Russia is trying to make a big comeback into the Indian arms market with the offer of its newest fighter MiG-35, but the big question that aviation experts are asking is whether it will have the thrust-vector power.Russia had offered the fighter more than a decade ago in competition to the American F-16 and F-18, France's Rafale, European Consortium's Eurofighter and Sweden's Gripen. India had then plumped for the Rafale, but then the deal, for 126 fighter jets, floundered over price. That led to Prime Minister Narendra Modi opting for about 40 Rafales off the shelf, and leaving the remaining part of the original intent open for further competition and negotiation.
Since then there has been little progress over the deal, though Lockheed Martin was planning an ambitious deal with an Indian private firm to manufacture F-16s in India. However, with the IAF showing little interest in F-16, the Russians are back in the game. They are again offering the MiG-35.
The advantage of the MiG-35 over its competitors is that it is the newest among all. If F-16 and F-18 are originally of the 1970s and 1980s design, the rest are of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The MiG-35 flew first in the Moscow air show MAKS-2005, and was offered to India then and there.
But therein lies its drawback, too, in the eyes of many. The aircraft is untested. So far only Russian and Egyptian air forces have ordered it; and none is yet flying.
The latest offer, made by Russian manufacturers at a press interaction at this year's Moscow air show, however, has mystified the IAF brass. “We haven't received any details of the offer,” said an air force officer.
A unique characteristic of the aircraft has been its thrust-vector capability, that has been integrated into its RD-33 engine. Called OVT in Russian, thrust vector technology enables the aircraft to stay still in mid-air for a split second, much like a helicopter.
The manoeuvre, called 'Bell', enables the pilot to stay away from the enemy's missile firing range. A conventional aircraft, if it wants to turn around, cannot do that abruptly; it will have to jet forward, take a long loop and then close in towards the enemy, by which time the enemy would either be waiting prepared, or would have fled. A thrust-vectored aircraft can recover from any position and turn around any way it wants, giving the aircraft a 360 degree manoeuvrability.
Thrust vector technology was developed in the Klimov plant and first flight-tested in 2003. It was demonstrated before the public for the first time at the MAKS-2005 air show in Moscow, where this reporter, too, had witnessed it. At that time, MiG's test pilot Pavel Vlatsov had said that any pilot could master the Bell manoeuvre in about 60 sorties, and that Indian pilots who have already flown the MiG-29 would need fewer.
The Su-30MKI, which IAF currently operates, too has thrust-vector capability, but it is limited to one direction, whereas the MiG-35 is claimed to have 360 degree manoeverability.
Now, reports have appeared in the western media that the aircraft that is on the offer now to India is without the thrust-vector engine. However, Russian sources are tight-lipped about this.
MiG-35 is originally an upgraded version of the MiG-29 which the IAF is already flying, and is billed as one of the finest air superiority fighters of its class.