhaul TBO and 3000 hours before engine change. it also says that a total of us $ 1 billion will be required to set up the plant at Nasik. Su30 Mni Costs 50 to 55 million dollars. Brahmos unit cost is 2.37 million dollars.India can manufacture 1000 numbers per year. No maintenance or operating costs. In can be stored in Silos. No Hanger or run ways.
    The F-16C/D had a unit cost of US$18.8 million (1998). Operational cost per flight hour has been estimated at $7,000 to $22,470 or $24,000, depending on calculation method. The cost of Tomahawk missile Unit costs 1.84 million dollars. Tomahawk missiles can also escape from any radar detection. F -35 costs 70 million. Unit Costs of Agni. 5.5 million dollars. So India can manage with the present strength of fighter planes.

    • Thanks for enlightening the ignoramus about the Tomahawk Cruise. Keep your advice on aircraft to yourself. Israel has some of the best missile systems in the world. Ever wondered why they continue to use F-15/F-16/Kfir to bomb targets deep inside enemy territory like the one in Syria on 7th Sept. Do every one a favour update your self on the use of aircraft in war.

  4. Tejas…Tejas all the way. Indian must manufacture in India no matter how backward or not modern this plane seems. India needs these planes as back up for now and it will keep improving. India must stick with it. Dont let any outside power derail make in India. Keep improving manufacturing quality and speed of manufacturing Tejas constantly. India will become self sufficient one day.

  5. contd……This spells out that we need a lot of effort to degrade his logistic ability to fight a protracted battle in real time. We need aircraft of the genre of the American A-10 Warthog. We don’t need supersonic Mach 1 or 2 aircraft to engage ground targets. We need ECM aircraft specifically equipped to Electronic Warfare and Counter Measures. Just having AWACS is not enough. Indian Ocean has to be left to the Indian Navy, it’s their domain. The Navy needs to be equipped with at least 10 Squadrons of long range fighters and a squadron of long range bombers. That’s what will give us total dominance over the Indian Ocean. The Indian peninsula is the largest aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean and we have to cash on this asset. Yes Aircraft Carriers have their part to play but we must cash on our real asset – ground based aircraft intervention in the Indian Ocean. So to say Gripen – Rafale – or the F 16 is just looking at fancy stuff. Our combat Strategy should spell out what we need.

  6. The core issue over the selection of aircraft and the role assigned to each. There appears to be some confusion over what the air force wants and what role these aircraft are designed for. Let’s take a look at our requirements. If we take a look at our foreign policy and our strategic interests currently three main factors stand out. Its Pakistan China and the Indian Ocean. Let’s forget Pakistan, for if we cater for China, Pakistan gets taken care of i.e. in case we oppose them individually but not in case they both decide to gang up as one, which maybe a possibility because of the implications of the CPEC. Firstly coming on to the combined assets of Pakistan and China and the theatre of operations we need at least 60 Squadrons and not the 42 which the Air Force projects. This not counting the assets required for dominance over the Indian Ocean. The theatre of combined operations Pakistan-China extends to about 4500 kms + and to a depth of about 2000 kms. That’s the kind of coverage we are talking about here. The next important issue is that the unlike the past, the air force will have to be involved with the ground forces from the very first minute. Gone are the days when the air force said they will be available for combat support on ground after attaining a favourable air situation. War with China will be fought mainly over the Tibet. The Chinese have developed an enormous amount of infrastructure for its military to fight a war in this theatre. This includes rail and road infrastructure, airfields and logistical nodes. The war in Tibet will be a war fought on logistics – the Chinese have the disadvantage of hauling logistics from the mainland which is far in terms of combat logistics. Contd…

  7. a well written article but with a major flaw – stretching the Kaveri engine to 125 kN is a nice seductive idea, but simply physically impossible given the technical issues involved. This would a be a very demanding struggle even for F414, never mind an engine that is yet to operationally fly at a much lower thrust class.

  8. Sir, why is F-16 is being referred to as old and end of life. The block 70 is newer extended version. Even the US Air Force is not flying this version. What India is getting is a brand new plane. So where does the question of end of life and old plane arise. It is most numerous made after MIG 21. It is the most effective fighter after SU30mk1 in the world.

    There are two or three issues to discuss:

    1. What TOT is received
    2. Pakistan has flown an older version for 2 years, hence they know more about it but not the Chinese.
    3. How much refurbishing business will come to India if factory is relocated to India. There are 4000 F-16 s flying, these need refurbishing and upgraded. That is a huge business opportunity.

    Now we are back to square one whether select Grippen or F-16. Grippen is yet fly whereas F-16 has fought countless battles. F-16 may be cheap and manufacture technology may come with factory relocate. That is also important.

  9. Sir your opinions are much appreciative and good for our national Interest but rafale is very expensive and goi looking reluctant to produce Tejas mk2. also hal is unable to produce a large no. Of planes so I think it is very important to produce an another fighter plane with overseas partner. But this is an opportunity for our government in current time to create aerospace industry in our country and iaf need to support the indigenous efforts.

  10. If adding more Rafale’s would have been a good idea,
    then India would not have killed the 126 aircraft MMRCA program,
    in favour of a direct purchase of 36 aircraft.
    That was after trying to get a deal for 5 years.
    Most likely Dassault could not meet the price expectations of India,
    so in order to get the desired volumes, a cheaper (single engine) alternative
    is now looked at.
    The Mirage, Jaguar and MiG-29 will be phased out around 2030 regardless which path India chooses, so the sight is less scary than indicated.

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