March 18, 2007:
The Indian air force is so happy
with its 78 Russian MiG29 fighters, that it is spending about ten million
dollars per aircraft to upgrade them, 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 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.
The Indian upgrade program will equip their MiG-29s
to handle long range missiles, like the AMRAAM the U.S. is selling to Pakistan.
That means installing a phased array radar. The Mig-29s will also get a modern
cockpit, inflight refueling capability and dozens of minor tweaks.
Because Indias 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
The MiG-29 upgrade program
will take three years to complete.