MMRCA BUZZ: MiG-35 Was Never In The Running?

Quick disclaimer: with nothing official on the MMRCA competition available from the Indian government -- at one level, rightly so -- the only available information is hearsay. And I don't think debate about rumours is going to ever affect a professionally managed competition. This is a pot that stirs itself. It could be bang on, it could be totally off. I'm hoping everyone will look at the assertions on their own merit. These are bits of conversations with officers, ex-Chiefs etc over the last few weeks strung together. Ok, let's get down to it.

The overriding sense I get from my sources is this: It is not a question of what chance the MiG-35 has in the MMRCA sweepstakes but whether the MiG-35 ever had a chance in the first place. From the start, it turns out, both the MoD and a controlling section of the IAF have agreed on one crucial thing -- the next aircraft the IAF operated would need to be a truly modern platform that "broke the mould". That was to be the starting point of everything that followed. The IAF's next aircraft needed to be a top-of-the-line aircraft that broke out from the old mould and signalled new things for India in every possible sense: technology, diplomacy, security cooperation, political opportunity, military interoperability, logistical exchange and economics.

As late as mid-2006, a time when there was a breathless guessing game about precisely when the Indian MoD would send out its MMRCA RFP, there were apparently quiet discussions on over whether Moscow could be brought on board and persuaded to stay out of the proposed MMRCA competition. It was suggested that this be made possible through interactions at the highest levels, but first the MoD and IAF needed to figure the feasibility of such a proposal. It is said that the Russian Ambassador to New Delhi at the time was called in for an unofficial discussion on the highly controversial possibility of Russia actually being kept out of the sweepstakes. He was accompanied by Russia's Air Attache. As the IAF expected, the Russian envoy was incredulous. He said there was no way on earth his Russian bosses would ever be persuaded to agree to that. Obviously. A month before that in January 2007 was an important event -- India and Russia finally formalised their joint fifth generation aircraft plan, though actual agreements came later.

In February 2005, Russia had sent a MiG-29M/M2 MRCA to AeroIndia 05. For AeroIndia 07, MiG pulled out all the stops.

In February 2007, the "MiG-35" (actually the MiG-29M2 No. 154, a 17-year-old airframe with blue-painted fins) was officially unveiled to the world at AeroIndia 07 at the IAF's Yelahanka base. Coupled with the bright red and blue thrust-vectored MiG-29OVT, the two aircraft put up a deeply memorable show. But IAF officers who had a chance to check out the aircraft came away very unimpressed. "It is an old aircraft with a few MFDs," one of them said at the time. At the time, it indeed was, but Russia had said it was merely a proof-of-concept platform that would be evolved into a formidable new Fulcrum.

Six months later, on August 28, 2007 -- two days after the MAKS 2007 air show at Zhukovsky (see photo, me and MiG's Stanislav Gorbunov after our sortie) -- the Indian government finally and belatedly issued its long-awaited RFP to six vendors, 211 pages long and delayed ostensibly by the offsets and selection model sections. This probably means nothing, but in all MoD and official acquisition council papers concerning the MMRCA competition since the RFP, the MiG-35 is first in the list of six competitors. As a matter of record, the official order of the remaining competitors is Gripen, F-16, F/A-18, Typhoon, Rafale. A senior IAF officer who was part of a delegation to MAKS 2007 met UAC boss Alexei Fedorov on August 22-23, 2007, and is understood to have had a very "frank chat". Fedorov was told that the Indian government was willing to consider the MiG-35, though its chances were slim, considering the three explicit guiding principals of the selection process, and the two unspoken ones (more on these later). Fedorov is understood to have said that the Russian government was fully aware of the "winds of change" in New Delhi, but was confident that MiG would put up a good fight, politically too.

On a political level, it was conveyed to the Russians that the flagship Russian airplane, the Su-30, was being patronized extensively by India (plans were afoot already then to up orders), and that the MiG-35 was hardly a platform the Russian Air Force itself was interested in.

On March 7, 2008, the Indian government, after prolonged cost negotiations, finally concluded a $964.1-million contract to upgrade the IAF's entire fleet of over 60 MiG-29s (the Indian phase of the upgrade began in June this year). Shortly thereafter, on April 28, 2008, RAC-MiG/Rosoboronexport submitted an MMRCA technical bid for the MiG-35/35D to the MoD, offering a Fulcrum with an improved airframe, new generation avionics and an AESA radar, the Phazotron Zhuk-AE.

In October-December 2008, during evaluations of the MMRCA technical bids, two Russian MiG-29s crashed after critical structural failures of their fins, forcing the Russian Air Force to ground its entire fleet shortly thereafter. Coming as the accidents did so soon after the upgrade contract was concluded, the IAF generated a query, routed through the Russian Air Attache, asking for a full brief on the accidents on why the Russians had been forced to ground their entire fleet. In April 2009, Russia responded, saying there were structural faults in the MiG-29 platform, and that the accidents had been caused as a result of structural failure of the aircraft's fin root ribs. Significantly, the Russians conveyed that a specific "repair scheme" would be included in the March 2008 upgrade manifest. The IAF, however, demanded to know what immediate checks needed to be carried out and requested full accident reports. These were provided. The Russians grounding their entire Fulcrum fleet created a huge stir. Sections of the MoD/IAF debated the possibility of manipulating the entire issue to somehow put the MiG-35 out of the reckoning, but nothing whatsoever in the RFP terms would allow it. Also, by this time, the "guiding principles" as expounded by the MoD had begun to echo like a mantra.

The explicit principles -- first, the IAF's operational needs should be fulfilled. Two, the selection process needed to be competitive and transparent, and finally, that the competition would lead to a legacy leap for Indian industrial capabilities. The unspoken principles -- first, the competition should provide robust leverage to India's multifarious 21st Century political aspirations. And second, as previously stated, the competition needs to break old moulds in every sense to create strategic space for other partnerships.

A former IAF chief, who served during a crucial phase of the MMRCA planning, admits that the competition is a political opportunity that incidentally gives the Indian Air Force a chunky stop-gap to tide over legacy jet phase-outs and delays in the Tejas -- not the other way round. "You can argue ad nauseum about sanctioned strength and squadron strength. The fact is the IAF's requirement is not only much simpler, but much smaller too. As long as the pilots get a top-of-the-line airplane, nobody is complaining. Let the politicians do the politics. That is their job," he says, adding, "The IAF's requirements for a fresh batch of medium fighter jets came at a time when our strategic aspirations were in a state of great flux. It will be an enabler in many ways."

In March 2010, around the time the crucial MMRCA field evaluation trials were winding down, the Indian government exercised options and signed up for 29 additional MiG-29K/KUB shipborne fighters for the Navy at a cost of $1.46-billion, taking its total order to 45 planes. In other words, since the time the IAF first approached the government with a requirement for a quick induction of medium fighters (it wanted to quickly contract for 60-70 more Mirage-2000s at he time), the Indian government has pumped approximately $3.5-billion into procuring MiG-29 platforms or platform related services.

The maximum I could squeeze out from informed sources about the MiG-35's performance in the field evaluation trials is that the platform achieved "average compliance". Areas of poor compliance are said to have occured at the Leh leg (engine related and emmissions issues), avionics exploitation and PGM delivery routines in Russia. The IAF are also said to have been fairly unimpressed with what the Russians had managed to achieve with the aircraft since they first saw it in February 2007. If the MiG-35's performance was average in the trials, they know about it, since the IAF trial team briefed every contending team about their horse's performance after trials concluded. There are more specific details about the MiG-35's performance during the FET, but I was requested not to include those.

The Indian government remains utterly unconvinced of Russia's ability to provide any meaningful industrial package to India as a mandatory part of the MMRCA. The India-Russia relationship is anything but new -- it stretches back 47 years. India has learnt much from Russia, and has been provided the opportunity to cookie-cut airplanes through decades. But when it comes to meaningful industrial collaboration, the Indian government feels the Russians are better at selling and license building, rather than true blue industrial cooperation. And it is not as if there has been no framework for cooperation.

"It is not as though they have not had a chance to deepen their relationship with us industrially. Nobody knows the Indian industrial capability better than the Russians. They have exploited our weaknesses to the hilt for over four decades. But even then their industrial base is in tatters. In my opinion, whatever we can ever get from the Russians, we have already got or are soon to get. To expect anything more is unreasonable," says a former IAF Chief. Apparently, the Indian government also doesn't believe the Russians have anything to offer over and above what the Indians are already signing up for -- the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) will be an ostensibly joint effort.

While the initial Naval MiG-29K deal was too good not to go for (at least in 2004!) and the upgrade of the IAF MiG-29s was something the IAF could postpone but not sidestep, sources say the government has very low confidence in the industrial health of MiG Corporation, tottering as it apparently is from airframe to airframe. Russia's inability to stick to delivery timeframes, especially for MiG Corp, is another spoiler.

A point frequently raised in favour of choosing Russian aircraft is the quality of the Indo-Russian relationship; the fact that Russia has been a faithful friend in times of need/distress. Interestingly, as one Chief pointed out, India has done more than enough to earn Russia's friendship. He says, "Russia has been a time-tested friend in our time of need, but what about the other way round? India has bailed out Russian politicians and leaders time and time again. The MMRCA is also a chance to demonstrate that India is a level partner, and nothing can ever be taken for granted. India is no longer a push-over. I say push-over because there was a time when we undeniably were. In the last decade, there have been instances of flagrant disregard for this so-called partnership. At the same time, we have to be careful about our new prospective relationships. For one thing, the US has an even worse record of reneging on promises."

The same Chief points out that Russians have provided us technology for decades, but we still have a highly flawed, delayed indigenous fighter program. In other words, the perception is that if the Indian military-industrial complex (read HAL and DRDO) is to blame for India's lack of maturity as an aerospace developer, then Russia is at least as much to blame for not allowing it, but rather remaining content with what has essentially been a buyer-seller relationship. "Let it be recorded at some point, that for every time the Russians have said yes, there has been another time they've said no. And let me also say that this is precisely the sort of scenario you may expect to have with the Americans. The quality of relations with Russia and US may be different, but not in any way that would matter to India's own aspirations. Both countries are similar in more fundamental ways. That is an important thing to be remembered," he says.

Another officer, a Naval aviator this time, had a very evocative phrase to describe where India-Russia relations were: "strategic menopause".

Overall, the sense is that the path taken by the MiG-35 so far in the MMRCA competition needs to be seen in the light of the unspoken guiding principles and what the IAF and MoD originally wanted to persuade the Russians about. If the MiG-35 makes it past any potential downselect, it may be seen as having weathered a great deal to get there, no least a concerted attempt to completely discredit Russian technology by virtually all of the other five contenders in the Indian competition. I've put this post up now, but will be adding more to it over the next couple of days.

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