New Delhi has sent Moscow a request for an “urgent shipment” of 21 MiG-29 “Fulcrum” fighters. The story surfaced in mid-February in the Indian media and was subsequently confirmed by Russian sources. Reportedly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet granted approval to the MoD’s request to spend about $847 million on the purchase, or about $40 million per aircraft. This is three times below what Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) charges for a freshly assembled Sukhoi Su-30MKI and five times below the reported cost for a Rafale.
Acquiring MiGs is viewed as the cheapest way to quickly replenish the diminishing strength of the Indian Air Force, which used to have 38 fighter squadrons but now struggles to keep that number above 30, far below the government-approved figure of 42. According to local sources, the number of MiGs should be sufficient to replenish attrition and form a new squadron, thus boosting the number of MiG-29 squadrons to four. For New Delhi, the selection of the aging type instead of modern alternatives can also be explained by the fact that the MiG-29 has won a reputation for being highly reliable and easy to repair and maintain. Besides, Narendra Modi’s government has little time and budget resources available before general elections later this year.
According to Russian sources, preliminary negotiations took place in January, and delivery terms are now being negotiated. It is not clear yet whether the MiGs bound for India will be freshly assembled using airframe parts from RAC MiG’s stocks or be taken from the Russian army’s storehouses and out of air and space force (VKS) units. The manufacturer is believed to still keep a few “classic” MiG-29 fuselages, but wing components need to be made from scratch. The contemporary Advanced Fulcrum family—comprising MiG-29K/KUB and MiG-29M1/M2 (MiG-35)—is far more expensive and unlikely to meet the budget. Moscow can also offer MiG-29s from the stocks of decommissioned equipment, but restoring redundant airframes with limited lifetime resources may not prove to be a cost-effective proposition.
A more likely scenario is that New Delhi will buy MiG-29SMT/UBT aircraft that are now operational with VKS. These represent the latest versions of the “classic” Fulcrum with larger fuel tanks and improved avionics and mission equipment. The VKS received 34 such aircraft in 2009 (manufactured for Algeria under a 2008 contract, but not accepted by the intended customer) and 14 in 2015/16. Russia was selling such aircraft to foreign clients at an average of $38 million, the figure close to the Indian purchase plan.
First flown in 1977 and operational since 1983, the “classic” MiG-29 had a production run of 1,600 single-seat combat jets and two-seat operational trainers. The type is now considered outdated but still surpasses many in-production fighters in its initial climb rate of 65,000 fpm (330m/sec), g-load factor of 9, and maximum Mach number of 2.35.
Historically, India was the first overseas customer for the MiG-29, receiving 50 aircraft in 1986. They were inducted into No. 28 Squadron “First Supersonics” in December 1987, and shortly after into No. 47 “Flying Archers.” Upon the shipment of 20 more aircraft in 1989, India placed them with No. 223 “Tridents.” In 1994-1995 India purchased 10 more aircraft to compensate for attrition. RAC MiG won a contract in 2008 to upgrade 63 single-seaters into MiG-29UPG standard, broadly similar to the MiG-29SMT but involving replacement of the outdated N-019 Topaz radar with the modern Т-010 Zhuk.