MiG-29s Begin Sea Trials Aboard India’s New Aircraft Carrier
Open-sea testing of the new Indian Navy aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and her primary weapons, in the form of MiG-29K/KUB deck fighters, means that the MiGs won’t be making an appearance here at the 2012 Farnborough International Airshow. The ship has been bought from Russia to replace the former British-built HMS Hermes, which India acquired in 1986 and renamed Viraat. “Resources of our flight-test department are heavily engaged in the carrier trials, and this is why we are not able to demonstrate our aircraft at this year’s show at Farnborough,” Elena Fedorova, spokeswoman for Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG (RAC MiG), told AIN.
Following completion of extensive refit and modernization work, the Vikramaditya departed Severodvinsk harbor on June 8, 2012. She will spend the rest of the year in the White and Barents seas, ahead of anticipated delivery to the customer in time for Indian Navy Day on December 4.
The Vikramaditya is a “through-deck” carrier of the Stobar (short-takeoff but arrested-recovery) type with a complement of 1,924 crew. Originally a heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser, in 1978 the ship was delivered to what was then the Soviet navy, with which it served under the name Admiral Gorshkov until 1998.
Then the cruiser was offered to India as an alternative to an Invincible-class “Harrier-carrier” available from the UK. A deal was struck in March 2004, leading the cruiser into Russia’s Sevmash dry dock in December 2005 for conversion, which has included significant content from UK systems suppliers, as well as equipment from Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Finland, France, Norway, Poland and Sweden. She was relaunched in November 2008 as a Project 11430 aircraft carrier, and now features a 14-degree ski ramp and three arrestor wires.
At face value, India’s new aircraft carrier will not compare too badly with the new carriers ordered by the British Royal Navy, and has certainly worked out a lot cheaper. With the inclusion of separate contracts for training, ground equipment and shore infrastructure installations, the bill totals approximately $1.9 billion. By comparison, the bill for the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth-class carrier is in the region of $4.7 billion.
The new Royal Navy carrier has the same 920-foot length as the Vikramaditya, but a larger full displacement at 65,600 metric tons, versus 45,300 metric tons, and a larger hangar to house a fleet of more than 40 F-35 Lightning II fighters, plus Merlin and Lynx Wildcat helicopters. The Indian carrier will accommodate a mix of between 30 and 34 MiG fighters and Kamov helicopters.
None of the Indian Navy’s fleet of aircraft will be deployed for the sea trails of the Vikramaditya. Instead, RAC MiG has provided MiG-29K and MiG-29KUB prototypes. Also involved in the sea trials is a MiG-35D demonstrator believed to have been outfitted with an arrestor hook–a decision influenced by the crash of a purpose-built MiG-29KUB at the Russian defense ministry firing range at Akhtubinsk in June 2011. The MiG-29K was lifted by crane onto the Vikramaditya’s flight deck last year and serves as a full-scale mockup. First flown in 1988, this veteran aircraft had an extensive operational life before being grounded.
India took delivery of 16 MiG-29K/KUBs in 2010-2011. They replaced Sea Harriers in the Black Panther squadron at Hansa naval airbase in Goa province. Last year it firmed up an option for 29 additional MiGs, which are due for delivery between now and 2014.
The MiG-29K/KUB differs from the classic MiG-29 Fulcrum in having a reworked airframe with 15 percent more composite materials. It comes with a larger folding wing with extensive high-lift surfaces for shorter takeoff and landing distances. Maximum gross weight has been increased to 24.5 metric tons and the weapons load to 4.5 tons.
The latest MiG-29s also feature higher-thrust Fadec-equipped Klimov RD-33MK engines with smokeless combustors, digital fly-by-wire flight controls, open-architecture systems on the MIL-STD-1553B databus and a lowered radar signature. Increased range is achieved through enlarged inner tanks and in-flight refueling system. The aircraft can be refueled in flight using the PAK-1MK pod.
The Russian defense ministry ordered 24 deck fighters from RAC MiG in February 2012. Deliveries are scheduled for 2013-2015. MiG’s general manager, Sergei Korotkov, said the ministry order came after the company spent many years on development, testing and setting up series production of the MiG-29K. “The MiG-29K and other versions derived from the baseline model shall ensure a stable workload for the company in the middle term,” he added.
The Russian Navy aircraft will differ from the Indian Navy MiGs. “These airplanes will be made to a new technical specification that complies with [Russian] defense ministry requirements,” the manufacturer said. A new radar with active electronically scanned antenna (AESA) is expected to take the place of the Phazotron Zhuk-M with a slotted antenna and mechanical radar beam scanning, the radar fitted to the Indian MiGs.
Vladimir Barkovsky, chief of the MiG engineering center, said that in the course of RAC MiG’s unsuccessful bid for India’s medium multi-role combat aircraft competition, the company demonstrated the performance of the Zhuk-MA on the MiG-35D demonstrator: “We demonstrated that the radar actually works in air-to-air and ground-mapping modes,” he explained. “It can select, discriminate and track targets. During these trials, the MiG-35 launched a missile that destroyed a drone using radar data for targeting.”
On the company’s marketing strategy, Barkovsky said MiG will “aggressively promote” both naval (MiG-29K/KUB) and land-based (MiG-29M1/M2/35) models sharing a common platform with state-of-the-art avionics, improved engines, advanced construction materials, larger fuel stores and new weapons. “We believe this platform has a lot of potential and can generate sales over a long period of time,” he said. “We will develop this platform further [with] more fifth-generation technology insertions, such as the active radar, new optics and other sensors, state-of-the-art ECM and so on. We have already implemented fully digital fly-by-wire on the MiG-29K and flight-tested AESA radar and the newest composite materials on the MiG-35.”
Having secured a place on the carrier deck, the MiG is seeking to sell advanced Fulcrums to ground-based forces. With this in mind, the prototype of the MiG-29M2 twin-seat land-based fighter commenced flight tests in December. A single-seat MiG-29M derivative joined the testing last February.
Syria placed an order for 24 MiG-29M1s/M2s in May 2008, with deliveries due in 2012-2014. It remains to be seen whether this contract will be completed, in view of the current unrest in the Middle Eastern country, although Russian authorities have yet to indicate any intention to block military exports to the government of President Bashar Assad.