SOURCE: DIGAMBAR THAKUR / FOR MY TAKE / IDRW.ORG
Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) last year had come hard on Russian supplied Carrier based Mig-29K for its operational deficiencies and Poor Serviceability of MiG-29K which ranged from 15.93 per cent to 37.63 per cent. In simple terms out of 45 Mig-29k in the fleet today, less than 17 could be available for operational duties anytime while 28 could be under repairs or waiting for spares.
Defects in Klimov RD-33 engines has been identified as one of the prime reasons for low Serviceability of MiG-29K. CAG reports highlighted that since induction from 2010, 40 engines had been withdrawn from service due to design-related deficiencies.
RD-33 engines already have led to 10 cases of single-engine landings, which is considered quite dangerous since for a Naval Pilot landing on a aircraft carrier, which in adverse weather conditions scenario could be fatal. Another concern raised by other Defence Analysts was that Carrier based aircraft with low serviceability is a liability to the operations of the aircraft carrier it self since it pretty much restricts its offensive capabilities at high sea while also making it vulnerable to rivals in the region.
Poor History of RD-33 engines
RD-33 engines powering Mig-29A was first introduced to India in mid-80’s when IAF agreed to purchase Soviet Union’s latest 4th Generation Air Superiority fighter jet to counter American supplied F-16 to the Pakistan. CAG reports of that era too had raised similar issues with the RD-33 engines and serviceability of those jet back then ranged from 15-25 % which now over the years has improved over 60 % but still has failed to meet desired results of 75 %.
RD-33MK turbofan engine used on carrier based MiG-29K also called as “Sea Wasp” is modified engine designed to provide greater thrust in hot and humid tropical climate of the Indian Ocean for easy lift-off from short runways of aircraft carriers. RD-33MK are also less prone to corrosion, due to the use of special metallurgy treatment applied to prevent corrosion to survive oceanic conditions. RD-33MK also develops 7% higher thrust than its older sibling used on Mig-29 operational with the Air force and generates 81.3 kN Afterburning Maximum thrust.
Design deficiency of RD-33 series of engines is well known and series of improvements and changes over the years has not been able to clear all the technical problems associated with the engines. High spare burnout rate and poor supply chain are also other factors which have resulted in the lower operational availability of the Mig-29K. Since this aircraft have nearly 20-30 years of service life in front of them, it will be a very expensive deal for India to simply but another set of carrier based fighter jets to replace them, change of engine could be a cheaper alternative.
Kaveri engine which France is developing with India will be an ideal candidate to replace this problematic RD-33 series of engines when they are ready for production in next few years. French experience in modifying M-88 engines for operations at sea condition to power Rafale-M ( Naval Carrier-based Variant ) could come in handy in modifying a production ready Kaveri engine for operations in Hot humid Indian ocean climate and needs special treatment to survive oceanic conditions.
To make it commercially viable to modify Kaveri engine to power Mig-29Ks, India can also consider a change of engines on Mig-29SMT upgraded jets but since this jets are already over 30 years and by the time Kaveri engine will enter mass production this jets already will be nearly 40 years old and border lining towards retirement.