Procurement: Managing The MiG And Mirage Mess


March 9, 2019: Desperate to replenish its aging fighter force the Indian Air Force is seeking to buy 21 MiG-29 fighters that have been in storage for 30 years. The Russian manufacturer suffered a large cutback in MiG-29 orders at the end of the Cold War and rather than scrap the 21 partially assembled MiG-29s they were put into storage. Indian air force specialists inspected the 21 aircraft, determined that most of the components were still in good shape and made an offer. No one will say what was paid, apparently because it was so low that it was embarrassing. The MiG-29 was unsuccessful as was the Su-27/30 and the MiG-29 manufacturer require subsidies to keep stay in business.

India will finish assembly of the 21 MiG-29s using locally made and imported components and end up with some inexpensive MiG-29s that, more importantly, were obtained much more quickly the more expensive and assembled fighters. This is a quirk of the Indian military procurement system that otherwise delays weapons procurement decisions for years while the Indian military tries to cope with older equipment aging into uselessness.

Meanwhile India, like many other MiG-29 export customers, is having problems with a special MiG-29 model they had already received. In doing so India learned, the hard way, that jet fighters capable of operating from carriers are a very specialized type of aircraft and not just a land-based jet modified a bit to withstand the rigors of landing and taking off from carriers. The failure in this area has been the MiG-29K. The Indian Navy bought 45 Russian MiG-29K jets for their new aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya (a rebuilt Russian Cold War era carrier.) The Indians were not happy with the performance of the Russian work on the Vikramaditya or the MiG-29K and now India is trying to force Russia to fix the shortcomings of the MiG-29K.

India ordered the MiG-29Ks in 2004, received the first batch by 2009 and began using them on the Vikramaditya in 2012. India has spent over $2 billion on the MiG-29Ks and Russia is the sole source for many components of the aircraft as well as being under contract to perform warranty repairs and refurbishment services for these carrier aircraft. There have been problems and disappointments with the MiG-29K. The main shortcoming is that the MiG-29K is not robust enough to operate from a carrier. Russia also selected the MiG-29K to replace the Su-33 for its only carrier. The Su-33 was a ruggedized version of the Su-27 that turned out to be insufficiently rugged. The replacement was the lighter MiG-29 that, learning from the Su-33 problems, was ruggedized more effectively, or so it was thought. India has used the MiG-29K more frequently (than Russia has) and found the MiG-29K could not handle the “controlled crashes” characteristic of successful carrier landings. Meanwhile, the Russians discovered some of the same problems but kept quiet about it. While all this was going on China got some Su-33s (from Ukraine) and copied the tech for their J15. The Chinese thought they had designed and built a version of the Su-33 that would perform adequately. That did not work either.

Now India is demanding that the Russians make good on the assurances that the MiG-29K could handle carrier operations or face losing even more Indian defense business. The MiG-29K may well be impossible to make “carrier capable” but making a lot of expensive repairs might mollify the Indians a bit. The MiG-29Ks not only suffered structural damage after every landing but the engines did as well. So far India has had 40 of these engines become totally unusable because of the damage. Russia is still considering its options as the Indian firm (HAL) that performs engine maintenance is waiting for the government to come up with the money to refurbish 113 MiG-29K engines that can be salvaged.

India also has procurement bureaucracy problems getting older aircraft updated. A classic example of this was a 2006 Indian decision to upgrade 49 of its 59 Mirage 2000 fighters. This would cost of $35 million per aircraft and work finally got started in 2015 but is taking longer and costing more than anticipated. Cost has grown to $45 million per aircraft. Part of the delay was due to Indian insistence that most of the work be done in India. That meant Indian technicians had to be trained, often in France and special tools and equipment had to be obtained from France. The Indian military procurement bureaucracy is famous (or infamous) for its sloth and inefficiency and that has been a big part of the problem with getting the upgrades done. In this case, there is also an epic “failure to communicate” to deal with.

A prime example of that occurred when the Mirage 2000 maintenance contracts with the French manufacturer (Dassault) expired in November 2017 and the Indian Air Force, which normally pays this fee ($15 million a year for all 47 Indian Mirage 2000 jets) but in 2017 the air force insisted it was the responsibility of the Indian firm HAL, which was doing the upgrades, should pay the upgrade fee. HAL disputed this and pointed out such a payment was not mentioned in the 2011 contract with HAL that paid the Indian firm $900 million for work done in India. Another 2011 contract, worth $2.1 billion, went to Dassault and other French firms to supply new component and technical services and that one did not mention shifting the annual maintenance contract to HAL until the upgrades were done, or whatever. As always it is unclear exactly what is going on here. All concerned parties do agree that they are talking to each other and the government is pressuring the procurement bureaucrats to clear this up as soon as possible. That could take months or years.

This maintenance contract dispute is not unique. Earlier there was a problem with the inability of Indian procurement officials to approve orders for spare parts for the Mirage 2000s, as well as for the items needed for the upgrades. Because of the delays in getting needed spares at least a dozen of the 59 Mirage 2000s are grounded, some of them since 2010. It is also difficult to get politicians to agree on things like upgrades to older equipment, but the larger problem is the inefficient and often ineffective procurement officials.

By 2018 seven Mirage 2000s have completed the upgrade work that had been transferred to India in 2015, where HAL, rather than France, attempts to upgrade ten Mirage 2000s a year. A Mirage 2000 crashed on takeoff on February 1st. The two test pilots died checking out a recently upgraded aircraft. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

The upgraded Mirage 2000s are getting new radar with 90 kilometers range (a 20 percent increase). The new fire control systems, modern electronic warfare systems and digital communications will make the Mirage 2000s capable of handling the most modern Pakistani and Chinese fighters. Other components (like the airframe and engines) were also to be refurbished. After the upgrade, the twenty year old Mirage 2000s would be good for another twenty years of service. The upgrade price includes a supply of MICA, long range (50 kilometers) radar guided missiles which are similar to the U.S. AMRAAM. India used ten of the upgraded Mirage 2000s for the late February airstrike on an Islamic terrorist base in Pakistani Kashmir.

While expensive, the upgrade would turn the Mirage 2000 fighters into long-range air-to-air killers and extend their useful life another 15 years. These aircraft could very efficiently knock down their Chinese or Pakistani opponents (which are equipped with less capable Chinese FD-60 long-range missiles.) Meanwhile, Pakistan has received new F-16 fighters as well as upgrades for their older ones. Pakistan is receiving American AMRAAM missiles as well. The Indians expect the French to provide electronic warfare equipment that can give AMRAAM a hard time. How well that works won't be seen until, and if, there's another large scale war between India and Pakistan. China uses copies of the latest Russian Su-30 fighters and the upgraded Mirage 2000s, as well as Indian Su-30s, are supposed to be competitive with those.




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