New Delhi: The crash of the Indian Navy’s MiG-29K aircraft Thursday has yet again put the spotlight on the Russian fighter jet that has had a troubled history, both in India and in its home country.
The navy’s MiG-29K was on disembarkation (flying back to its base, INS Hansa in Goa) from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. While one pilot was rescued Thursday, Commander Nishant Singh, a qualified flying instructor, remains missing.
The navy has begun an inquiry into the aircraft crash, which is the third one to have been involved in an accident in the past year starting last November. Navy sources refused to get into the likely cause of the accident but added that no warning sign or alarm was raised by the pilots on board.
India has imported 45 MiG-29K fighters jets from Russia, but operates less than two dozen of them — the rest are kept as war reserves and in other forms.
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Troubled past for MiG-29K
On 23 February this year, a MiG-29K crashed after being hit by birds over Goa. The pilots managed to steer the jet away from habitation and ejected to safety.
On 16 November last year, a MiG-29K trainer aircraft crashed outside Verna village in South Goa district after both engines failed. Another aircraft was badly damaged after it had veered off the runway while taking off from INS Hansa in 2018.
But the problem exists not just for India. In 2016, a Russian MiG-29K fighter jet had crashed into the Mediterranean Sea as it tried to land on the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. It was reported that the aircraft appeared to have mechanical difficulties shortly after take-off.
CAG had flagged faults
The aircraft, which was inducted after an over $2 billion deal for these fighters in 2010, has seen multiple operational deficiencies in its engines, airframe and fly-by-wire system.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India had, in its 2016 report, observed that “the MiG-29K, which is a carrier-borne multi-role aircraft and the mainstay of integral fleet air defence, is riddled with problems relating to airframe, RD MK-33 engine and fly-by-wire system”.
One of the main concerns was the aircraft’s engine, which navy sources insist has since been taken care of.
The CAG audit observed that as of September 2014, a total of 65 engines (42 with 21 aircrafts and 23 spares) had been acquired. However, since its induction in February 2010, 40 engines (representing 62 per cent of 65 engines) had been withdrawn from service/rejected due to design related defects/deficiencies.
“The issue has serious flight safety implications, since in-flight engine defects had led to ten cases of single engine landings,” the CAG report had noted in 2016.
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Navy says addressed issues but ‘problems persist’
In 2018, then Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had said that issues related to maintenance and availability of spare parts for the MiG 29K fleet had been addressed.
Navy sources, however, indicated that some of the problems still persist. They added that the aircraft faced engine issues mainly due to high salt and sand intake.
Experts said that the cause of the accident cannot be determined until the inquiry is completed.
“This accident took place soon after the successful high tempo operations during Malabar 2020,” former navy spokesperson Captain D. K. Sharma said. “And hence this kind of a mishap is baffling. More so, this involved a top notch pilot. It is a matter of serious concern about what has gone wrong.”
INS Vikramaditya took part in the recently concluded Malabar naval exercise involving the Quad countries – India, Japan, the US and Australia.
When asked about the lack of a Mayday call from the aircraft, Captain Sharma said, “We should leave it here as an abstract. Let the inquiry find out.”
Aviation experts added that similar problems were faced by all navies across the world due to the metallurgy of the aircraft.
“The aircraft has had issues and there is no doubt about it,” Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd) and Additional DG, Centre for Air Power Studies, a think-tank said.
Asked about the constant engine issues due to sand and salt, Bahadur said it was a common problem due to the environment and exists for all aircrafts doing coastal and offshore flying.
“It is a problem that will be faced by the American Navy and the Marines, and they conduct extensive over-sea operations,” he said. “This is where the aircraft design, metallurgy and engine technology come into play. These are crucial issues that determine reliability and availability of aircraft on the flight line.”
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MiG29 was designed as a land-based air superiority fighter, and was never meant to be a carrier-based naval aircraft. As such, its systems – be they engines, landing gear or what have you, were incapable of withstanding the rigors of flight at sea. The Russians themselves had no plans to modify it for duty at sea. As part of the ridiculous saga of the Indian Navy buying the Adm. Gorshkov for conversion to an aircraft carrier (which eventually cost several times the budget and time) they also accepted the Russian offer to modify the MiG29 as a deck-base fighter. The Russians learnt at the expense – human and financial – of the Indian Navy, with several crashes and the abysmal availability record of the aircraft. What is more, a carrier of the size of the Vikramaditya and the upcoming Vikrant, at 40,000 tons or so with just about 20 aircraft is not big enough to either provide strong air defense to the fleet, nor to land an effective punch on enemy targets ashore. Such a small force would be hard pressed to close sufficiently even on to the shores of weak adversaries like Pakistan, let alone take on a Chinese fleet protected by their much larger and more numerous carriers on the high seas. They are a waste of money, good only for showing off in fleet reviews and foreign visits.
This is no way to equip a naval air wing. We ought to select a capable deck-based multirole combat aircraft which has been designed as such from the get go – such as the F-18 – and build new carriers large enough to host a reasonable number of them, say a 65,000 carrier with 40 or so of these aircraft plus AWACS, helicopters and others. That would be a force capable of taking on missions that can realistically be envisaged in wartime.
“Flying coffins” – Rang de Basanti was not just a movie. It spilled some truths. India is in such a precarious position as far as air defence is concerned, it can neither continue to use these death traps, nor junk them. All at the cost of lives of young or experienced pilots.
The Navy has deployed surveillance aircraft and ships to locate the missing pilot of Russian-made MiG-29K. The aircraft would be the Boeing P-8i Poseidon maritime patrol/surveillance aircraft. It is designed for long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The P-8 which can fly up to 41,000 feet, can also fly low altitude missions.
The first P-8I aircraft was inducted into the Indian Navy in 2013. India was Boeing’s first international customer for this aircraft. The Indian Navy now has 9 of these aircraft based on based on the Boeing 737-800 (NG) airframe. The P-8 shares 86% commonality with the commercial 737NG aircraft.
The 2 recently leased Sea Guardian surveillance UAVs would also be part of the effort to locate the missing pilot.
On account of the low price, the Navy had decided not to completely ignore the Mikoyan MiG-29K while considering aircraft for IAC-1 INS Vikrant, which is supposed to commence sea trials in December/January 2021.
The crash of the MiG-29K strengthens the case for the twin-engine Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, which has only recently been upgraded to Block-III. The multirole F/A-18 is one of the most advanced 4th generation fighters_.
Indian Navy team visited the U.S. early this year to witness the demonstration of the F/A-18 take off from a land-based ski jump facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. Boeing has confirmed that it has been testing the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter jets for the Indian Navy’s requirements of a carrier-based fighter.
The Rafale-M – though it has a serious problem of ‘non-foldable‘ wings, is not completely out of the reckoning. If the Navy insists on ‘foldable‘ wings, it would further push up the price of the aircraft. And… this will be an untested aspect of the Rafale-M aircraft.
It maybe true that only 50% of the current fleet of 45 MiG-29K aircraft, procured for $2.2 billion, is available for operations at any given time, but the MiG-29K was still in the reckoning as the carrier-borne aircraft on the Cochin Shipyard built IAC-1 Vikrant, though the twin-engine Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the twin-engine Dassault Rafale were considered frontrunners.
India made a request for information (RFI) back in 2017 for a “day-and-night-capable, all-weather, multi-role, deck-based combat aircraft, which can be used for air-defense, air-to-surface operations, buddy refuelling, reconnaissance, etc. from (the Navy’s) aircraft carriers.”
On Russia’s behalf, the state arms seller Rosoboronexport was awaiting the MoD’s go ahead for the delivery of around 14 deck-based MiG-29K fighter jets for the Vikrant. The flight deck of INS Vikrant reportedly has the capacity to hold 19 aircraft and the hangar, room for 17 aircraft.
With the advantages of cost, commonality and operational familiarity, the Navy couldn’t really afford to completely ignore the Russian aircraft.
It was expected that the Navy would be able to put up with its failures and shortcomings till the twin-engine naval version of the Tejas Mk-2 LCA was made available around 2030. This cleansheet design, twin-engine jet is expected to make its first flight by 2026.
The MiG-29KUB trainer aircraft’s crashes into Arabian Sea, could be the straw that broke the camel’s back. This could have moved the twin-engine Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet the position of ‘favourite’.
The MiG-29KUB was part of Indian Naval Air Squadron 303 (INAS 303) – nicknamed the Black Panthers, which operates 16 single-seat MiG-29K fighters, and four twin-seat MiG-29KUB aircraft from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Soviet Navy’s Admiral Gorshkov).
The twin-seat version which also carries weapons and can be used in combat, is primarily used for training pilots.
Then why don’t just sell it to a Kabadi Wala, and make some money ( Just Joking) 🙂
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