July 21, 2009: For the second time in three months, India and Russia are scrutinizing their MiG-29 fleets for structural flaws. This time around, it's a search for aircraft with corrosion cracks in the tail. Three months ago, India had to examine its MiG-29 fleet for similar structural flaws in another part of the aircraft. Russia was so concerned about this that they grounded all 300 of their own, and found 90 of them had serious corrosion problems.
Despite all that, last year the Indian air force sent the first six of its 78 MiG-29 fighters to Russia for a major upgrade. This will cost about ten million dollars per aircraft, and extend their service life from the current 25 years, to 40 years. Thus India is planning on keeping its MiG-29s around until the 2030s. The Indian upgrade program will equip their MiG-29s to handle long range missiles, similar to the AMRAAMs the U.S. is selling to Pakistan. That means installing a phased array radar. The Mig-29s will also get a modern cockpit, in-flight refueling capability and dozens of minor tweaks. This upgrade plan will not be aborted because of the new corrosion problem.
The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983, as the answer to the American F-16. Some 1,600 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with about 900 of them exported. India received its first MiG-29s in 1986, with deliveries continuing into the 1990s. The 22 ton aircraft is roughly comparable to the F-16, but it depends a lot on which version of either aircraft you are talking about. Russia is making a lot of money upgrading MiG-29s. Not just adding new electronics, but also making the airframe more robust. The MiG-29 was originally rated at 2,500 total flight hours. At that time (early 80s), Russia expected MiG-29s to fly about a hundred or so hours a year. India flew them at nearly twice that rate, and now Russia is offering to spiff up the airframe so that the aircraft can fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extensions upgrades promised. This won't be easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic). Compared to Western aircraft, like the F-16, the MiG-29 is available for action about two thirds as much. While extending the life of the MiG-29 into the 2030s is theoretically possible, actually doing so will be real breakthrough in Russian aircraft capabilities.
Because India's fighter fleet is aging rapidly, it only has 29 squadrons of fighters (about 24 aircraft each), instead of the 45 squadrons it would like to have. But with modernized fighters like the upgraded MiG-29, quality can, to a point, replace quantity. In fact, with the growing dominance of long range air-to-air missiles, and electronic warfare, the speed and agility of fighters is less important than are the electronics and missiles they carry.
The MiG-29 upgrade program will take three years to complete. This will not solve the MiG-29 engine problem (too much visible smoke), and the Russians have promised that past problems in getting spare parts, will not happen again. All things being equal, the MiG-29 should be the equal of a F-16 or F-15. But in all combat so far, the MiG-29s have had the inferior pilots, and have lost. Indian pilots are probably the best trained, and most experienced, that are flying the MiG-29. If India should go to war in the future, while the MiG-29s are still in service, air force commanders will watch with interest how the aircraft does in the hands of world class pilots. But first it will have to survive its construction defects.