18 April 2017

India's Puzzling MiG Deal With Malaysia

By Daniel Darling

Some defense agreements make strategic sense from a long-term view, and some make sense from an immediate stop-gap perspective.

Then there are others that are head-scratchers.

On April 5 reports emerged in Malaysian media indicating that India seeks to acquire Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) 1990s-vintage MiG-29 fighters as part of a larger military cooperation agreement between the two countries.

As per Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the proposal would involve a quid pro quo whereby Malaysia would then accept spare parts from India for its Sukhoi Su-30 fighters. Whether these spare parts would be sourced from cannibalized Indian Air Force (IAF) Su-30MKI fighters or, more likely, from a Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) storage hub remains unclear.

The comments made by the Malaysian Prime Minister regarding such a proposal are notable for the questions they raise.

Why would India want to add fighters of a type it plans to retire from operational service in the coming ten years?

More to the point, why would it wish to add fighters that must first undergo upgrades before entering IAF service - thus requiring capitalization funding that could otherwise be allocated elsewhere - and do little to upgrade existing IAF capabilities? 

While the IAF is certainly short of operational capacity adding the dozen used MiG-29s will do little to alleviate a looming fighter crunch as the 2032 target culmination point for the IAF's modernization plan draws ever closer.

Currently, the IAF officially operates some 34 fighter squadrons, though that figure is in reality smaller. Perhaps of greater cause for concern in the larger picture is that 14 of these squadrons are to be retired by 2024, while several core future capability projects remain in various states of negotiation, development and have been reduced in size due to financial pressures.

Under its long-term plans, by 2032 the IAF is required to field 810 fighters in 45 squadrons with which to conduct simultaneous operations on two fronts against China and Pakistan under a worst-case conflict scenario.

Further, adding more MiG-29s will do nothing to rectify obsolescence issues across a fighter inventory that features three Russian MiG types (MiG-21 and MiG-27s, as well as the aforementioned MiG-29s), aging French Dassault Mirage 2000s, and Anglo-French Sepecat Jaguars strategic bombers brought into service between 1981 and 1985.

At best any Indian acquisition of the used RMAF MiG-29s would serve as capacity backfill, as a replacement for existing IAF airframes lost to attrition, or to strip down and use for spare parts on existing platforms.

Then there are the questions emanating from the other side of the proposal – the Malaysian side.

Why would the Malaysian government be looking to sell off its remaining ten operational MiG-29N and 2 MiG-29NU trainers merely for spare parts and possibly some cash (the latter providing a better reason) in return?

The RMAF has been waiting for the government to move forward on its premier project, the Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA), since an initial Request for Proposals (RFP) was released in March 2011. This proposal calls for the acquisition of 18 swing fighters (plus the option for an additional 18) that would serve as a replacement for the MiG-29 fleet.

However, the MRCA project remains stalled due to Malaysia's economic and financial pressures, meaning that if Malaysia transfers its MiG-29 fleet over to India, it will leave the RMAF without an immediate incoming fighter replacement and lesser combat aircraft capacity. 

Though there has been a spate of recent reports regarding whether or not Malaysia has winnowed its favored MRCA bidder down to the French Dassault Rafale (over the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Saab Gripen), there appears to be zero government appetite for undertaking an expensive fighter purchase.

The political timing and budgetary situations are simply not favorable for Malaysia to move forward with the MRCA procurement at this moment. The 2017 defense earmark alone represents a nearly 13 percent year-on-year nominal reduction – hardly indicative of readiness to move forward on an estimated $2 billion acquisition project.

Yet there is a cost to maintaining the MiG-29 fleet that would be offset by such an exchange. The risk of having lesser fighter capacity over a 5-10 year period may be one that the Malaysian government is willing to accept in return for some financial relief on the operational maintenance portion of the defense budget. 

Ultimately, whatever small financial savings gleaned for Malaysia by no longer having to service and maintain the MiG-29 fleet would hardly be enough to strengthen the fiscal case for moving forward on the MRCA project before the start of the next five-year defense plan in 2021.

While the RMAF would still have significant high-end fighter capability relative to its Southeast Asian neighborhood in its existing Sukhoi Su-30MKM and Boeing F/A-18 Hornet fleets, it would also lack capacity heft with just 26 of these combat aircraft. That might be a risk Malaysian defense planners, and government officials are willing to take with no immediate external conflict seen on the horizon. 

Should the proposed arrangement go forward – and that appears in question until more details come forth from the Indian side – then this deal represents a push in neither direction. As it does little to allay longer-term concerns for the Indian side, nor shorter-term concerns for the Malaysian side, it is beneficially neutral – and thus strategically head-scratching. 

Daniel Darling is an international military markets analyst at Forecast International Inc., an aerospace and defense market research company located in Newtown, Connecticut. A graduate of Kansas State University, Dan covers the Europe and Asia-Pacific Rim military markets for Forecast, and formerly was responsible for the Middle East as well. He has been quoted or his work cited in: Arabian Business, Defense News, The Financial Times, Flight International, The National, The New York Times, Bloomberg, National Defense Magazine and Small Wars Journal, among others.

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