The Indian Air Force today fields one fo the most diverse fleets of fighters jets in the world, and since the retirement of the MiG-27 strike fighter and accompanying MIG-23 trainers in December 2019 it has fielded six classes of fighters – alongside the ageing Jaguar attack jet.
In the Air Force in particular, India’s force composition has long been premised on the need to maintain at least some form of parity with neighbouring China and Pakistan, the former which fields one of the most modern and sophisticated fleets in the world today while the latter continues to benefit from considerable transfers of Chinese technologies. A look at the six classes of fighter in Indian service, and a ranking of these jets based on their capabilities, can provide considerable insight into the overall capabilities of the country’s Air Force.
The heaviest and most capable fighter in the Indian inventory, the Su-30MKI forms the backbone of the Indian Air Force with over 250 in service and dozens more planned. Acquired from 2002, the elite Russian air superiority platform represents an extensive modernisation of the Soviet Su-27 Flanker design, and has proven itself several times in war games against two of the Western Bloc’s foremost combat jets, the British Royal Air Force’s Eurofighter Typhoon and U.S. Air Force’s F-15C with overwhelming victories in both cases.
The fighter’s primary air to air armaments are the R-77 and R-27ER air to air missiles with ranges of 110km and 130km respectively, and the shorter ranged R-73. The platform can also deploy the long ranged Astra, co developed with Russia with a range of approximately 105km, the short ranged British ASRAAM, and the K-100 ‘AWACS killer’ with a 300km range. The fighter’s sensor suite is both sophisticated and extremely large, providing a considerable situational awareness advantage even against newer AESA radar equipped platforms such as the Rafale or F-16V due largely to the fighter’s capacity for a much heavier radar.
The Su-30MKI can also be equipped for a strike role with the BrahMos cruise missile, and as a bomber with a range of guided munitions including both indigenous platforms and the Israeli SPICE 2000. The fighter’s airframe is extremely manoeuvrable, which is further complemented by two dimensional thrust vectoring engines making it extremely difficult to hit in both visual and beyond visual range engagements. The gap between the Su-30MKI and its nearest rivals its likely to only be widened in future, as the fighter continues to incorporate more modern technologies. Perhaps the greatest enhancement could come from the integration of Su-35 technologies, currently under consideration, which include the possibility of both AL-41 engines and an Irbis-E radar. This would further improve flight performance, range and manoeuvrability, while providing a greatly expanded situational awareness.
Integration of the Irbis-E would also allow the fighter to deploy more modern classes of air to air missile such as the Mach R-37M, which with a 400km range will provide a massive advantage over rival aircraft. An even longer ranged hypersonic air to air missile is currently under development with Russia specifically to outfit the Su-30MKI, which will be specialised in neutralising enemy support aircraft and replace the K-100 in this role. Even without these upgrades however, the Su-30MKI in its current form remains the most capable fighter in the Indian Air Force by a considerable margin.
India’s purchase of the Rafale medium fighter from France has been the subject of considerable controversy, with the acquisition widely derided as a political purchase and corruption widely speculated. Despite its relatively limited capabilities and light weight, fighter has cost 50% more per unit that the state of the art American F-35A stealth fighter – and come at well over four times the cost of the Su-30MKI – both jets which are overwhelmingly more capable than the Rafale.
Rafale fighters have only in recent years began to integrate AESA radars, which compensates for the very radar capacity the aircraft has meaning its sensor suite will always be much smaller than those on higher end aircraft. The aircraft’s twin Snecma M88 engines put out just 100kN of thrust between them, which even for the aircraft’s light weight is underwhelming and seriously restricts its flight performance. The Rafale has limited manoeuvrability, particularly when compared to serving Indian jets such as the MiG-29 and Su-30, and is restricted to flying at much lower speeds of Mach 1.8 – below average meaning even the F-16 and MiG-21 are faster – and at altitudes below 15km which are extremely low for a twin engine jet.
While the Rafale’s performance in many fields is underwhelming, the fact that India has not modernised its MiG-29s or any classes of fighter other than the Su-30MKI to even a basic ‘4+ generation’ standard gives it some advantages. Although its airframe and flight performance are inferior to the MiG-29, the Rafale’s avionics, electronic warfare systems and radar are considerably more modern – at least on the higher end variants being sold to India. These include an AESA radar, which though light is highly sophisticated and ensures a smaller radar signature. A key weakness of the fighter today is its reliance on the ageing MICA air to air missile for long range engagements – placing it at a disadvantage against the MiG-29, Su-30, Tejas and even the MiG-21BiS which can all deploy more capable munitions such as the R-77.
This issue will be circumvented in future as the Rafale begins to incorporate the Meteor missile, which with a 300km range will have an advantage over the R-77 and help to compensate for the fighter’s other shortcomings.
India placed its first orders for the MiG-29 in 1982, with the fighters acquired to ensure a continued qualitative advantage against Pakistan which was simultaneously placing orders for the American F-16 Fighting Falcon. Equipped with the latest Russian air to air missiles, and seeing its avionics and sensors modernised since, the MiG-29 is prized for balancing a modest operational costs with a respectable performance across the spectrum. India has continued to place orders for new MiG-29 fighters as recently as 2019, and further modernisation of the design is likely in future. Over five dozen MiG-29s are currently in service in the Indian Air Force, and the service’s positive experience with the design led the Navy to subsequently acquire over four dozen more – some of which serve on the carrier INS Vikramaditya and others in ground based squadrons.
Coming out of an extended 40 year development program, the Tejas single engine light fighter provides India with a platform comparable to the Pakistani JF-17 and Swedish Gripen in its weight range – although it retains advantages over both. The fighter relies heavily on foreign technologies including an American engine based on the General Electric F414 – the same as that on the Gripen E and F-18E fighters, Russian R-77 and Russo-Indian Astra air to air missiles, and Israeli sensors and electronic warfare systems.
The fighter’s combination of low operational costs and sophisticated subsystems makes it a welcome addition to the Indian fleet, and it is likely to be manufactured in the hundreds, once the design undergoes further testing and refinement, as a cost effective means for India to meet its goals for fleet expansion.
Possibly the most capable variant of the MiG-21 ever developed, the MiG-21 BiS was manufactured in the Soviet Union until 1985 specifically for Indian requirements – and the design has been extensively modernised since. Initially developed as a late third generation fighter incorporating new technologies from the MiG-23 design, the fighter has since received state of the art sensors and avionics and is particularly lethal at standoff ranges with access to R-77 and R-27 long ranged missiles. The fighter is particularly prized for its integration of Israeli electronic warfare systems, which have proven lethal in war games and seriously enhanced the platform’s survivability and its ability to evade enemy radars at range.
Today the least capable fighter in the Indian fleet, the Mirage 2000 entered service in the 1980s as a lighter and less sophisticated French analogue to the American F-16 fighting Falcon. Operators across the world have had trouble with the design, with 10% of Taiwan’s fleet crashing and poor French manufacturing quality leading to the airframes developing cracks and other faults. The Mirage 2000 has a modest endurance, and can only house relatively small radars and electronic warfare systems while their underpowered Snecma M53 engines limit the fighter’s flight performance. Equipped with the ageing MICA air to air missile with a range of just 80km, the fighters’ ability to engage fighters from a similar weight range such as the JF-17 Block 2 and F-16C Fighting Falcon – deploying superior PL-12 and AIM-120C missiles – remains seriously limited.
The fighters are likely to be phased out too service in the coming decade, with a number of new designs being considered as replacements from more Rafales to the MiG-35 – or possibly even the indigenous Tejas.