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More MiGs For India?

India has been one of the few nations outside of the U.S. and the U.K. to operate full deck aircraft carriers. They had previously purchased two elderly British ones made at the end of World War II and the during the Fifties. These ships have been retired and for the last ten years or so India has been trying to buy a Soviet era ship. The contract for the Admiral Gorshkov upgrade and refit has been ongoing now since 2004. The original contract called for the refitted and improved ship to be delivered in 2008.

The latest contract negotiation now has the ship being ready in 2013. India has spent close to a billion dollars on the program and the Russians are now requesting a further $1.5 billion to complete the ship. India is trying to negotiate the cost closer to $2 billion. Another aircraft carrier has been under construction at an Indian shipyard since 2005. The goal is to have this ship ready in 2011.

One of the considerations with this kind of program is the type of aircraft to be operated from the ship. The Russians developed versions of the now aging MiG-29 and the bigger Su-27 fighters to operate from their ships. The U.S. now primarily operates Boeing's (BA) F-18 fighters with some different support aircraft. The British use the Harrier Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft from theirs. The new Lockheed Martin (LMT) developed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will replace the Harrier and F-18 in both VTOL and conventional carrier launched versions in U.S. and U.K. service. India will need to decide what kind of aircraft it will need for its new carriers.

This has become a little more complicated as India is trying to broaden its weapon supplier base by buying from more Western contractors. Currently it has a contest underway to choose a new fighter. At least three of the aircraft proposed come in carrier versions -- the F-18, MiG-29 and Rafael. The buy of aircraft to support its new carriers could be merged with the new contract but that might add time and cost to the evaluation as well as the total contract itself.

Word is coming out, though, that due to its current comparability with the Russian ship that the Indian Navy will be buying MiG-29K fighters. The contract proposal would be for twenty-eight aircraft and be worth about a billion dollars. The MiG company certainly can use the sales as they have struggled to sell aircraft overseas and the MiG-29 is showing its age and needs to be replaced in Russian service. The funds from the overseas sale will also help the company with its new development efforts and overall financial stability.

It really is not surprising that a Russian aircraft would be chosen. India has great familiarity with them as they have made versions of the MiG-23 and MiG-27 under license. It also fits well with the Russian technology on the converted ship. Hopefully for Boeing, SAAB and the other bidders this decision won't affect the overall new fighter program. Certainly there are advantages to operating a common aircraft services but the goal of the new fighter program is to get a substantial increase in technology which may not be served by buying an elderly Russian design.

This may be a short turn away from the plan to buy Western equipment due to the needs of integrating the aircraft with the Russian designed ship. The carrier being built in India itself could operate different aircraft such as the Rafael and F-18 if desired. It might end up that for the next several years the MiG-29 aircraft will equip the carriers and a new contract will be let for more advanced fighters. India seems committed to broadening its supplier base and will continue to do so.