It was in the 1970s-80s that the Indian Air Force was turning a new page and a lot of major acquisition programs were initiated during the period to replace the older fleet making the air force practically brand new. These were done in the aftermath of one of the most influential aircraft deals by the Indian Air Force, of the MiG 21s. The post-MiG 21 era was significant, because it was that platform, whose acquisition and geopolitical context I have already discussed in my last piece, had seen a new boosted relation of India with the Soviet Union. That deal forged relations that would go on to play an important role for all of India till the USSR collapsed and to Indian Military with a new, albeit weakened, Russia. This era also saw the Indian Air Force being equipped with a diverse set of different platforms, yet the source of these platforms became less diverse, mostly from the USSR.
In this article, I would like to trace how the MiG 29 came to be with the Indian Air Force, though India’s contribution to the development cycle of MiG 29 was not as impactful as with the MiG 21, for almost a decade the aircraft was India’s Iron Fist against anything our neighbours, both North and West could throw against us, till the original counterpart of MiG 29 in VVS, the Su 30 was also inducted with the Air Force. Hence, it is important to trace the history of the fighter.
The process was although a bit more continual and smoother than what might appear out of this piece because of gaps in my knowledge of events and their motivations, nevertheless I would like to bridge them to the best of my ability. In my opinion, it began singularly with the DPSA program of the Indian Air Force, which I believe snowballed into the Indian Air Force’s composition in the 80s, which created the power dynamics with-respect-to other Air Forces that continued well into the 21st Century, with only the Su 30 acquisition having more impact until now.
The DPSA or Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft program which began in early 70s, and reached its climax in the late 70s, wanted to replace the older air to ground strike aircraft (Hunter/Canberra/ Marut) of the Indian Air Force with a more modern solution. The program was in consideration since the 1960s when the PAF had acquired its Mirage III platform(Chari). The program involved participation of Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar, British Buccaneer, French Mirage F1, Swedish Saab Viggen. The program involved an initial purchase of a small batch and subsequent manufacture of others in the country (R Singh).
By 1972 all of them had been evaluated by the Indian Air Force. Soviets having recently (1968) sold their Su 7BMKs to the Indian Air Force, pitched its advanced development in form of the swingwing Su 22 Fitter for the DPSA program. An IAF evaluation team led by Air Marshal YV Malse, left in 1973, only to find the aircraft unsatisfactory to their needs. The evaluation team’s timing also collided with another Soviet product in development. In the early 70s, after a decade of development of MiG 23,under the Shturmovik concept was developing the first ground attack variant, the MiG 23B. The Indian Air Force team was shown around the aircraft but wasn’t allowed to evaluate it. The team came back, reporting that Su 22 wasn’t what they were looking for, and MiG 23B might be worth a second look (Rajkumar).
The program would be shrouded in controversy and the deal would be finally signed by the Janata Party government in 1979, with Jaguar coming out as the winner, for an initial British batch of 40 aircrafts and about 120 aircrafts being manufactured by HAL. This was the small step that, exaggerated by the geopolitical constraints, would snowball later.
The Mirage Deal
It was reported that a day before the signing of the Jaguar deal, the French approached India with a deal of a lifetime, the Mirage 2000 for the Indian Air Force. The reasoning was related to the SEPECAT, the firm behind Jaguar that IAF had just selected. Jaguar was a joint Anglo-French venture, but the French half of the original consortium, Breguet (whose Alize equipped the Indian Navy) was in financial trouble and French government, worried about the Jaguar program, asked Dassualt to buy back Breguet. And Marcel Dassault, trying to minimise any and all possible Jaguar liabilities, was trying to pitch his firm’s product instead.
This is an important point, for it is generally said that Mirage 2000 was also the answer to PAF’s F16, but it’s simply not true. The Mirage 2000 deal was first offered in 1979, in some sense to stop the local manufacture of Jaguar by HAL. The very next year, the winds in Delhi changed with a government change. In January 1980, French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing visited India to strongly pitch for the Mirage 2000 deal. Mind you, Mirage 2000 wasn’t even ready at the point, only 4 prototypes existed at the time, with French AF poised to receive the first of frames in 1983-84 itself. The French tried to sweeten the deal, promising to provide Mirage F1 to plug any capability gap till M2K came, buying back spares of Chetak (Allouette 3, which is a French origin helicopter manufactured by HAL) worth Rs 1.8 crore, and offered the Dauphin helicopter (Bobb 1980).
The Mirage 2000 (Vajra as it would go on to be called by IAF) would also seem to pass through Indian government and the Indian Air Force higher command like lightning.The Indian Air Force apparently didn’t like the haste with which the government was pushing the deal. The Indian Air Force went ahead,assembling an evaluation team under Air Commodore Prithi Singh, to evaluate the fighter in December of 1980 on the fifth prototype. In October 1981, the Cabinet took a hurried decision to purchase the Mirage 2000, and informed the Indian Air Force that a political decision had been taken. The deal was rumored to be of 40 aircrafts being bought from Dassault, 45 in CKD kits and rest 65 being made in India, also giving the option of Mirage 4000 if and when the plane develops. By December 1981, the deal for Mirage 2000 had been signed by the Indian government, but of only 110 aircraft unlike the 150 as earlier rumored, with 40 being bought from France and later 70 being manufactured by HAL in India. India would never go on to exercise the local production of M2K, even though France had hoped for it. Their performance during the Kargil War would be so impactful, that the Indian Air Force would again consider ordering a larger amount of the aircraft, but again would only end up ordering 10 more aircrafts for a total of 50 frames. The first of the frames would only reach India in 1985, a time anticipated by most, after all Dassault would first serve the French Air Force.
The Floggers enter the picture
On the other side of the world, when DPSA concluded in 1979, with a western machine winning the deal, Soviet Union, which had believed that it had secured the skies of Delhi for its products till now, immediately realized the ground that had slipped by. Realising that the only offer under DPSA, Su 22 was nowhere close to the requirement, something else had to be offered, that had caught the Indian eye, a few years earlier.
The Indian Air Force, with some political pressure, had to invent another program to keep the Soviets happy. Thus was born the TASA or the Tactical Air Support Aircraft program. Having tailored the qualitative requirements to fit the Flogger variants on offer by USSR, a major deal was signed to procure ~90 MiG 23BNs to replace the older Su 7BMK and Maruts and a local production of about 165 frames of a variant of MiG 27, the MiG 27ML was signed. Over the course of production, though about ~150 would be produced. The deal was sweetened by the Soviets by including in the mega-package of defence equipment, saving a lot of cost, and by Dec 1980 itself, the Indian Air Force had started taking the deliveries of MiG 23BNs. This would calm the Soviet worries, until the next lightning struck them.
By 1982, it was also clear that PAF was soon bound to get the F16s, and with Mirage 2000, which IAF had evaluated to be better than F16s, around 3–4 years away, the Indian Air Force would go on to buy 2 squadrons of MiG 23MFs air defence fighters from USSR, as an immediate capability stop gap should a crisis arise. They would go on to equip No 223 and No 224 squadrons. The Indian Air Force had already evaluated the MiG 23MF, in 1979 when they had evaluated the MiG 23BNs too. But it must be clear that the Mirage deal was well ahead of any indication by PAF to acquire the F16s, and the timing is merely one that of fortune.
The Mirage deal had other consequences as well. When the Vajra had struck again, it seemed the sheer ground under Soviet Union’s feet had slipped (ok maybe I am exaggerating, but they did react strongly). Just as the DPSA fiasco was over, and MiG 23BN had established some semblance of balance, there goes India ordering another advanced Western fighter. They knew MiG 23MF weren’t in competition with the Mirage 2000, or maybe even F16s. They had to bring out the big guns.
The Baaz question
It was in August of 1983, when then Indian Defence Minister R. Venkatraman visited Moscow (Bobb 1984). The USSR was concerned about India’s diversified procurement, and it was made clear to the Indian delegation multiple times. The USSR also tried to pitch possible products, not even yet supplied to the Warsaw Pact countries to retain the Indian military market. It was during that visit that the existence of MiG 29 was first revealed, to Indians and not only Indians but possibly anyone in the world. The existence of the fighter had been hidden and denied to the Indians and the world till that point. People actually knew that such a fighter existed, made as a counter to the F16s and F18s, but they didn’t know what the plane looked like.
It was in June of 1984 when the first Mirage 2000 meant for the Indian Air Force flew in France, an Indian Air Force training contingent had already been for a few months by then in France, learning to fly the cutting edge machine. It was also the end of that June, by which India was supposed to sign the following local manufacturing agreement. But it had not happened, and it would never happen in the future either. France knew there was a hand in the background that had caused it, the red hand.
The Fulcrum becomes a reality
In the late 1960s, the Kremlin had initiated studies regarding the concept of fourth generation fighters. Three of the major research OKBs, MiG, Sukhoi and Yakovlev were roped in to develop the program. In 1971, the first qualitative requirements for a fourth generation PFI (Advanced Tactical fighter) were issued. The directives were complicated and at points contradictory. Naturally what would be a solution is development of multiple fighters to fit the list of requirements, but newer technology wasn’t cheaper, and it certainly wouldn’t help with the general lifecycle costs attached with Russian design philosophy. So, the plan was developed to create two programs to exhaust as much of the requirements as they can. Thus, were born the PFI/PLMI programs, to equip the forces. PLMI would later become the LFI program, Lightweight Tactical Fighter program (Gordon).
PFI was supposed to be the heavier variant, to operate deep (250-300 km) beyond enemy airspace, capable of holding on its own. PLMI was supposed to be the lighter fighter, to operate in a tactical battle area of either in friendly territory for air defence or at max 100-150 km beyond its own airspace. The idea was to equip the VVS with 30-35% by strength with PFI and 60-75% with PLMI. This was exactly parallel to the USAF idea of F16/F15 coupling that would become the mainstay composition of USAF (Gordon).
Interestingly, the Indian Air Force would go on to equip both the fighters that come out of PFI and LFI programs, and that too in completely opposite composition strength as was envisioned by the Soviet planners, with majority of strength being fulfilled by Su 30MKIs and a very small composition of MiG 29s, but that’s a completely different context too.
After a lot of configurations and designs were studied by all the bureaus, and in 1972 when VVS issued RFP for a fourth generation aircraft, MiG OKB submitted 2 proposals for a lighter LFI compliant design for the MiG 29, Sukhoi OKB and Yakovlev OKB proposed 2 designs, T10-1 and T10-2 (Sukhoi) and Yak 47 and 45I, for the PFI and LFI respectively. Yakovlev’s designs wouldn’t make the cut for either program, with PFI being awarded to Sukhoi’s T10-1, which would become the Su 27/30 and LFI to the MiG 29 (Gordon).
Throughout the 70s, more studies and experiments were conducted by both the OKBs on their respective designs with the help of TsAGI and development continued. By 1974, after a competition with Tumanskii (with R67-300) and Izotov (with RD 33) to supply the engine for the MiG 29, Izotov’s engine was finally chosen to power the Fulcrum (Gordon).
By the way, one must mention that since USAF was also developing F15/F16s in exactly the same timeline, there was a rush in the Soviet industry to not be losers. MiG OKB was actually working on 2 MiG 29s simultaneously, with same design, engines, flight performance etc but there was a more sophisticated ‘pure’ MiG 29, with originally envisioned avionics and weapons, while there was also lower cheaper and faster to tarmac, should need be, MiG 29A (Gordon).
By 1977, the design was finally frozen. Production designations had been assigned to both the versions Product 9.12 and 9.12A (A was the cheaper variant). Interestingly, it was noted through studies that the 9.12A was also very well able to do the job for which 9.12 was being prepared for. By 1982, the MiG 29 had entered full scale production at (G)AZ — 30 MMZ Znamya Truda in Moscow, although an initial limited series production had already happened by 1979-80 (Gordon).
The Baaz becomes a reality
When the Defence Minister returned, he told the Parliament that India was going to procure “futuristic aircraft to meet the challenge posed by the presence of the F-16 in a neighbouring country” (Bobb 1984). It was in 1984 that the Indian Air Force finally got the chance to evaluate the fighter, becoming the first foreign pilots to fly the type. Two Indian Air Force pilots first evaluated the fighter in 1984, and later teams did in 1985. The team approved of the plane, why wouldn’t they? MiG 29 was part of a new generation of Soviet aircraft that didn’t look like missiles/tubes with wings, and included a lot of sophisticated design elements, only expected from the western combat aircrafts at that time.
In 1984, Soviet Defence Minister Marshal Dmitri Ustinov visited India again, and another firm pitch regarding the MiG 29s was made, including the aspect of local manufacture if India decides to. An immediate deal could not be reached. It was only after the visit of Chief Marshal of Aviation Marshal A I Koldunov and First Deputy Defence minister Marshae Akhminov that USSR agreed to make deliveries and later a contract was signed.
The French tried to wrestle the deal in their favor, by informing that the Russian planes although cheaper acquired larger maintenance and life cycle costs, thus becoming more expensive than the Mirage 2000. It didn’t work. For the next two years, not much would be seen on the deal, and finally in 1986 the deal for the purchase of the first 44 MiG 29B (Product 9.12B)(40 single seaters and 4 twin seaters) was signed in Moscow in the month of May/July. With this India had become the first foreign customer of the Fulcrum, and second only to the Soviet Air Forces.
The initial batch of 8 Indian pilots and 6 ground crew left in 1986 itself to prepare for the plane, undergoing training and conversion at Lugovaya and Frunze in Kazakhstan during October 1986. Mind you, Soviets were initially going to supply the plane in April-May 1987, but later they expedited the deliveries to December of 1986 itself. The first two MiG 29 squadrons, No 28 and No 47 were commissioned in mid 1987 with the Indian Air Force. Indian MiG 29s were to come equipped with R27 BVRAAM, R60 SRAAM, and later R73 SRAAM, and with the N019 Sapfir 29 lookdown-shootdown pulse doppler radar.
Soviets had imagined MiG 29 would be quite successful with the IAF, maybe to the orders of MiG 21, maybe to the likes of MiG 27 even, and had offered local production. In February of 1987, a high level delegation led by Minister of Aviation Industry Apollon Systsov arrived on a 10 day visit to India, and talks were held on local manufacturing of the plane, but it didn’t materialise into anything. The early planning around the plane involved discussion for buying 6-8 squadrons of the plane and hence the local production made sense, but the first commissioning was followed by a few world changing events, along the lines of collapse of USSR itself, India going almost bankrupt and liberalizing the economy in 1991. Any further plans for MiG 29s were dropped. In 1989, USSR informed India that they were developing a newer variant of MiG 29 with higher fuel capacity and with Fly-By-Wire system, to hedge against a possible order for more Mirage 2000, after all M2K was offering FBW in 1982 that too with local production.
In 1994, there was chatter of PAF acquiring more F16s, and subsequently India started having talks with the new Russia to procure more MiG 29s. The talks involved acquiring the newer MiG 29M(Product 9.15)s, which were built for erstwhile USSR but were unpaid for. Yet when the order came, MiG-MAPO sold India the older 9.12Bs from their stockpile. Maybe if they had sold MiG 29M, a better variant, they would have seen further orders, instead it helped to divert Indian attention to the Sukhoi and their Su 27/30 on offer. Although the talks included some 36 frames, India would later order only 10 more MiG 29s.
All in all, India would only ever induct three squadrons of MiG 29s, with a little non-uniform composition. The first two units being No 47 and No 28, and later No 223, which was actually one of the two MiG 23MF squadrons, would convert to MiG 29s.
I think I must make a few points clear too, MiG 29 when it came out in 1980s wasn’t a multi-role aircraft, more of an air-defence/air-superiority fighter meant for A2A roles, which the design OKB realised was a mistake from their end, while Mirage 2000 since the beginning was meant to be a true multi-role aircraft, and was quite many leaps ahead in terms of technology compared to the Fulcrum. This point was important, especially when the talks about local production were undertaken for both aircrafts. Manufacturing Jaguar itself was a technological jump for HAL, and when talks with the French about not exercising the local manufacturing clause of Jaguar but rather for Mirage 2000 were undergoing, it was a point of serious consideration that whether HAL would be able to make such a sophisticated aircraft at all, even with French TOT. Soviets on the other hand, were also playing into this. When they pitched MiG 29s’ local manufacturing, a point was made that MiG 29s were easier to manufacture than Mirage 2000, and the Fulcrum had some commonality with the MiG 27ML already under production by HAL and thus it would make sense. Alas, as fate would have it, India would not go on manufacture either of those planes, and both of them would perform to the satisfaction of the Indian Air Force in the next conflict of Kargil.
On 7 March 2008 after approximately two decades in service, the Indian Air Force decided to give a new life to these old birds with the signing of the UPG upgrade program. The program aimed to bring Indian MiG 29s upto the Russian MiG 29SMT standard, called the MiG 29UPG(Product 9.20). The program included a new fire control suite, with a new Zhuk ME slotted array radar, new IRST and at India’s request few other foreign and Indian avionics equipment were also integrated. The program also saw a few structural changes, with addition of an A2A refueling probe, an enlarged fuel tank. The first six MiG 29s from India flew to Russia after the deal in 2008 itself, and the first flight of the first upgraded MiG 29 happened from Zhukhovskii in 2010. After an initial upgraded batch from Russia, the rest of the fleet was upgraded in India itself at 11 Base Repair Depot.
About the Author: Shwetabh Singh is a military observer with a special interest in aviation. He is a Senior Editor at Indian Defence @IndianDefenceRA His Twitter handle is @singhshwetabh71 The views expressed are the author’s own.
Bobb, Dilip. “India’s defence needs dragged to sacrificial altar of politics”. India Today. August 15, 1980. Online
Bobb, Dilip.”India’s defence buys start to resemble a Rubik’s Cube of puzzling and complex moves”. India Today. November 15, 1981. Online
Bobb, Dilip. “India unsuccessfully tries to keep Mirage 2000 deal with France under wraps”. India Today. February 28, 1982. Online
Bobb, Dilip. “French-built Mirage-2000 warplane ready to be formally handed over to IAF”. India Today. June 30, 1984. Online
Chari, P. R. 1978. The DPSA Decision, Strategic Analysis, 2:7, 233-236, DOI: 10.1080/09700167809421470
Gordon, Yefim. Mikoyan MiG-29. Midland, 2007.
Rajkumar, Philip. “Evaluating Fighter aircraft in the Soviet Union”. n.d. Online. February 2021.<http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/history/1970s/1293-rajkumar-ussr.html#gsc.tab=0>
Singh, Raminder. “Air defence aircraft MiG 29 to give IAF complete mastery over South Asian skies”. India Today. August 15, 1986. Online
Singh, Roopa. “Jaguar to give India formidable aerial striking capacity”. India Today. October 31, 1978. Online
“MiG 29UPG Upgrade programme goes on”. Take Off. 2012. Accessed February 17, 2021.