by David Axe

The Indian Navy plans to deploy 20 of its 45 MiG-29 carrier-borne fighters to the Himalayas to reinforce air force jets flying patrols over a disputed region bordering China.

The navy MiG-29Ks are destined to fly from the fleet’s new aircraft carrier Vikrant. But Vikrant is years behind schedule, freeing up the MiGs for land-based operations.

There’s probably another reason for the planned deployment. Many of India fighters appear to be ineffective in the thin air of the towering mountains. The Russian-made MiGs, while inferior to French-made types, reportedly are better for mountain patrols than, say, the Su-30 is.

Indian media first reported the MiG deployment on Tuesday. “They might be used for carrying out operational flying in the eastern Ladakh [region] along the Line of Actual Control,” a government source told news agency ANI.

The Line of Actual Control is the demarcation between Indian and Chinese forces in the Himalayas. Diplomats drew that line as part of truce talks following a bitter, bloody border war in 1962.

In early June, Chinese forces killed 20 Indian soldiers in a skirmish along the Line of Actual Control. Forty-three Chinese soldiers also were injured or died, according to press reports. Indian and Chinese warplanes and helicopters are patrolling the border zone as the standoff continues.

But India’s main fighter, the Su-30, might be too heavy for the task.

Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in the Indian city of Leh supports Indian warplanes for operations over the Himalayas. The Indian army’s ongoing efforts to improve a road between Leh and an Indian outpost just a few miles from the Line of Actual Control might be what incited the current clash.

Kushok Bakula Rimpochee’s 9,000-foot runway is situated 11,000 feet above sea level. The Su-30 doesn’t work well in those conditions, according to author and aviation-expert Tom Cooper. “They're happy if the jet can launch while carrying two [air-to-air missiles],” Cooper wrote about the Su-30 with its 38-ton maximum weight. “And brake-discs and tires must be replaced after every single sortie.”

Despite early problems with engine-reliability, the MiG-29 with its 27-ton maximum weight apparently functions better in the Himalayas than the Su-30 does. Air force MiG-29s have been flying from Leh for months, now. New Delhi is upgrading the airfield in Leh for safer night-time operations.

The MiG-29’s superior performance in extreme conditions, compared to the bigger Sukhoi, should be old news.

The naval Su-33 and its Chinese clone the J-15, which like the Su-30 is a variant of the Soviet-era Su-27, is notoriously sluggish while flying from the decks of the Russian and Chinese aircraft carriers, which lacking catapults launch their planes via a bow ramp. It’s not for no reason that the Russian navy is replacing its vintage Su-33s with ... MiG-29Ks.

But desperation apparently also is a factor in the Indian MiG-29K deployment. The Indian Air Force has a requirement for 40 fighter squadrons but, in fact, has just 28 squadrons. Separate efforts to buy 83 locally-made TEJAS light fighters, 144 foreign-made medium fighters and 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30s as attrition-replacements all have hit snags in New Delhi’s famously byzantine bureaucracy.

The air force apparently needs the navy’s help patrolling the Line of Actual Control, although Indian officials of course don’t describe it that way. “Can we not bring some of the naval fighter jets to the land borders?” said Gen. Bipin Rawat, the chief of the defence staff. “There is not much of a difference between sea flying and desert flying."