Tensions over the Sino-Indian border in the Ladakh region, which escalated in mid-June with a clash on the ground that caused over 150 Indian casualties, have highlighted the value of the Indian Air Force’s MiG-29 medium weight fighters for operations in the region. India’s armed forces currently have over 170 MiG-29 fighters either in service or on order, the bulk of which serve in the Air Force around 45 in the Navy.

The country was the first export client in the world for the twin engine multi-role jets, with the first order placed in 1982, and the fleet has since been modernised to the MiG-29UPG standard - or in the case of naval jets they already operate at the similar MiG-29K standard. Although the fighter is overall less formidable than the heavier Su-30MKI, and has several disadvantages in terms of sensors and electronics relative to the newer Rafale jets, the MiG-29 is highly prized for operations in the mountainous border region for a number of reasons. The MiG is optimised for operations at high altitude, and has a much higher speed and flight ceiling than the Rafale, while its high thrust-weight ratio and climb rates and ability to deploy from smaller airfields gives it an advantage over the Su-30.

The MiG-29’s now proven value for a frontier standoff in India’s northern border is thought to be a leading reason why the Air Force very quickly moved to order 21 more of the jets from Russia, and to invest in modernising more of the older airframes to the MiG-29UPG standard. Despite its formidable capabilities, benefiting from active radar guided long range missiles and a flight performance with few rivals, even in upgraded form the MiG-29’s age is increasingly becoming an issue as neighbouring China moves to rely more heavily on ‘4++’ and fifth generation fighters to form its frontline units.

Although, fortunately for India, China newest fighters the J-20 and J-10C have not been deployed near the Indian border or anywhere under the Western Theatre Command, China has deployed the J-16 heavyweight platform to the region. The fighter retains very considerable performance advantages over India’s Su-30MKI and Rafale - leaving the MiG-29 outmatched by a considerable margin. The J-16 technologically is far ahead of the MiG in all parameters, from its AESA radar guided PL-15 missiles which have over double the range of the passive radar guided missiles Indian relies on, to its stealth coatings and sensor suite. The MiG-29’s inability to contend with newer Chinese jets, precisely the types of jets it is deployed on the frontier to counter, has left the Indian Air Force in a difficult position. 

To provide a more capable medium weight fighter, the Indian Air Force has seriously considered acquiring the MiG-35 ‘4++ generation’ jet from Russia - an aircraft which if purchased would close the technological gap with China’s newest frontline aircraft. The MiG-35 was considered the leading contender in the MMRCA competition before its cancellation, and the Indian Air Force is reportedly seriously considering acquiring the jets in future once the design further matures after more years in service in the Russian Air Force. The fighter is the newest in Russia’s inventory, entering service in June 2019, and integrates a range of new technologies including artificial intelligence and the first AESA radar on a Russian fighter. Among its advanced features are three dimensional thrust vectoring engines - the only medium fighter in the world to integrate them, state of the art avionics and electronic warfare systems, and access to a range of new missile types including the very long ranged R-37M which has a longer range and is faster than China’s PL-15. 

Following the Galwan Valley standoff in the Ladakh region in June, a MiG-35 acquisition appears particularly urgent since the fighter is ideally suited to replacing the MiG-29 in frontline airbases near the Chinese borders. The fighter's similarities to the MiG-29 make it well suited for short airfields and high altitude operations, but it will enjoy far superior situational awareness key to monitoring potential threats. The MiG-35 can also make use of much of the same maintenance infrastructure as the MiG-29, and pilot conversion training requirements will be minimal due to their similarity. In the long term the fighter may also be less costly, as their operational costs are reportedly 80% lower than the older jets due to very low maintenance requirements. Lower maintenance could serve as an effective force multiplier by providing Indian frontline units with a much higher availability rate. Russia has offered to provide India with support and a license to manufacture the MiG-35 domestically, much as it did for the MiG-27 and Su-30, which could lead to a very large scale or production and an acquisition of 150-200 fighters.

The MiG-35’s combination of low operational costs and very advanced capabilities makes it an ideal choice for large scale acquisitions, particularly given how new the design is which means there will be significant room for modernisation throughout its lifespan. The fighter's combat capabilities notably compare favourably to other new aircraft from the medium and low weight ranges such as the F-35A, Rafale and J-10C. With the Indian Air Force looking to add ten new fighter squadrons to its fleet, the MiG-35 could be an ideal choice - although a preliminary order preceding domestic production to more quickly reinforce the Ladakh region may be decided on sooner. Unlike the MiG-29, the MiG-35 will not face a technological disadvantage if forced to go head to head with the elite of the Chinese fleet in Ladakh, and this alone could make it a very worthwhile investment given the region’s pressing importance to Indian security.