Indications in recent months suggest thatthe upgrade program for India’s fleet of Su-30 MKI fighters is finally gathering pace.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has so far placed orders for 272 aircraft, of which 50 were delivered by Russia in 2002-2004 and 2007.
Another 222 are to be supplied by the HAL Corporation; production under Russian license began at HAL’s Indian facilities in 2004.
So far, more than 200 planes have already been delivered, and the Su-30MKI is the most numerous of the multirole fighters currently in service with the IAF.
Even though the Su-30MKI is one of the most advanced of the Generation 4+ fighters in service with the IAF, the need for its upgrade is becoming ever more obvious.
The first of the planes built to the current specification were delivered to India back in 2004.
Since then, a lot of new technology has become available in Russia, India, and other markets, including advanced new radars, air-launched missiles and bombs.
Retrofitting the plane with this new hardware can make it much more capable.
In fact, the Su-30 platform itself is extremely well suited for all kinds of upgrades, from fairly conservative to the most radical because the plane has a two-seater cockpit and can accommodate a lot of bulky and heavy additional equipment.
For a long time, the only thing we knew about the proposed Su-30MKI upgrades was the name of the program: Sukhoi Super 30.
There was no information about the technical specifications, timeline or costs.
Commentators often confuse Sukhoi Super 30 with another upgrade program that aims to integrate the Su-30MKI with the air-launched version of the BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile.
These are in fact two independent and unrelated projects.
BrahMos will be installed on only 40-42 planes.
The program has already reached a fairly advanced phase of flight-testing to ascertain mechanical compatibility of the BrahMos-A air-launched missile with a reinforced Su-30MKI airframe.
Live missile launches are due to commence very shortly.
The Sukhoi Super 30 program, on the other hand, will be rolled out to the entire Indian fleet of Su-30MKI fighters; it has yet tobeg in in earnest, and up until recently, there was very little information about it in thepublic domain.
Recently, however, the influential Indiannewspaper The Hindu reported that in July 2016 Russia and India held consultations onSukhoi Super 30, and that they hoped to sign a deal very soon.
Another well informed newspaper, The EconomicTimes, reported that the technical requirements would be finalized by the year’s end, andthat the contract would be signed in early 2017.
The estimated cost of the program is $7-8billion.
It is therefore clear that the program isstill at the very early stages, and that the Sukhoi Super 30 technical specifications have yet to be agreed.
One of the central issues in the upcoming discussions will certainly be the use of local suppliers as part of the Indian government’sMake in India industrial policy.
The Specifics of Indian Procurement Policy:: The original Su-30MKI program was implemented at lighting speed, by Indian standards.
The upgrade program, however, has been making glacial progress, which is fairly normal for the Indian defense procurement system.
After Russia introduced the original Su-30MKI proposal, it took only three years to sign the first contract.
The proposal was submitted in December 1993during a visit to India by representatives of the Irkutsk Aircraft Plant and the SukhoiDesign Bureau; the contract was signed in November 1996.
Incidentally, the final technical specificationsof the Su-30MKI were very different from the Su-30K Russia had originally tried to sellto India.
The differences concerned not just avionics but even the platform itself.
The Su-30MKI program still remains unprecedented in terms of the time it took to implement.
Most of the Indian aerospace programs arevery slow.
They include, for example, the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 upgrades.
Such upgrades, however, appear to be the bestway for the IAF to bolster its fighting ability, especially in view of the budget constraints and the ongoing paralysis of the tender procedures that prevent the IAF from increasing the numberof its squadrons to 45.
Upgrading the existing planes obviates theneed for increasing the already excessive number of various plane models in servicewith the IAF.
Upgrade programs are also cheaper than buying new planes, and they are fully in line with the government’s Make in India policy.
The languid pace of decision-making on theIAF upgrade programs may be a reflection of India’s fundamental cultural patterns and of the additional red tape introduced by the DPP mechanism.
Back in the 2000s, the IAF had a clear superiority over the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) by every possible measure, and it compensated for theChinese Air Force’s greater numbers by superior technology (thanks primarily to the rapid implementation of the Su-30MKI program).
Slow and deliberate decision-making therefore did not pose any major military-political risks, and it did help to keep costs undercontrol.
With the existing balance of military power and technology at the time, there was no pressing need for the Indian MoD to rush the procurement of new planes or the upgrades of the existing ones, so its relaxed approach was entirely rational.
Now, however, the situation is completely different.
Pakistan has received up-to-date versions of America’s F-16 fighters and dozens of the Chinese-Pakistani FC-1 planes.
What was once India’s complete dominance over the Pakistani Air Force has become a mere superiority.
In fact, Pakistan may well achieve near-parity over time if it receives J-10 fighters from China (as well as the J-31, the quasi-5th generation fighter now being developed by the Chinese).
Such near-parity between the IAF and the PAF would be completely unprecedented.
The power balance with the Chinese Air Forceis an even greater worry for India.
In the 1990s and early 2000s China bought 76 Su-27SK/UBK fighters and 100 Su-30MKK/MK2 fighters from Russia.
It quickly built another 105 Su-27SK planes under Russian license, and then launched production of its own clones of these planes without bothering with the license.
All of these planes represented early 1980s technology – but now China is about to start receiving the latest Russian Su-35 fighters.
It is also working on its own quasi-5th generation fighter programs.
As a result, the Chinese Air Force will catchup with the Indian Air Force in terms of technology, while also maintaining its impressive numerical superiority.
India’s old defense procurement model, inwhich seven to 10 years is required merely to prepare a contract, has therefore become obsolete and unsustainable.
There is a pressing need for speeding up theSu-30MKI program in order to restore the Indian Air Force’s technological superiority over the Chinese.
Essentially, India needs to pull off the same trick it did in the mid-1990s, when it responded to China’s mass procurement of Su-27/30fighters with the original Su-30MKI program.
Two decades on, India needs to respond toChina’s Su-35 and J-31 jets with the Sukhoi Super 30.