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.
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:
LCA MkI or MkII
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.