Soviet Union was once a leading aerospace power. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is gradually rising back to its glorious days of excellence in aviation. After Soviet pro India tilt, in 1955 medium-lift cargo aircraft Ilyushin IL-14 joined the Indian Air Force (IAF). Total 26 were inducted.
Mi-4 helicopters bought in the late Fifties were the workhorse of the IAF for next 21 years. In 1971 Bangladesh war Mi-4s undertook India’s first Heli-borne operation near Sylhet. Thirty three 10-tonne payload Antonov An-12B aircraft were inducted next. An-12s were used in the 1962 war for air lifting army reinforcements. In 1971 war they were used for heavy bombing.
Serious Aviation Relations Begin
In 1962 Soviets agreed to transfer technology to licence produce the MiG-21 aircraft in India, something they had earlier denied to China. Over 10,000 of this type were built in the Soviet Union and over 1,000 built/inducted in India. Soviets helped India set up three factories, Nasik (aircraft) Koraput (engines) and Hyderabad (avionics). These factories were to later build, overhaul and upgrade all types of Russian aircraft. The IAF operates 200 MiG-21s even today.
On 12 December 1971, an IAF MiG-21 shot-down a Pakistani F-104 over Gulf of Kutch. In mid Sixties, 140 swept-wing high-speed Sukhoi SU-7B strike aircraft were bought to replace Hunters and Mystere IVs. 125 MiG-21 Bis aircraft were upgraded jointly with Russia starting early 2000s and christened ‘Bison’. This fleet will see the IAF through till 2025. India also got its first air-to-air missile K-13 from the Soviets along with MiG-21s. R-73, R-27 and R-77 RVVAE were among the many that followed in subsequent years. Similarly, SA-2 (Dvina) was India’s first surface-to-air missile. SA-3 Pechora and SAM-8 joined the IAF later.
Beyond the MiG-21
The 150 swing-wing MiG 23 began joining the IAF in 1982 and served till 2009. Meanwhile, a heavier and more advanced strike variant of the MiG-23, the ‘MiG-27’ was inducted in 1986. A total of 160 were procured of which 150 were assembled in India. Soviets developed MiG-29s and Su-27s in the Seventies to counter the American F-16 and F-15 aircraft. The IAF was the first foreign customer for MiG-29 in mid Eighties.
Recently, 69 aircraft have been upgraded with the modern Zhuk-ME radar, new avionics and modern weapons. Russia also gave Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) licence to manufacture 120 RD-33 Series III turbofan engines for the upgrade. The super manoeuvrable air superiority fighter Sukhoi SU-30MKI, an advanced variant of SU-27 was developed for the IAF after a joint design and development project in early 2000s. Being license produced by HAL, a total of 314 aircraft are contracted and nearly 250 have already joined the IAF. The aircraft will soon be upgraded as ‘Super Sukhoi’ with AESA radar. This aircraft will be the backbone of IAFs fighter fleet for next two decades.
The IAF was the launch customer for An-31 medium transport aircraft. Starting 1984, a total of 125 were bought. Currently in inventory, nearly 100 aircraft are under upgradation. The multi-purpose four-engine IL-76 with over 40 tonne load capacity brought strategic lift capability in the sub-continent. Inducted in mid Eighties, the IAF today has 17 IL-76MD (freighter), seven IL-78MKI (Air Refuellers), and five ‘A-50’ with Israeli Phalcon radar as AWACs. IL-76s are being used to logistically sustain the Indian Army in the Northern Himalayas and for inter theatre air transportation.
Mid-sized utility and assault helicopters Mi-8s replaced Mi-4s in the early Eighties. Capable of carrying up to 24 troops, they were also used for VVIP communication duties. Later more advanced versions Mi-17, Mi-17-1V and Mi-17V-5s followed. Operated mostly in medium utility role, these variants form more than half of near 400 helicopter fleet. Significant numbers of Mi-17s are also being acquired by home ministry for Border Security Force (BSF). The IAF also acquired six heavy-lift Mi-26 helicopters, three of which are still operating.
The first dedicated attack helicopters of the IAF, Mi-25/35 were acquired in 1983. A total of 30 were inducted and two squadrons continue to operate even today. Russian Helicopters and HAL will build 197 Ka-226T light utility helicopters through a joint venture at a new factory to be built at Tumakuru in India.
Indian Navy has operated many types of Russian maritime fixed and rotary wing aircraft. These included five Ilyushin IL38, eight Tupelov Tu-142M, and many Kamov ka-25, Ka-28 and Ka-31 helicopters. Along with the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya were inducted 45 carrier capable MiG-29Ks.
Russia continues to warmly support Indian military aviation. A Russian engine will power the indigenous Intermediate Jet Trainer HJT-36. BrahMos is a joint venture to produce super-sonic air, sea and land launched cruise missiles, some of which will be exported. The IAF will soon have five new-generation S-4 Triumf air defence missile systems. The Sukhoi-HAL equal partnership developed Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) is a derivative of Sukhoi’s T-50 prototype and is already flying in Russia and the first aircraft may arrive in India for testing in 2018. FGFA is already stealing the hearts of spectators at all the international air shows. Joint design and production are the hallmarks of all future cooperation to support ‘Make in India’. Aviation is a critical element of this long-term relationship.
(The writer was the team leader of the MiG-21 upgrade project in Russia in late Nineties)