As the contest to supply a new fighter aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF) heats up, the MiG-35 has emerged as a viable candidate. India is supposedly seeking about 220 single-engine fighters to replace 11 squadrons of MiG-21/27s that entered service in the 1990s.
Rosoboronexport is believed to have offered a licensed production deal for the twin-engine MiG-35 that would compensate for the IAF’s reluctance to proceed with the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project.
At the MAKS 2017 airshow in July, Ilya Tarasenko, director general of Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, said: “We are actively working with the IAF in order to win the tender.” Russia has committed to a 40-year maintenance and upgrade contract to preclude the support issues that have arisen in the past with Russian aircraft in service with the IAF. Meanwhile, also at MAKS, Sergei Chemezov, CEO of the Rostec State Corporation, told reporters that a decision on the design and development of the FGFA would be made in the “nearest future.” He did not provide a timeline for the project, a version of Russia’s Sukhoi T-50, which has been under discussion between the two countries for the past decade.
According to an Indian defense official, “The MiG-35 is 25 percent cheaper [than rival candidates for the IAF requirement]; has an AESA radar; has commonality with the fleet; and being in the light to medium category enables it to land in the same airfields that the [indigenous] Light Combat Aircraft does. If the FGFA does not go through, Russia will have to be compensated, and this is the only contract left at the moment.”
If the MiG-35 is chosen, it would likely be built at the Nashik facility of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Spare capacity will soon be available there, when work on Su-30MKI upgrades for the IAF is completed. India had previously indicated that the single-engine fighter should be built by a non-state owned company that would be selected as partner by the fighter supplier under the “Make In India” policy. But acting defense minister Arun Jaitley said last month while inaugurating HAL’s Light Combat Helicopter facility: “Public-sector work culture and performance have the highest standards of professionalism,” making it clear that HAL was not ruled out of the fighter contest. (India’s first woman defense minister, former commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman, took over from Jaitley this week and is thought to be like-minded).
Lockheed Martin is expected to bid the F-16 Block 70 for the fighter contest. “The IAF needs a company that can maintain, repair and upgrade without somebody pulling the plug,” Randall L. Howard, business development head for Lockheed Martin, told AIN. “We take a long-term view and have multiple projects in India. We do not look at India as a market, but a partnership,” he added. The 50th C-130J Super Hercules empennage assembly is due for delivery by joint venture Tata Lockheed Martin Aerostructures on September 16.
Abhay Paranjape, director of business development for Lockheed Martin in India, told AIN that following its agreement with Tata Advanced Systems to produce the F-16 Block 70 in India, his company had already identified 60 companies in India that it will shortlist to make parts for the fighter. “The U.S. administration is in full support of moving the F-16 production line to India…this will create jobs in both countries,” he added. He also said that Lockheed Martin is encouraging the two governments “to have a conversation” for future cooperation on the F-35 stealth fighter.
Saab is expected to bid the Gripen E. Transfer of technology remains a thorny issue. The Swedish company and the Adani Group announced “a collaboration on aerospace and defense” on September 4. “Saab is willing to transfer state-of-the-art technology and skills. We will focus on the capability that is critical for true indigenization including design, system integration, maintenance and upgrade,” said Gautam Adani, chairman of the Adani Group. The Indian conglomerate is venturing into the defense arena for the first time with the Saab agreement. However, Kurt Ove Håkan Buskhe, the president and CEO of the Saab Group told AIN: “Most design and integration uses avionics software and onboard computer systems, and that is something we fully control.”