The way the Russians have been behaving over a multiplicity of ongoing defence contracts, it would seem as though they had no real interest in the MMRCA deal. The complexion in ties has changed so deeply since the 1980s, that there is a very palpable degree of acrimony in pretty much every dealing with the Russians these days. They'll release photos of smiling Indian MoD bureaucrafts with their bureau officials, but behind the scenes, things are almost always ugly. Yet, Russia has gargantuan leverage with India, based entirely of course on the huge number of deals yet to be completed. The MiG-35 comes across as not convincing enough, and Russia has still to prove that it is a reliable after-sales supplier. The one thing that the Russians have managed to pull off, is to convince the IAF that the MiG-35 isn't just any old Fulcrum. It's the Fulcrum.
One of the principal draws of the MiG-35 is commonality of inventory type. Alongside the Indian Navy's MiG-29Ks and the IAF's upgraded MiG-29s, a lot of senior MoD officials believe the MiG-35 would be a sensible choice that would translate into real savings in infrastructure and trainign costs. The IAF holds its MiG-29s in high esteem. In fact, the MiG-29M/M2 and subsequently the MiG-35, were developed based in part on informal but organised feedback from IAF pilots on what was required to make the MiG-29 a truly multipurpose airplane. The IAF says it is eagerly awaiting more information and a demonstration of the FGA-35 variant of the Phazotron Zhuk-AE AESA radar, yet untested. In demonstration flights, IAF pilots have also been given an expansive look at the MiG-35's highly unique optronic locator system (OLS), which one IAF pilot (who flew the MiG-35 at Aero India 2007) said surpassed similar gear on some of the other aircraft. The OLS consists of an infrared search and track sensor in on the nose of the aircraft, and a ground attack sensor fitted next to one of the intakes. The IAF has been given demonstrations of the RD-33MK turbofan, and is very pleased with what Klimov has managed to achieve with it, against some fairly difficult deadline and legacy odds, though the IAF and MoD were terribly irked and continue to be so with Russia's decision to sell jet engines to Pakistan for the JF programme -- something that could spell real trouble in the final decision (Remember, other countries sell to Pakistan as well, but India reserves great expectations from Russia, especially since Moscow has articulated these loyalties more than once). Rosoboronexport has managed to convince the IAF quite effectively that the MiG-35 is indeed a quantum technological leap from the legacy Fulcrum. Politically, India continues to have enormous strategic ties with Russia, notwithstanding a certain fraying in recent times. Russia has always supported India politically during operations, and has never dared to question India's use of its equipment. Finally, the Russians have the most well-entrenched and experienced lobby within the IAF and government. And extravagant acts of politico-strategic altruism are not unprecedented when it comes to Indo-Russian defence ties.
The MiG-35 programme has a single prototype (the ubiquitous No. 154 -- I flew in this at MAKS 07) and that too one without a full complement of the avionics/sensor package listed in the offered configuration. As a result, the IAF is of the view that a lot of the MiG-35's capabilities, as articulated by its engineers and pilots, are still theoretical, even though they may be perfectly real once the full package is integrated and available. With field evaluations to begin anytime now, there's a sense of apprehension about just how MiG will demonstrate the aircraft without testbed platforms -- which obviously throws up the question, will the IAF consider technological parameters on testbeds rather than on a fully integrated fighter plane? The MiG-35 is rigged with the MIL-STD-1553 electrical data bus, which could prove a serious downer, considering that some rival contenders come with the MIL-STD-1773 optical fibre based data bus, which the IAF is seriously interested in. A factor that almost needs no mentioning is that Russia has carelessly squandered any time it was given to prove its reliability, but persisting with its putrid reputation for being fickle, even heartlessly apathetic, when it came to after-sales support. Even the IAF's existing MiG-29s suffer from serviceability issues as a result of Russia's refusal to cooperate quickly on spares and aggregates support. Something that could go majorly against the MiG-35 is also the fact that the Russian Air Force has no immediate plans to place orders for the aircraft, and is instead going the Super Flanker way with greater gusto. Politically, the government feels there is little that can be politically gained from Russia, considering that strategic ties are already mature, even at a saturation level. Secondly, Russia's position in international politics has plummetted relentlessly since the 1990s, and the country offers no strategic advantages anymore. Third, buying from Russia would be a full-frontal on the US, which -- like it or not -- is India's principal foreign policy holy grail.
Top Photo Copyright Stefan Gawlista
Photo of Shiv Aroor with MiG-35 test pilot Stanislav Gorbunov
Photo of MiG-35 cockpit by Shiv Aroor
Radar and in-flight photo Copyright RAC-MiG
Tomorrow: Part 4 - A Squall from France
Part I - The Super Viper
Part II - The Swedish Underdog