Are we losing out on the Indian market?

FGFA fighter promises to be a big step forward for Indian Air Force. Source:

FGFA fighter promises to be a big step forward for Indian Air Force. Source:

The relationship between Russia and India in military aviation is developing successfully and has an excellent long-term outlook.

Moscow showcased its state-of-the-art export models of aircraft engineering and air defence facilities at the Aero India 2013 show, which was held in Bangalore from 6 to 10 February 2013. There is a popular belief that Russia is losing the Indian market for combat aviation to the West but is this true?

To answer this, we must analyse not only the current market environment but also the events of the last five decades, for this is how old the relationship between Russia and India in military aviation is ‒ it started in 1963, when Russia first supplied MiG-21F-13 fighters to the Indian Air Force.

For a comparatively short period, the MiG-21 was the backbone of the Indian fighter fleet. The machine helped tip the scales in favour of India in military conflicts with Pakistan, which operated western, mostly American-made machines. The battle-tested fighter won the trust of the Indian Air Force, paving the way for further engagement.

Big-time politics played a crucial role in the bilateral cooperation. Russia and India have always shared the same position on major international and military issues. Furthermore, Russia has never used military and technical collaboration as a lever to shape Delhi’s policies.


India has never been a satellite of any foreign power and has built an independent military and technical policy. When it comes to combat aviation, it has diverse partners in military and technical cooperation. In the 1950s, the Indians kept a balance between fighters built in the UK and France. After 1963, those two countries competed for the second and third spots on the list of combat fighter suppliers to the Indian Air Force.

There are no prerequisites for this pattern to change. To make sure, we need to take a look at the structure of the Indian Air Force fleet. 

The role of the core aircraft in the fleet is being shifted to the Su-30MKI from the MiG-21.

The MiG-29 lightweight fighter, which is currently undergoing a MiG-29UPG modernisation programme, will stay in the Indian Air Force for a long time, as will the Mirage 2000.

The core attack aircraft are the MiG-27 and the Anglo-French Jaguar.

The core fighter for the Indian Navy is the MiG-29K/KUB, which is replacing the Harrier.

The grand total is that Indian fighter aviation is using five types of Russian aircraft and three types of western European aircraft.


Let us try to foresee the structure of the fighter fleet in 20 years’ time.

Apparently, whatever the situation, the Su-30MKI will remain the core fighter for the Indian Air Force. After President Vladimir Putin signed another major contract for supplies of the Su-30MKI to India during his visit in December 2012, the portfolio of contracted fighters was expanded to 272 machines, more than 150 of which have already been delivered to India. British Flight magazine has reported with reference to sources in the Indian manufacturing sector that India was planning to operate up to 350 fighters of this type.

The Su-30MKI will soon undergo modernisation under two programmes, one of them envisaging a radical renovation of avionics, including installation of an active phased array radar system. The other programme is to arm the fighter with the unique Russian-Indian BrahMos missile. Alexander Fomin, Director of the Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, said before the opening of Aero-India 2013: “In December, we signed a contract to adapt the BrahMos to the Su aircraft and we are actively working on implementing this idea of our Indian partners.”

The supplier of the Su-30MKI — the Irkut corporation — has developed, in association with Indian HAL, the infrastructure required for completely overhauling the Su-30MKI fighters delivered in the early 2000s.

The Su-30MKI will, therefore, remain the most successful programme of Russian-Indian military and technical cooperation for years to come, the foreign exchange proceeds not being limited to payments for the aircraft and kits. World practice has shown that revenues from modernisation, overhaul and other forms of aftersales service are often equal to those from sale of the original aircraft.

But let us get back to the outlook for the Indian fighter fleet.

The Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) will be the latest additional to the fleet after 2020; it is planned for the Air Force to have up to 200 FGFA fighters.

The modernised MiG-29UPG and Mirage 2000 will be phased out after 2030. Some experts believe that supplies of the new MiG-29 fighters with cutting edge avionics are the fastest way for the Indian Air Force to expand its fleet amid the obvious delays in supplies of the Rafale aircraft. Importantly, the Indian military authorities are deeply concerned over the reduction in the number of combat squadrons to 34 from the required 45.

The Indian Tejas fighter will become the core light fighter; some 200-250 machines will be acquired.

The MiG-29K/KUB will remain the main fighter of the Indian Air Force. So far, 20 fighters have been delivered to India (16 under the 2004 contract and four more under the contract signed in 2010). The current agreements will make it possible to increase the number of Russian-made fighters to 45. Further increases in the air force will depend on the progress of the national programme for construction of aircraft carriers. Experts think that additional orders for MiG-29K/KUB may be placed with the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG soon.

Finally, the Indian Air Force may acquire another fifth-generation fighter under the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme. This will be a MiG-29 class machine, which opens a new ‘window of opportunity’ for cooperation with Russia.

Russia’s dominance on the Indian market for combat aircraft will thus remain in the foreseeable future. The long-term outlook for the period after 2030 envisions only one western aircraft operated by the Indian Air Force — the Rafale — whereas it currently operates three (the Mirage 2000, Jaguar and Harrier). In this context, the speculations that Russia is losing the Indian market to western competitors are inappropriate and pointless.

Prospects for cooperation

India is obviously trying to increase the share of combat aircraft produced domestically. Even so, the story of the Tejas lightweight fighter and, especially, its Kaveri engine has made it clear that international efforts are needed in order to pursue the basic aviation programme.

Russia, for its part, managed to respond to the Indian national production trend in a timely fashion and continued building on the mutually beneficial cooperation strategy.

Foreign competitors have been unable to develop the same sort of relationship with India. The Rafale, which won the MMRCA tender, envisages the same level of engagement (licensed production) that Russia achieved with its MiG-21 programme 50 years ago. Unlike the Su-30MKI and MiG-29K/KUB programmes, the Indian Defence Ministry is not involved in designing the Rafale but selects the designs from the proposed list.

New Delhi chose Russia to be its principal partner in the development of combat aviation, building on the best combination of political, technical and economic factors. The United States has no access to the Indian market for combat aircraft, as a politically unreliable partner (India remembers the US embargo after it tested its nuclear warhead) and an ally of Pakistan.

The level of political trust between India and Russia, as well as mutual understanding between technical specialists, is obviously higher than that between India and Russia’s western competitors, this being critical for combat aviation, one of the most sensitive areas of military and technical cooperation.

The only more sensitive area is nuclear arms but they are developed exclusively as a national effort.

The main trend in promoting the relationship between Russia and India in the military and industrial sector is evolution from supplies of technologies to more advanced forms of technical and R&D cooperation. The two countries had been accumulating cooperation experience in licensed production and modernisation of the MiG-21, MiG-21Bis and MiG-27 aircraft.

In the second half of the 1990s, the Su-30MKI production programme witnessed a revolution, as Russia and India started working on the design for the perspective fighter together, while the leading Indian high-tech companies teamed up with Russian makers to develop and produce systems for the new fighter.

The Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG gained similar experience working on the MiG-29K/KUB programme and modernising the MiG-29 under the MiG-29UPG project.

The relationship with India in development of combat aviation is a two-way street. The ideas and solutions implemented in the Su-30MKI and MiG-29K/KUB are used in the Su-30SM and the Russian version of the MiG-29K/KUB, which is being acquired for the Russian Armed Forces.

The joint efforts of Russian and Indian specialists under the MiG-21, MiG-27, Su-30MKI, MiG-29K and MiG-29UPG programmes set the stage for a breakthrough in joint development of advanced aviation equipment within the framework of the FGFA project, the Russian-Indian fifth-generation PAK FA-based fighter.

New level of trust

Joint design, development and construction call for a higher level of trust and mutual understanding than purchases of machinery.

Credit must be given to the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, Corporation Irkut, Sukhoi Company and the entire United Aircraft Corporation for achieving this level of relationship.

This trust between the partners is Russia’s strategic asset, guaranteeing that it will maintain its position on its largest combat aviation market, as well as an effective means for saving national resources by combining the efforts of the two countries.

Russian-Indian cooperation in military aircraft building effectively meets the requirements of both countries and is in line with the global trend towards internationalisation of military programmes. The Su-30MKI, MiG-29K/KUB and FGFA are our appropriate response to the Eurofighter and F-35 programmes.

Timeline of the collaboration between Russia and India in fighter aviation

Since 1963 ‒ supplies of the MiG-21F-13.

1967-1987 ‒ licensed production of various modifications of the MiG-21 at HAL facilities.

1980s ‒ supplies of the MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-29.

1988-1997 — licensed production of the MiG-27M bomber-fighters at HAL facilities.

1996 ‒ Russia and India sign a landmark contract for development and supply to the Indian Air Forces of Su-30MKI multirole fighters (Corporation Irkut is the chief contractor).

1996-2002 ‒ Irkut puts together an international team to design and develop the Su-30MKI. The main parties involved are Sukhoi Design Bureau, HAL, and high-tech Indian and French companies.

2000 ‒ a contract is signed for production of the Su-30MKI in India under a licence from Irkut.

2002-present ‒ supplies of the Su-30MKI fighters to the Indian Air Force.

2004 ‒ contract is signed for supplies of the MiG-29K/KUB to India; leading Indian producers of avionics are engaged.

2009-2011 — supplies of the MiG-29K/KUB under a 2004 contract.

March 2010 ‒ a contract is signed for supplies of 29 MiG-29K/KUB fighters as an option to the 2004 contract.

December 2010 ‒ Russia and India sign an agreement on joint development of fifth-generation FGFA fighters.

Since December 2012 ‒ supplies of the MiG-29K/KUB under the 2010 contract.

December 2012 ‒ supplies of three modernised MiG-29UPG aircraft.

24 December 2012 ‒ a new contract is signed for delivery of 42 kits for licensed production of the Su-30MKI.

First published in Russian in VPK Daily.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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