MiG-29K’s Deficiencies - A Depressing Fact For The Indian Navy
The MiG-29K was chosen by the Indian Navy for aircraft carriers INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov, which was acquired from Russia) and the indigenous aircraft carrier currently being built, the INS Vikrant. The multi-role, new generation MiG-29K has a newly designed, resilient airframe (with around 15% composite materials) said to be stronger than that of its predecessors. With fly-by-wire technology and RD-33 MK engines, the MiG-29K is a technological improvement of the MiG-29.
In January 2004, a contract was signed between the Indian Ministry of Defence and the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG (RAC) for the acquisition of 16 MiG 29K/KUB (KUB is the dual-seat variant) and equipment at a cost of $740.35 million, including 13 aircraft for the INS Vikramaditya. In March 2010, an Option Clause contract was signed for the acquisition of 29 MiG 29K/KUB aircraft (which included 12 MiG-29K and one MiG-29KUB) for the INS Vikrant at a cost of $1466.44 million. The deliveries of the Mig-29K under the Option Clause scheduled between 2012 and 2016 are ahead of the commissioning schedule of the INS Vikrant set for 2023. By September 2014, the Indian Navy received 21 aircraft.
The MiG-29K has not been without problems. Deck landings on the INS Vikramaditya are affecting the MiG-29K’s structure with regular maintenance and re-setting of systems needed. In February 2017, a MiG-29K made an emergency landing at Mangaluru International Airport in Mangalore, India due to a technical failure. According to former airport director, J.T. Radhakrishna, the aircraft developed a technical problem and asked for permission to land. On landing, the rear tyres of the aircraft burst stranding the Mig-29K on the runway.
The RD-33 MK engines have experienced several issues with India looking to build a maintenance repair and overhaul facility at INS Hansa to maintain the MiG-29K. According to the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for the year March 2015 (Report No.17 of 2016), the MiG-29K continues to face operational limitations due to defects in engines, airframe, and the fly-by-wire system.
According to the report, serviceability of the MiG-29K was low ranging from 15.93 per cent (2011-2012) to 37.63 per cent (2014-2015). The MiG-29K’s service life is 6000 hours or 25 years, however issues with the aircraft drastically reduce this range. Serviceability means that the Mig-29K is technically available and not undergoing scheduled repair or overhaul. The service life of the RD-33 MK engine is 4000 hours or ten years with an overhaul life of 1000 hours. The Indian Navy ordered 113 engines together with the 45 aircraft (90 installed on aircraft and 23 spare engines).
As of September 2014, the Indian Navy had accepted a total of 65 engines (42 with the 21 aircraft delivered and 23 spare). However, since induction in February 2010 40 engines (representing 62 per cent of 65 engines) had been withdrawn from service or rejected due to design-related defects or deficiencies. According to the Audit report, the defects had serious safety implications with in-flight engine defects leading to ten cases of single engine landings. Up to August 2015, 46 engines were withdrawn from service, placing the reliability of the RD-33 MK into question, since it is an improvement of the RD-33.
Airframe defects reared their head during the first deck trials on the INS Vikramaditya in July 2012 as reported by Headquarters Western Naval Command, Mumbai to the Directorate of Naval Air Staff. In May 2014, the RAC stated that aircraft performance under test conditions on the INS Vikramaditya conformed to specifications, however added that weaknesses were revealed during flight tests, which would be eliminated. In June 2014, the Directorate of Air Support Equipment informed the RAC that several defects occurred during deck operations due to failure of airframe parts despite design improvements and modifications. The Indian Navy is monitoring the defects and informing RAC for remedial measures. These defects have a serious impact on pilots training and capability for extended deployments. Regarding the fly-by-wire system, RAC assures that the system has quadruple redundancy however reliability has been very poor ranging from 3.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent between July 2012 and June 2014. The RAC is looking to improve the reliability of the system.
Despite the deficiencies, the Russians are disputing public claims of issues relating to the Mig-29K. Earlier this month, the RAC sent a statement to Jane’s Information Group following an American article on maintenance issues stating: “We would like to flatly refute all negative allegations in the article concerning the MiG-29K aircraft, which are the sole fighters on the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. Neither we, nor our partners have received any official claims about operational problems with the Russian MiG aircraft.” The RAC added that the INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant aircraft carriers are designed to carry Russian aircraft including the MiG-29K/KUB.
It’s not hard to see that carrier compatibility of the Mig-29K during deck operations is yet to be fully proved and despite modifications, the Mig-29K continues to face operational deficiencies. To add fuel to the flames, the delayed commissioning of the INS Vikrant set for 2023 would reduce the service life of the aircraft, affecting the operational life of the aircraft already delivered. Even though the INS Vikramaditya is in service, the continuous shifting of delivery timelines of the INS Vikrant will without a doubt impact India’s naval capabilities.
Current RFI :
India issued a Request For Information (RFI) in January 2017 for 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBF) for Indian Navy aircraft carriers. Manufacturers have to undertake offset contracts amounting to 30% of the value of their commercial proposals.
Contenders are Boeing (F-18 Super Hornet), Dassault Aviation (Rafale M), Saab (Sea Gripen/Gripen M) and RAC (Mig-29 K).
Written by Sylvia Caravotas (Satovarac Consulting) for OIDA