Saturday, 11 May 2013

India to commission its first supersonic naval fighter squadron of MiG-29K jets

India on Saturday will commission its first-ever squadron of naval supersonic fighters, the MiG-29K "air superiority" jets, which will eventually operate from the decks of aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya ( Admiral Gorshkov) as well as the indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC).

Defence minister AK Antony will do the honours at the ceremony at the naval airbase INS Hansa in Goa, which will also mark the diamond jubilee celebrations of the fleet's "air arm" of the force. While celebrations are certainly in order, it also underlines the lack of long-term strategic planning and timely decision-making in the country.

The MiG-29Ks — the first 16 of the 45 fighters ordered from Russia for over $2 billion will constitute the INSAS 303 "Black Panthers" squadron — began arriving in India a couple of years ago but the 44,570-tonne Gorshkov will be ready for delivery only by end-2013 after being refurbished in Russia for $2.33 billion.

Similarly, the 40,000-tonne IAC being built at Cochin Shipyard will not be handed over to the Navy anytime before 2018, derailing the force's long-standing ambition to operate two full-fledged carrier battle groups (CBGs) by 2015. The 65,000-tonne IAC-II, in turn, remains merely on the drawing board as of now.

As earlier reported by TOI, India's only solitary carrier, the 54-year-old INS Viraat, is currently out of action while undergoing yet another life-extension refit. Moreover, it has only 11 Sea Harrier jump-jets left to operate from its deck, with no replacement of the fighters possible.

All this when the recent Pentagon report on China's growing military might holds Beijing is pursuing a robust carrier building programme after inducting its first carrier, the, the 65,000-tonne Liaoning, in September last year. "China is likely to build multiple aircraft carriers over the next decade," it said.

China, of course, will take some years to master the highly-complex art of operating its J-15 fighters from a moving airfield on the high seas and then transforming the entire package into a potent offensive weapons platform. India, in contrast, has been in the business of operating "flattops" for five decades now, commissioning as it did its first carrier INS Vikrant with SeaHawk jets way back in 1961.

It has long been realized that CBGs prowling on the high seas project power like nothing else on the globe. It's no wonder that as part of its impending pivot towards Asia-Pacific, the US plans to deploy at least six of its 11 CBGs — each American carrier is over 94,000 tonne and capable of handling 80-90 fighters — in the region. Asia-Pacific has emerged as the new strategic theatre for rivalry between US and China, with India too jostling for space with the latter in the Indian Ocean region.

However, India will be able to deploy two potent CBGs only after 2018 when INS Vikramaditya and IAC are able to operate together. This, however, does not detract from the sheer capabilities of the MiG-29Ks. With mid-air refuelling and an extended combat radius of operations as well as BVR (beyond visual range) and guided anti-ship missiles, MiG-29Ks will provide a "four-fold capability jump" over the Sea Harriers, say officers.

The MiG-29Ks, with a range of 1,300km and a service ceiling of 58,000-feet, are capable of STOBAR (short takeoff but arrested recovery) operations. They are armed with R-73 and RVV-AE guided air-to-air missiles, Kh-35E anti-ship missiles, KAB 500KR/OD TV guided bombs and S-8KOM rockets.

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