By Group Capt VS Chauhan (Veteran)
Post Independence, Indian Air Force (IAF) was at a technological disadvantage vis-à-vis Pakistan as most legacy combat aircraft were beyond obsolescence and the mutual mistrust of western military suppliers precluded induction of western origin combat aircraft of the, then, current generation. IAF had already inducted MIG-21 variants in large numbers and their fleet size, coupled with fairly capable performance, was appreciable, giving some combat capability. However, despite these positives, MIG-21s were limited in range and payload capabilities. With the existing ground attack mainstays, Su-7 and Maruts no longer reliable enough to execute operations in the sub-continent, a few MiG-23 BNs were procured off-the-shelf to meet essential war-fighting requirements.
Simultaneously, to meet long term requirements, it was considered to procure MIG-27 MLs, the export version of the upgraded MIG-23 BNs, initially as a batch of flyaway aircraft, with subsequent batches to be produced in India under license, by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at their Nasik Complex. The first few (about a Squadron worth) of aircraft received in India were actually upgraded MIG-23 BNs which probably were under production to be supplied to the Middle East but were diverted to India. This batch was, subsequently, replaced with export version MIG-27 MLs.
The aircraft came with equipment and features which were a first for Soviet origin combat aircraft. Most significant was the PrNK-23K nav/attack system providing automatic flight control, gun firing, and weapons release. This nav-attack suite was grossly undermined and undervalued by the IAF due to, firstly, a fetish for Western origin equipment and, secondly, for the inadequate ability of HAL and IAF technicians/operators to fully integrate and utilize the equipment. In nearly seven years of flight testing, new manufacture / overhauled MIG-27 at the HAL facility at Nasik, I found that a fully functional PrNK-23K nav/attack system was extremely accurate, providing autonomous precision nav/attack capability. Yes, it did suffer from lower serviceability rates as compared to contemporary Western systems. The system accuracy was further enhanced when coupled with ground-based RSBN mobile beacons. The ground-based equipment, along with the onboard PrMG coupled landing system provided a precision approach and landing capability.
The next significant feature was the GSh-6-30А Gatling-type gun. This gun was designed for bigger, dedicated ground aircraft but installed on the MIG-27 ML to meet SQRs. As also stated by a Russian test pilot, the gun was probably overkill for this size of aircraft and if you were fortunate enough to fire a full complement of ammunition in a single burst, you were most likely to return with multiple systems malfunctions. As part of gun firing trials during the installation of indigenous navigation and ECM suites by the IAF, the onboard test equipment recorded instantaneous ‘g’ loads during the firing of the Gsh-6-30A at over a 100 ‘g’. As the Russian test pilot said and I quote, “This is a caliber! Such a beast! If you hit something — it will be plenty enough [to wipe it out]”. This brilliantly sums up the gun’s potential for destruction. On the lighter side, the gun ammunition bays, when empty, could carry two travel suitcases, or, four cases of liquor!
Due to the IAF’s inclination of everything western, the MIG-27 ML’s range and endurance were ridiculed when pitted against the western equivalent, the Jaguar ground attack aircraft. This aspect was further reinforced by bias in the induction of pilots to the two fleets, with the better ones moving to western origin aircraft while the remaining ones being relegated to MIG-23s and MIG-27s. To add icing to the cake, HAL’s state-sponsored indifference to the quality of production of engines and other components led to the reputation of the MIG-27 being further sullied. Due to a combination of discrimination, inadequate study/application of available technical documents and poor production quality, the full potential of the aircraft was never exploited. As a case in point, for an equal measure of fuel consumed, the MIG-27 ferry ranges were equal to, if not more than, the Jaguar. For example, the MIG-27 ML was capable of cruising at FL 330, at 0.95 M, from Bangalore to Jaisalmer, following ATS routing, without refueling. Sadly, IAF was unable to exploit it’s versatility to the fullest. Similarly, operational utilization was done with very conservative ambitions, leading to just MIG-21+ results.
The maximum damage is done to the aircraft’s reputation and reliability was the poor quality of HAL produced engines, avionics, and mechanical systems. These further undermined the confidence of the operating crew as well as the planners in the IAF.
At the time of its induction, the MIG-27 ML was well abreast of its western contemporaries. Inadequate understanding/application of Russian technologies and the inherent bias in the IAF resulted in underutilization of the aircraft as a potent attack weapon system. Despite all this, the fleet has served the IAF well for over three decades. Bye old friend!
(The author is a former MiG-27 pilot. Views expressed are personal.)
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Source: Financial Express