Tensions over the Sino-Indian border in the Ladakh region, which escalated in mid-June with a clash on the ground that caused over 20 Indian casualties, have highlighted the value of the Indian Air Force’s MiG-29 medium weight fighters for operations in the region.
India’s armed forces currently have over 170 MiG-29 fighters either in service or on order, the bulk of which serve in the Air Force around 45 in the Navy. The country was the first export client in the world for the twin engine multirole jets, with the first order placed in 1982, and the fleet has since been modernised to the MiG-29UPG standard – or in the case of naval jets they already operate at the similar MiG-29K standard.
Although the fighter is overall less formidable than the heavier Su-30MKI, and has several disadvantages in terms of sensors and electronics relative to the newer Rafale jets, the MiG-29 is highly prized for operations in the mountainous border region for a number of reasons.
The MiG is optimised for operations at high altitude, and has a much higher speed and flight ceiling than the Rafale, while its high thrust-weight ratio and climb rates and ability to deploy from smaller airfields gives it an advantage over the Su-30.
The MiG-29’s now proven value for a frontier standoff in India’s northern border is thought to be a leading reason why the Air Force very quickly moved to order 21 more of the jets from Russia, and to invest in modernising more of the older airframes to the MiG-29UPG standard.
Despite its formidable capabilities, benefitting from active radar guided long range missiles and a flight performance with few rivals, even in upgraded form the MiG-29’s age is increasingly becoming an issue as neighbouring China moves to rely more heavily on ‘4++’ and fifth generation fighters to form its frontline units. Although, fortunately for India, China newest fighters the J-20 and J-10C have not been deployed near the Indian border or anywhere under the Western Theatre Command, China has deployed the J-16 heavyweight platform to the region.
The fighter retains very considerable performance advantages over India’s Su-30MKI and Rafale – leaving the MiG-29 outmatched by a considerable margin. The J-16 technologically is far ahead of the MiG in all parameters, from its AESA radar guided PL-15 missiles which have over double the range of the passive radar guided missiles Indian relies on, to its stealth coatings and sensor suite.
The MiG-29’s inability to contend with newer Chinese jets, precisely the types of jets it is deployed on the frontier to counter, has left the Indian Air Force in a difficult position.