Naval Fulcrum Resurrected

By Sayan Majumdar


New Delhi, 21 February 2006

The Mikoyan/Gurevich MiG-29K/KUB aircraft now stands well poised to enter operational service on board the modified Russian origin 40,400-ton ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ Tactical Aircraft Carrying Cruiser (TAKR in Russian) with an Indian Navy ensign. Interestingly MiG-29K holds the distinction of the first Russian Navy jet-powered aircraft type to take-off from an aircraft-carrier. Flown by test-pilot Takhtar Aubakirov it was second of the type to land on Russian Navy ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ after Sukhoi Su-27K flown by test-pilot Victor Pugachev, yet performed the first take-off. The MiG-29K was initially intended to fulfill the role of a multi-role strike-fighter operable from aircraft carriers –– like United States Navy (USN) F/A-18 ’Hornet’, yet financial crunches at the end of “Cold War” temporarily terminated the MiG-29K program after nearly 450 flights. Test-flights of MiG-29Ks were resumed from 2002 in anticipation of export sales to Indian Navy aboard the aircraft-carrier ‘Admiral Gorshkov’.

The primary role of ‘Admiral Gorshkov‘ operated by the Indian Navy will be to establish local air superiority in open oceans even within the range of enemy fighter and strike aircraft. Thus it will provide the vital integrated air support in terms of Fleet area air defence, and also include the strategic oriented defensive postures to protect the Indian Navy nuclear-powered ballistic missile armed submarine (SSBN), in holding areas or "bastions" in and around the Indian Ocean. Again If felt necessary, offensive missions need to be undertaken to sweep aside enemy barrier Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) forces in key areas for transition of Indian Navy SSBN units from one operational theatre to another adequately to be supported in these roles by Akula II Class nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines (SSN) and Tupolev Tu-22M "Backfire" bombers. Enemy operated Long Range Maritime Patrol/Anti-Submarine Warfare (LRMP/ASW) platforms are presently anticipated as the greatest threat to Indian Navy operated present and future surface units and SSBN platforms. Complications will further arise if enemy LRMP/ASW platforms are to be guided to their targets by an enemy Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft. Land based air cover in that case may be too late to react.

After years of protracted negotiations, on January 20, 2004, in a landmark deal along with the aircraft-carrier ‘Admiral Gorshkov’, the contract for delivery of MiG-29K Indian Navy was signed, and provides for delivery of 12 single-seat MiG-29K and 4 dual-seat MiG-29KUB, as well as facilities and procedures for training of pilots and technical staff, delivery of simulators, spare parts, and establishment maintenance on Indian Navy facilities. Aircraft delivery is slated to commence in 2007 to be completed in 2009. Meanwhile an extensive refit of ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ is in progress to ensure her “metamorphosis” into an aircraft-carrier. The MiG-29K/KUBs will make a 14.3-degrees ski-jump-assisted short take-off following attainment of full power thanks to the preceding two restraining stands. Three arresting gears are being fitted on the aft part of the angled deck along with navigation and carrier-landing aids including the LAK optical-landing system to facilitate Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) operations .While the 20-ton capacity elevator beside the ship's island superstructure will remain restricted for helicopters, the aft lift will be enlarged and its lift capacity increased to 30-tons to handle the MiG-29Ks.

While MiG-29K’s exterior airframe is only slightly different from standard MiG-29, prominent differences being incorporation of Leading Edge Root Extensions (LERX), a “stubby” “arrestor hook” and with special Radar Absorbent Material (RAM) coatings, “under the skin” it represents a different bird altogether. MiG-29K boasts of a pristine four-channel digital Fly-By-Wire (FBW) Flight Control System (FCS) alongside “glass cockpit” enabling the pilot the luxury of carefree handling and added concentration of combat parameters while the agility of the ‘Naval Fulcrum’ attains legendary proportions which was inherently formidable even in the basic design. Any Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-29 pilot will be able to confirm that. Additionally MiG-29K/KUB flight and navigation system is built on an open architecture principle around MIL-STD-1553B standard Databus enabling integration of weapons and sensors from variety of sources and certainly mirrors the IAF Su-30MKI program.

Enhanced range is a vital attribute of any aircraft-carrier based platform and in this respect additional fuel tanks have been accommodated in dorsal spine fairing and wing LERX, increasing total fuel capacity by fifty-percent comparing to the early variants of the MiG-29. A further combination of “combat rated” drop tanks and In-Flight Refueling (IFR) capability is set to enhance the range to considerable extent thus throwing an elliptical protective screen around an Indian Navy Aircraft-Carrier Battle Group (CVBG). While the Indian Navy MiG-29Ks may be in a position to summon IFR facilities of IAF operated Agra-based Illyushin Il-78MKI IFR platforms especially if they are based on overseas territory as per mutual basing rights, “buddy refueling” option will always remain open in exigencies.

Thus the MiG-29K/KUBs in conjunction with Kamov Ka-31 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters will be instrumental in intercepting and destroying enemy strike and LRMP platforms at great distances effectively debarring them from conducting LRMP/ASW operations or before they can close in and fire deadly accurate anti-ship missiles like AGM-84 Harpoon or Exocet AM39. Also an air defence fighter and Surface to Air Missile (SAM) cover over Arabian Sea will be established to destroy enemy airborne strike platforms in defence of our vital Nuclear and oil installations on the West coast. An added advantage of “Admiral Gorshkov’ platform is its superstructure profile that has the potential to accommodate powerful planer or phased array radar systems with “billboard style” antennae first noted in United States Navy (USN) USS Long Beach along with extensive command and control facilities to conduct an aerial campaign. The ship is also projected to be equipped with a robust combination of area defence SAM/CIWS.

MiG-29K/KUB is equipped with up rated RD-33MK engines with 9,000-kg thrust with afterburner, a significant increase. The direct benefit is in the area of greater payloads stated to be in the region of 5500-kg something that can be fully exploited if the two Indo-Russian “Super Weapons” under joint development can be accommodated, namely the BrahMos Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) and R-172 ultra-long-range Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM). As of now, off-board weapons choices remain “restricted” to Russian RVV-AE (AA-12 Adder) BVRAAM, R-73 close-combat missiles and variants of Kh-31P/A (AS-17 Krypton) for anti-radar and anti-shipping duties alongside standard air-to-ground Precision Guided Munitions (PGM).

However, MiG-29K/KUB flight and navigation system is built on an open architecture principle around MIL-STD-1553B standard Databus to enable integration of weapons and sensors from variety of sources. With the emerging threats posed by cruise missiles in the Indian Ocean region in context of rampant violation of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) along China-Pakistan-North Korea axis, incorporation of the European MBDA Meteor inertial navigation/active-radar homing BVRAAM with 150-km range may be a suitable option to fulfill the BVR role for “outer-air battles” alongside the “monster“ R-172.

Meteor’s solid Boron fuelled Variable-Flow Ducted Ram-rocket “Throttleable Ducted Rocket” (TDR) propulsion system ensures the extended range along with a speed of more than Mach 4 and high terminal velocity. Thus even when launched from extreme stand-off ranges, the missile will retain the energy in the end game to defeat fast, manoeuvring targets including cruise missiles with less than 1-metre square Radar Cross Section (RCS). Meteor alongside retains the traditional role of a medium-range BVRAAM. In close-combat arena the combination of French “Topsight” helmet-mounted targeting system in combination of the formidable R-73 is bound to wrought havoc among potential adversaries unlucky enough to sneak into the “killing fields”. In turn a robust Israeli Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) will provide a shield around the MiG-29K against hostile threats. 

The main sensor, the on-board radar, is stated to be Zhuk-ME manufactured by Phazotron-NIIR which is reputed to be X-band mono-pulse pulse-Doppler radar, with an aerial target detection range of 150-km-plus and can Track-While-Scan (TWS) 20 targets and simultaneously engage four targets. The passive detection kit consists of Infra Red Search & Track (IRST) sensor & laser range-finder, an area the Russians are traditionally considered potent and perhaps their answer to the emerging “stealth” designs of West Europe and United States in particular. The only “weak-link” in the system lies in the sphere of lack of AWACS support. The E801M Oko (Eye) pulse-Doppler D-band (L-band) 6x1-meter planar array radar under Ka-31 helicopters while capable of providing the much needed AEW support in detecting fighter-sized targets at ranges at least up to 110-km are unable to guide the Indian Navy fighters towards their targets. Lack of endurance of an AEW helicopter platform is also a critical shortcoming. This problem will appear less acute however if the Indian naval planners visualize grand scale naval operations in future as part of Coalition Forces where mutual AWACS and AEW cover will be available.

In an “individual basis” the problem of lack of aircraft-carrier based AWACS platform may be tackled at least partially by appropriate development of dual-seat MiG-29KUB platform. The present contract also provides an option for another 30 aircraft with delivery till 2015, to arm the Indian Navy Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) under construction in the Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL). It is theoretically possible to develop the MiG-29KUB platform with even more powerful radar alongside encrypted TKS-2/R-098 Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL) to permit networking of multiple MiG-29KUB platforms effectively providing AEW coverage of respective sectors alongside vectoring appropriate fighters in pursuit. Exercising a significant proportion of MiG-29KUB option will also enhance operational capabilities in sphere of electronic warfare and long-range interdiction.

Finally the Indian Navy may well consider re-christening the Russian TAKR as INS ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ as it enters Indian Navy service in honour of the great personality and often universally regarded as one of the greatest Sea Administrators of all time. The Russian Navy is sure to reciprocate in some manner. The Indian Navy surely remains aware of his parental guidance during the delicate and formative post-independent years as the legendary Admiral’s stress on submarine warfare and amphibious operations are well vindicated from time to time. INS ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ will provide a mobile and maneuverable air base for MiG-29K/KUB to the Indian Navy, difficult to locate precisely in open oceans if operated tactically and skillfully. It is reasonable to assume that the projected Indian Navy aircraft-carrier battle group comprising of Gorshkov in conjunction with Tu-22M3 and Akula II SSNs is set to dominate the Arabian Sea and parts of Indian Ocean in near future as it remains second in capabilities only to the heavy naval presence of USN in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean region.

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