In mid-2020 India announced plans to send 20 of its 45 MiG-29K carrier-based fighters to bases near the Chinese border. The MiG-29K is needed there to increase fighter patrols and the overall ability to confront growing Chinese fighter deployments near the border.
The 45 MiG-29Ks were purchased for the carrier INS Vikramaditya, which entered service in 2014 and can operate 29 MiG-29Ks while the remaining 16 MiG-29Ks are used for training and as replacements for aircraft that are damaged or require major maintenance. In any event the Vikramaditya usually operates 24 or fewer MiG-29Ks so sending twenty of these aircraft north will provide useful training for the pilots without crippling the Vikramaditya.
Some news stories mistakenly reported that the 20 MiG-29Ks sent north were depriving the new Indian-built carrier Vikrant of jet fighters. There have been problems with carrier use of the MiG-29K as well as difficulties getting Vikrant into service. Under construction since 2009, Vikrant is not expected to enter service until 2023. As a result, India has been searching for another carrier fighter for Vikrant because the MiG-29K has performed poorly as a carrier-based aircraft. Since 2017 the Indian Navy has been seeking an alternative carrier aircraft and the Indian procurement bureaucracy ensures that this process takes a long time.
The 40,000-ton Vikrant has a ski-jump deck, like the earlier, refurbished Russian Vikramaditya, and is designed to carry 29 jet fighters and ten helicopters. A second Indian carrier is in the planning stages and will be based on Vikrant but larger (65,000 tons) and use a catapult instead of a ski jump for takeoffs. That enables aircraft to take off carrying more weight and some kinds of aircraft (like radar early warning types) to be used. The Indian Navy wants to see how the Vikrant works out before committing to the final design for Vikrant 2.0; the 65.000-ton INS Vishal. Faced with the dismal performance of the Vikrant construction effort, it is unlikely that Vishal will be in service until the 2030s. Vikrant is now ten years behind schedule and there is still ample opportunity for more self-inflicted problems and delays. Currently Vikrant is supposed to be completed by 2021 and, after sea trials, enter service in 2023. Based on past performance the Vikrant is more likely to enter service in 2025 or later.
In early 2017 the Indian Navy issued a request for foreign suppliers to bid on a $15 billion contract to supply 57 jet fighter-bombers capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. This comes after a late 2016 announcement that India’s locally designed and built LCA (Light Combat Aircraft or “Tejas”) jet fighter was unsuitable for use on Indian aircraft carriers. The navy mentioned the LCA being overweight and, well, simply not suitable. With some encouragement from the government, the navy amended its decision to include the possibility that 46 of the LCA Mk2 (due in 2025) might be ordered if the empty weight could be reduced 15 percent (from 6.6 tons to 5.6 tons). Currently, the max weight is 13.5 tons and armament is one twin-barrel 23mm autocannon and up to 3.5 tons of missiles and bombs. Internal fuel is 2.5 tons and that can be increased by at least 40 percent via drop tanks. Many in the navy don’t believe LCA will survive until 2025 and the government seems to concur and authorized the navy to seek a suitable carrier aircraft abroad.
Meanwhile the Indian manufacturer and the government DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) claimed they could develop and get into service a carrier-capable twin-engine version of the LCA by 2032. Based on the track-records of DRDO and HAL (the Indian firm producing the LCA) that is extremely unlikely. However, there is much political and popular support for a twin-engine LCA for carrier operations, despite the long record of failure of similar problems. Something India does not like to dwell on is that fifty years ago India was operating an aircraft carrier while China had hardly any navy at all and not much of a defense manufacturing industry. Since then China has moved way past India in developing and producing modern weapons. China already has two carriers in service and two more under construction. China builds its own carrier-based jet fighters.
Many Indian navy and procurement officials realize the extent of these problems. This was made clear after the Indian Navy bought its first 16 Russian MiG-29K for the INS Vikramaditya. The Indians were not happy with the performance of the refurbished Vikramaditya or the MiG-29K. Technically an upgraded MiG-29K could compete for the contract to replace the current model MiG-29Ks, a carrier aircraft the Russians have given up trying to fix. India ordered the MiG-29Ks a decade before receiving them in 2009 and began using them on the Vikramaditya in 2012. The main issue is that the MiG-29K is not rugged enough to survive prolonged use on a carrier. It’s the carrier landings that do the most damage and the MiG-29K requires sturdier landing gear and a few other more robust components. The main concern here is the engines the MiG-29K uses. When operating from a carrier these engines suffer more breakdowns than the land-based MiG-29s. There were numerous MiG-29K crashes, most of them belonging to India. One of the crashes was in 2011 where a newly built, for India, MiG-29K crashed during acceptance testing. This was in Russia and at that point, India halted further order for MiG-29Ks and began seeking another supplier.
So far, the most likely replacement for the MiG-29K is the American F-18E/F which has never operated from a ski-jump carrier, only from catapult equipped carriers. The manufacturer is building a land-based ski-jump carrier deck and will test its F-18s on that to assure India that the F-18 can do the job. India hoped to buy 57 F-18s if the ski-jump tests are successful. The F-18E would replace the MiG-29Ks already in use on Vikramaditya and enable the new Vikrant to enter service with jet fighters that work. But then HAL/DRDO came in a promised they could do better. They can’t. The Indian Navy knows it but that is a minority opinion.
Even in 2017 it was believed that given the extremely long time Indian procurement officials take to actually complete the purchase of foreign aircraft, the delays in Vikrant entering service are an advantage for an F-18 purchase. Negotiations to buy the F-18 actually began in 2018 as the American manufacturer, Boeing, began making deals with India firms to build some F-18 components and assemble the 57 Indian F-18s in India so they could be declared “made in India.” For Boeing, this is a $15 billion deal but it is no secret that working out the details with India is more of a marathon than a sprint. With the new F-18 assembly operation India will feel confident in buying more F-18s, which many export customers use mainly as a land-based fighter.
The F-18E has been around for two decades and obtained substantial combat experience after 2001. That provided some interesting problems for the F-18. Since about 2006 the navy found that both their older F-18C Hornet fighters and their newer F-18E “Super Hornet” were wearing out much faster than they were supposed to. This was sort of expected with the F-18Cs, which entered service in the 1980s. These aircraft were expected to last about twenty years. But that was based on a peacetime tempo of operations, with about a hundred quite stressful carrier “traps” (landings) per year. There have been more than that because of the 1991 Gulf War (and the subsequent decade of patrolling the no-fly zone) and the war on terror. To keep enough of these aircraft operational until the F-35 arrives to replace them, new structural components (mainly the center barrel sections) were manufactured. This is good news for foreign users of the F-18C, who want to keep their aircraft in service longer.
The F-18E entered service in 2001 and was supposed to last 6,000 flight hours. But the portion of the wing that supports the pylons holding stuff (bombs, missiles, equipment pods or extra fuel tanks) were found to be good for no more than 3,000 flight hours. The metal, in effect, was weakening faster than expected. Such “metal fatigue”, which ultimately results in the metal breaking, is normal for all aircraft. Calculating the life of such parts is still part art, as well as a lot of science. Again, unexpectedly high combat operations are the culprit. One specific reason for the problem was the larger than expected number of carrier landings carrying bombs. That’s because so many missions over Iraq and Afghanistan did not require F-18Es to use their bombs or missiles.
The navy modified existing F-18Es to fix the problem, which is a normal response to such situations. Sometimes these fixes cost millions of dollars per aircraft, but this particular fatigue problem is costing more to fix than expected. Many aircraft appear beyond repair and will have to be retired after 8,000 hours in the air. The MiG-29K was having component failure as well as stress-related problems. Even Russia agrees that it is too expensive to redesign the MiH-29K to fix those problems.
There are actually two quite different aircraft that are called the F-18 (the A/B/C/D version, and the E/F/Gs). While the F-18E looks like the original F-18A, it is actually very different. The F-18E is about 25 percent larger (and heavier) than the earlier F-18s and has a new type of engine. By calling it an upgrade, it was easier for the navy to get the money from Congress. That’s because, in the early 1990s, Congress was expecting a “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War, and was slashing the defense budget. There was a lot of commonality between the two F-18s, but they are basically two different aircraft. Thus, when used more heavily than expected, they developed metal fatigue in different parts of the airframe.