India’s MiG-29A vs. Pakistan’s F-16A: How Soviet Jets Provided Air Superiority in the Kargil War

The MiG-29A entered service in the Soviet Air Force in 1982 as its first class of fourth generation fighter, and followed on from the much heavier MiG-31 interceptor and Su-24M strike fighter of the same generation. The medium weight fighter came from the same weight range as the American F-18A Hornet, and was designed from the outset with engagements against F-16 and F-18 aircraft in mind. The MiG enjoyed considerable performance advantages over both of these fighters, including deployment of longer ranged air to air missiles with larger warheads, a much higher climb rate and operational altitude and a significantly greater speed and manoeuvrability. The MiG-29A would be used in air to air combat by Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Yugoslavia, although in the first three cases it never had a chance to engage a fighter from a similar weight range – with the MiGs hunted down by higher end and heavier F-15 and Su-27 jets. One incident where the MiG-29 did have the opportunity to test itself against a fighter from a similar weight range, however, was in Indian service during the Kargil War, with the fighters having been acquired the Indian Air Force specifically to take on Pakistan’s U.S.-supplied F-16s. 

The Indian Air Force was the first foreign client for the MiG-29A, placing its first order in 1982 and activating its first unit in 1985. This followed Pakistan’s acquisition of the F-16A/B, which were delivered before the MiG-29s as the U.S. had a surplus of fighters for export after a large Iranian order was cancelled in 1979. Comparing the capabilities of the two jets, the MiG-29’s advantage was particularly overwhelming due to its superior air to air missiles. MiG-29A jets later tested in Germany were not only found to have a flight performance which exceeded those of all its Western rivals, but also to deploy visual ranged R-73 missiles which could engage at extreme high off boresight angles ensuring the MiG would almost always be able to fire the first shot in a close up fight. An infrared search and tracking system and helmet mounted sights supplemented this to make the MiG-29 near untouchable at close ranges and very potent at medium ranges against Western fighters – although R-73 were notably not integrated on Iraqi Air Force MiG-29s which prevented them from exploiting these strengths during the Gulf War. Against targets further away, the MiG’s superior radar guided R-27 missiles, which had longer ranges and larger warheads than the F-16’s AIM-7 missiles, ensured a significant advantage.

Pakistan had demonstrated a willingness to use F-16s aggressively and deployed them for incursions deep into the airspace of neighbouring Afghanistan to support jihadist insurgents there. Although at least one of these was lost to an air to air missile, the Pakistani Air Force claimed this had been due to an incident of friendly fire rather than a shootdown by Afghan or Soviet MiG-23 fighters. The Indian Air Force deployed MiG-29s to counter Pakistani F-16s during the Kargil War in 1999, at a time when Indian forces were engaging militias in Kashmir which were allegedly supported by Islamabad. During the war, in which India had air superiority over Kashmir and carried out multiple precision strikes using assets such as its MiG-27s, the Indian MiG-29 fleet was reportedly key to deterring direct intervention by the Pakistani Air Force. The superiority of the MiG-29s’ flights over Kashmir forced Pakistani fighter units to go to considerable lengths to avoid them, and as a result the MiGs never needed to engage. On at least one occasion Indian MiG-29s did reportedly use their radars to lock on to F-16s across the border from within Indian territory as a warning. The MiGs’ very presence had a significant effect on the balance of forces in India’s favour.

A key advantage Indian MiG fighters had over Pakistan’s F-16 fleet was that while Russia was providing Delhi with the latest upgrades and weapons systems for its fighters, a U.S. arms embargo prevented Pakistan from enhancing the capabilities of its own F-16 fleet. Indian MiG-29s were equipped with advanced beyond visual range strike capabilities, and in the 1990s acquired early variants of the R-77 missile with an 80km engagement range and ‘fire and forget’ capabilities due to their active radar guidance. Pakistan’s F-16s lacked any such capabilities, which left them extremely vulnerable. The MiG-29’s far greater manoeuvrability and access to high off boresight R-73s would have also given it a considerable and perhaps even greater advantage in visual range engagements. With the Pakistani Air Force well aware of the dangers of engaging the advanced Indian operated jets, and wary of losing their precious few F-16s, the MiGs were key to ensuring continued Indian air superiority, and in the Kargil War allowed Indian helicopters and strike fighters to support infantry on the ground unmolested.

F-16s are still widely in service in the Pakistani Air Force, and the aircraft have since been equipped with advanced variants of the AIM-120C air to air missile allowing them to engage enemy aircraft at ranges of around 105km. Pakistan has also acquired the more advanced F-16C/D variant of the fighter in small numbers, and while less manoeuvrable than the F-16A they benefitted from superior avionics. India’s MiG-29 fleet, while less essential to the country’s defence than it was before, can today deploy more advanced variants of the R-77 which combined with a superior altitude, greater kinetic energy imparted by the faster jet, and superior manoeuvrability to evade enemy attacks are likely to be decisive in India’s favour.

Indian MiGs have notably been upgraded to the MiG-29UPG standard, which includes a new generation of electronic warfare systems and electronically scanned array radars that provide a tremendous edge over the F-16’s mechanically scanned array radars. The latest MiG-29UPG batch was ordered in 2020. The Indian Navy also ordered more advanced MiG-29K fighters from Russia in the 2000s and 2010s for both carrier and ground based operations, with these being some of the most advanced MiG-29 variants ever developed and using a new post-Soviet airframe design with reduced maintenance needs. Both the UPG and K variants use new more powerful engines and have significantly increased fuel capacities. Although the MiG-29 was by far the most capable fighter in South Asia in the 1990s, its capabilities have since been superseded by the Su-30MKI and Rafale which joined the Indian Air Force in 2002 and 2020 respectively. Pakistan’s F-16s are also expected to quickly decline in importance as the country begins to field more Chinese J-10C and JF-17 Block 3 fighters that offer far superior performances.