AESA radar, ground attack capability, longer-range missiles, new engines, mid-air refuelling give the ‘most advanced MiG-29 variant’ an edge in India’s neighbourhood
The 4.5 generation capability of the upgraded MiG-29 fighters was successfully validated by the Indian Air Force (IAF) against Royal Air Force Oman (RAFO) F-16s during the air combat Exercise Eastern Bridge-V from October 17 to 26 at the Masirah airbase in Oman.
The Block 50 variant RAFO F-16 are similar to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16s which attempted a retaliatory attack after the IAF bombing of the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist camp at Balakot on February 26.
This is the first time that the IAF fielded the MiG-29 in any international exercise overseas. Besides the F-16s, the IAF MiG-29UPG also sparred with the RAFO Eurofighter Typhoon and the multi-role Hawk.
The IAF operates 3 squadrons of MiG-29s. Over 60 MiG-29s have already been upgraded to make them more relevant and contemporary, and capable of taking on F-16-type of challenges. The last two of the legacy MiG-29s were handed over for upgrade retrofit to the IAF’s 11 Base Repair Depot at Ojhar, Maharashtra, on September 29. The IAF MiG-29 UPG has been termed the “most advanced variant of the MiG-29” by the Russian OEM, Mikoyan.
With Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapon capability, the IAF MiG-29s were used very effectively during the Kargil War in 1999 to provide fighter escort to Mirage-2000 jets which pounded targets with precision bombing. The asymmetry provided by the MiG-29 kept the PAF away from Kargil. Subsequently, the MiG-29 air superiority edge was blunted, with the PAF acquiring longer BVR capability on the more contemporary Block 50/52 F-16s.
The reported $15 million apiece customised upgrade has restored the edge to the MiG-29, made it multi-role over a longer range, and given the IAF more options and greater numbers to cope with the PAF F-16 threat. “The MiG-29UPG capability is comparable to the F-16 Block 70 variant,” a senior IAF officer said.
The ZHUK-ME AESA radar which gives the fighter ground attack capability, air-to-air-fuelling for extended range and the Series 3 RD-33 engines are at the heart of the capability upgrade, which extends the relevance of the IAF MiG-29 fleet by 15 years. The replacement of the outdated N-019 Topaz air intercept radar by the ZHUK-ME AESA is at the core of the 4.5 generation capability.
The weapons upgrade includes the medium range R-77RVVAE air-to-air missile (which also arm the Su-30MKI) and the Kh-35E anti-ship missile. A very visible dorsal hump added to the upper fuselage houses an electric warfare suite and additional fuel capacity increases the range on internal fuel by 40 per cent to 2,100 km.
Increase in the weapons load to 4,500 kg with airframe strengthening on six under-wing and one ventral hard points in a pattern similar to that on the MiG-35, advanced weapon control system and avionics, including laser-guided PGM capability, a retractable mid-air refuelling probe similar to the Russian MiG-29SMT and the Malaysian MiG-29N, secure data link and improved glass cockpit with enhanced HOTAS design are the other highlights of the upgrade, sources confirmed to this reporter.
The Indian UPG version is similar to the Russian SMT variant but differs on account of an Israeli avionics suite. A separate contract was signed with Israel’s IAI for the avionics. The upgrade contract with Russia was worth an estimated $900 million. Under this deal, the first six IAF MiG-29s were upgraded in Russia, and the rest at IAF’s 11 Base Repair Depot at Ojhar under transfer of technology.
Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria visited Oman to witness the exercise and the performance of the MiG-29UPG. His visit was also intended to “consolidate the military ties between Oman and India, provide an impetus towards defence cooperation and pave the way for greater interaction between the Air Forces”, the IAF stated.
The IAF Chief called on the Omani ministers of Defence and Royal Affairs, Sayyid Badar bin Saud Al-Busaidi and Sultan bin Mohammad Al Nu’amani to reinforce close military ties with the strategically-located West Asian nation, besides interacting with the RAFO Commander Air Vice Marshal Matar bin Ali Obaidani at the Masirah airbase, from where the exercise was staged.
This was the 5th edition of biennial Exercise Eastern Bridge, which was staged for the first time in 2009 at Oman’s Thumrait base. The second and fourth editions were held at Jamnagar in 2011 and 2017.
Oman was the first West Asian country with which India has held regular military exercises since 1993, commencing with the Naseem Al Bahr (Sea Breeze) series of naval exercises, the 12th edition of which will be staged soon. The Army exercise is codenamed Al Nagah.