Indo-Russian Aerospace Bear Hug

anil chopra, air power asia, Indo-Russia

Putin’s Russia is trying to rise back to its Soviet day glory of excellence in Science and technology and especially aerospace. In the early 1950s Communist Soviet Union was looking for influential third world friends and newly independent India wanted friends without strings. In its desire to contain communism, USA wanted to befriend India, but want it to formally align by joining Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) or The Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). India had chosen to remain non-aligned. Meanwhile Pakistan chose to join these treaties. A pro Soviet tilt began in 1955 after exchange of visits of heads of state of the two countries. India had to build its Armed Forces as relations with emerging communist China had soured. Six medium-lift cargo aircraft Ilyushin IL-14 joined Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1955. Total 26 were inducted and they flew till 1979. Mi-4 helicopters bought in the early 1960s were the workhorse of the helicopter fleet for next 21 years. They also played an important role in 1971 Bangladesh war undertaking India’s first heli-borne operation near Sylhet. Eventually 120 Mi-4s served IAF. Orders were also placed for eight Antonov An-12B, 10-ton pay-load class aircraft. An-12s were used in the 1962 Sino-India war for air lifting army reinforcements. In 1971 war they were also used for heavy bombing. A total of 33 An-12s operated till phase out in 1990s.

Serious Aerospace relation Begins

          In 1962 Soviets agreed to transfer technology to co-produce the MiG-21aircraft in India, something they had earlier denied to China. Over 10,000 of this type were built in the Soviet Union and over 1,000 built/inducted in India.  Nearly 140 of which fly even today. MiG-21s out classed the American competitor F-104 star fighter in air combat. On 12 December 1971, an aircraft of IAF’s 47 Squadron shot down an F-104 over Gulf of Kutch. In mid 1960s, a total of 140 swept-wing high-speed Sukhoi SU-7B strike aircraft were bought to replace Hunters and Mystere IVs.

          India also got its first set of missiles from the Soviets. K-13 was the first generation air-to-air missiles that came with MiG-21s. R-73, R-27 and R-77 RVVAE were among the many that followed in subsequent years. Similarly SA-2 (Dvina) was India’s first Surface-to-Air missile. SA-3 Pechora and SAM-8 joined the IAF later. The state-of-the-art jointly developed Indo-Russian BrahMos cruise missile is already under induction in the Indian Armed Forces.

          For license production of MiG-21 in India, in early 1960s, Soviets helped India set up three factories as new divisions of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). These were at Nasik (aircraft) Koraput (engines) and Hyderabad (avionics). These factories were to later build, overhaul and upgrade all types of Russian aircraft. At one time in the 1980s, 75 percent of IAF inventory was of Russian origin.

Mid Generation Fighters

          IAF procured six MiG-25RBKs and two MiG-25RUs in 1981. They retired from service in May 2006 after years of high-altitude high-speed Mach 3.0 reconnaissance missions across the border. The swing wing MiG 23 joined the IAF in 1982. A total of 40 MiG-23MF (air defence variants), 95 MiG-23 BN (strike) and 15 MiG-23 UB (trainers) were bought. They retired in 2009 after 27 years of service. Meanwhile a heavier and more advanced strike variant of the MiG-23, the ‘MiG-27’ was inducted in 1986. A total of 160 were procured of which 150 were assembled in India. Soviets developed MiG-29s and Su-27s in 1970s to counter the American F-16 and F-15 aircraft. MiG-29s joined the IAF along with Mirage-2000 in mid 1980s. Finally 80 were procured and 63 of these have been upgraded with new avionics kit, the N-109 radar replaced by Phazotron Zhuk-M radar. It also got enhance beyond-visual-range (BVR) combat ability and for air-to-air refuelling. Later Russia also gave India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) a licence to manufacture RD-33 turbofan engines for the upgrade. The upgrade also includes new weapon control system, cockpit ergonomics, air-to-air missiles, high-accuracy air-to-ground missiles and “smart” aerial bombs. The first six MiG-29s were upgraded in Russia and remaining 63 in India. 125 MiG-21 Bis aircraft were upgraded jointly with Russia starting late 1990s and later christened ‘Bison’. The existing five squadrons of these will see IAF through till around 2024 with depleting numbers.

SU-30 MKI

          The super manoeuvrable air superiority fighter Sukhoi SU-30MKI, an advanced variant of SU-27 was developed for IAF after a joint design and development project in early 2000. This 4th generation-plus aircraft is tailor-made for Indian specifications and integrates Indian systems and avionics as well as French and Israeli sub-systems. Being license produced by HAL, a total of 272 aircraft are contracted and nearly 260 have already joined the IAF. This aircraft with 12 hard points  with a capacity of up to 8,130 kg (17,920 lb) state-of-the-art weapons, and will be the backbone of IAFs fighter fleet for at least next two decades. It can carry up to 10 R-77 or Astra class of BVR missiles, or six larger R-27 variants, or three K-100 Novator. It can also carry a host of air to surface and anti-shipping missiles. It can also fire the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. It can carry a variety of laser and TV guided bombs.

            India is planning to upgrade its Su-30MKI fighters with improved variant of Russian Phazotron Zhuk-AE Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, and reduce aircraft radar signature. The planes could also be upgraded with AL-41F turbofan engines, same as on the Sukhoi Su-35. The aircraft will be equipped with a new reconnaissance pods. There are also reports of Spice 2000 glide bomb being cleared for SU-30 MKI. The BrahMos will be cleared only for 40-42 planes. All other upgrades will be on the entire fleet. The actual status of the upgrade is unclear.

The Cargo Fleet

          IAF was the launch customer for the medium transport aircraft designated Antonov An-32, which was essentially a re-engined An-26. Starting 1984, a total of 125 were bought. Currently in inventory, nearly 100 aircraft are under up gradation. Break up of Soviet Union in late 1980s did cause a little turmoil as the aircraft was being built in Kiev, Ukraine.

          The multi-purpose four-engine IL-76 with rear cargo ramp and over 40 ton load capacity for the first time brought strategic lift capability in the sub-continent. Inducted in mid 1980s, IAF today has 17 IL-76MD (freighter), seven IL-78MKI (Air Refueler), and three ‘A-50’ with Israeli Phalcon radar as AWACS. Two systems are on order. IL-76s are being used IAF and national Cargo movement tasks, to logistically sustain the Indian Army in the northern Himalayas, and for inter theatre air transportation.

Helicopters

          Mid-sized utility and assault helicopters Mi-8s joined IAF in the early 1980s. Capable of carrying up to 24 troops, they were also used for VVIP communication duties. Later more advanced versions Mi-17, Mi-17-1V and Mi-17V-5s followed. Operated mostly in medium utility role, nearly 240 of these variants form more than half of near 400 helicopter fleet. IAF also acquired 6 heavy-lift Mi-26 helicopters, three of which are still on its strength. The heavy lift role is now shifting to the just inducted Boeing Chinook CH-47F(I)  helicopters. 15 of these have been bought. The first dedicated attack helicopters of IAF, Mi-25/35 were acquired in 1983. A total of 30 were inducted and two squadrons continued to operate till recently when they began being replaced by the Boeing Apache AH-64E.

Space

India-Russia space engagement goes back to 1975, when the erstwhile Soviet Union helped in the launch of Aryabhata (India’s first satellite), from the Soyuz Launch Vehicle. Even the second satellite Bhaskara was launched from Soviet Union in 1979. In 1984, the Soviets gave a big morale booster to India by taking Sqn Ldr Rakesh Sharma to fly aboard the Soyuz T-11 spaceship. Russia is also supporting India in the fields of satellite navigation through the Russian Satellite Navigation System ‘GLONASS’ for help in India’s own system called NavIC. Russia also supported India with the Cryogenic rocket engine technology for the development of GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) Launch Vehicle. Russia is now again set to play a major role in training Indian crew for ‘Project Gaganyaan’, India’s manned space mission.

Maritime Aviation

          From early 1980s onwards Indian Navy operated many types of Russian maritime fixed and rotary wing aircraft. These included five Ilyushin IL38, eight Tupolev Tu-142M, and many Kamov ka-25, Ka-28 and Ka-31 helicopters. With the recently inducted aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (Ex Russian Gorshkov) were inducted 45 aircraft carrier capable MiG-29Ks.

Upcoming Projects

          An Inter-Governmental commission on military-technical co-operation is co-chaired by the defence ministers of the two countries. A Russian engine was to power the indigenous Intermediate Jet Trainer HJT-36, but the same has not progressed. After the success of SU-30 MKI and Bison design and development projects, and more recently of the BrahMos joint-venture, the approach has shifted to joint development rather than buyer-seller approach. Joint ventures had been planned for development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and the Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA), but both had to be abandoned due cost and work sharing differences and physical orders by the two air forces. India and Russia have plans to build the Make-in-India Ka-226T twin-engine utility aircraft through a joint venture route. In October 2018, the two sides signed $5.43 billion deal for five S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile defence system, ignoring America’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Russia’s MiG-35 and Su-35 are contenders for IAF’s 114 fighter new aircraft for which Request For Proposal is expected to go out in the next few months.

Bright Future

          Russia continues to warmly support India, and with China becoming more independent, India remains its largest customer for military aircraft. After all the SU-30 MKI are delivered, HAL will take on their overhaul with Russian support, and this will carry on for next 20 plus years. With BrahMos cruise missiles cleared for air, sea and land launched variants and newer faster and longer range variants evolving, this relationship will be a very long one. The relationship that began with the Soviet masses being overwhelmed by Raj Kapoor movies in early 1950s soon grew to strategic levels. Indo-Russian relations is one of the key pillar of India’s foreign policy. Joint design and production are the hallmarks of all future cooperation to support ‘Make in India’. Over 60 percent of IAF fleet is still Russian. Aviation is a critical element of this Indo-Russian bear hug.

– The writer was the Team Leader of Indian MiG 21 Upgrade (Bison) project in Russia.

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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