In the third week of July 2020, the Indian Navy deployed its MiG-29K fighter jets in the Ladakh area. This decision is a good yet surprising one as it has added muscles to Indian airpower in Ladakh, but it was not the kind of battlefield these naval Mig-29Ks were designed for.
Mig-29K was developed in the late 1970s when the Soviet Navy required a supersonic carrier-based fighter to match US Navy’s formidable F-14 Tomcat. While Mig-29K met all specifications, it failed to get a production order as the Soviet Navy selected a larger Su-33 for its aircraft carrier. However, smaller MiG-29 emerged as the first choice when the Indian Navy needed a carrier-based fighter that could fly from the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.
The MiG-29K is a major modification of regular land-based MiG-29s flown by the Indian Air Force as naval operations are far more demanding. Mig-29K has reinforced airframe and undercarriage to withstand carrier landing stresses which may damage the normal aircraft. It also has catapult attachments and an arrestor hook for carrier takeoff and landings. MiG-29 has folding wings for occupying lesser space during storage below the flying deck of aircraft carriers where space is at a premium.
MiG-29K has advanced Zhuk-ME radar that can detect enemy fighters beyond 120 km. In the air targeting mode, it can track up to ten targets and engage any four targets simultaneously. MiG-29K is a capable ground-attack aircraft as it can detect a tank from 25 km and a bridge from 120 km away which will come handy in the Ladakh area.
Indian MiG-29K can carry a combat payload up to 5,500 kilograms on 13 weapon stations and is compatible with all weapons carried by Indian Air Force MiG-29s. Indian MiG-29K has 4-channel digital fly-by-wire flight system that significantly reduces the pilot’s workload and allows a better focus on offensive tasks.
The MiG-29K is low-observable aircraft as it extensively uses radar-absorbent materials (RAM) to reduce the MiG-29K’s radar signature 4-5 times in comparison to basic MiG-29. The MiG-29K two widely spaced RD-33MK engines that have seven percent higher power than RD-33 used by IAF. Russian also reported that the RD-33MK engine of MiG-29K was designed to reduce fighter’s infrared signature.
MiG-29K has carries 30 mm cannon along with laser-guided and electro-optical bombs. It is compatible with an impressive missile load consisting of air-to-surface missiles like Kh-25, Kh-29, Kh-31, Kh-35, and air-to-air missile-like RVV-AE, R-27ER, and R-73E.
MiG-29K has a combat radius of 850 km which may be increased to 1,300 km with three drop tanks for additional fuel. The MiG-29K has a unique approach for range extension as it is capable of aerial refueling as well as “buddy” refueling other aircraft.
So, why India deployed these formidable naval fighters to Ladakh? The reason was a chronic lack of fighter jets with the Indian Air Force that was unable to maintain extensive flying hours alone. The second was to provide Indian Navy pilots an exposure of flying against the most complex land environment which will hone their land-attack capabilities. Finally, the Indian Navy will also be getting radar locks on Chinese J-11 whose nasalized versions are currently flying from Chinese aircraft carriers.
Thus, seeing the present scenario, Team guarding India hopes not only the Indian Navy pilots will be getting valuable experience but also, they will augment the Indian Air Force in providing aerial cover over Ladakh. However, IAF must get more planes to meet its shortfall and taking a correct step India has already placed orders for 33 fighters from Russia including 21 new MiG-29 fighters besides starting MMRCA 2.0 fighter acquisition program.