- Feb 16, 2009
Take the airframe of a latest generation Russian fighter like the Sukhoi Su-30, add some of the futuristic technologies developed for the next generation Russian fighter, use your own expertise in software and electronics and blend it with the best that the Western military electronics industry can offer - and what you get is the Su-30MKI, an aircraft which the Indian Air Force (IAF) likes to call its Air Dominance Fighter (ADF).
The Su-30MKI has been officially inducted into IAF squadron service at the Lohegaon Air Base near Pune. The aircraft will constitute the IAF's main multi-role strike fighter force for many years to come. The event is significant as it was the first new-generation aircraft to receive the IAF insignia in over a decade. Also of considerable importance is that the fighter's avionics have been modified with a number of electronic components and sub-systems either developed in India or obtained from Western sources. In fact the "I" in the aircraft's designation stands for "Indian" meaning an India-specific model which is an improvement over the earlier Su-30MK.
The Indian Air Force is among the most battle-ready forces in Asia. It has to be, with neighbourly relations threatening to degenerate into war at anytime. Even though the countries backed down from the brink of an armed conflict in 2002, there is no saying when things would become difficult again.
As the key strike arm of the Indian defence forces and provider of air support to ground and sea operations, the IAF has a particularly critical role to play. This is further reinforced by the current global strategic perception of air power as the dominating factor in any conflict.
The requirement, which eventually led to the Su-30MKI programme was formulated in the mid- 1990s, when the IAF perceived a need for a new multi-role fighter with superlative air superiority and ground attack capabilities to enhance its existing fleet of MiG-29s. Mirage 2000s, Jaguars and older MiGs. The service thus began negotiating with Russia, its long term supplier, for the Su-30 which was by then enthralling crowds at air shows if not exactly shooting down enemy fighters in combat. However, going by the experience of the IAF with avionics and other electronic gadgetry in its existing fleet of Russian-supplied aircraft and by the need to exceed the capability of the F-16s in Pakistan's possession, it was decided to customise the Su-30 with critical components designed as per Indian specifications.
Another factor which prompted the IAF to go for an India specific model which was to be superior to any other existing Sukhoi version was the Chinese order for the Su-27 (designated J-11 by Beijing), also a multi-role aircraft but with somewhat less advanced features than the Indian version. As a result, the IAF ordered the MKI version by taking upon itself the responsibility of providing key electronic systems and components relating to weapons management, radar, and avionics. India then contacted suppliers in France and Israel for the joint development of these systems.
In November 1996, following exhaustive contractual negotiations the Indian Government signed a deal worth US$1.8 billion with the Irkutsk Aircraft Production Association (IAPO, now renamed IRKUT Joint Stock Company or IAIA for short) covering the supply of two squadrons or 40 fighters, to be delivered in progressively more advanced and sophisticated configurations.
In June 1997, the first batch of eight Su-30Ks (this being essentially an air superiority fighter version), were brought to India in order to allow IAF personnel to become familiar with the operation and maintenance of these new generation fighters.
A second similar batch of ten aircraft followed in 1999. A relatively long delay then followed owing to India taking its time to finalise the requirements for the avionics and other systems for its customised version. The IAF-selected components were then incorporated into the assembly line at Irkutsk, the planes extensively tested, and finally two aircraft in the final MKI (a Russian acronym for Multirole, Commercial, Indian) version were flown to India).
Chairman of HAL, N.R.Mohanty, who has just been conferred the Padma Shri, with model of the Su-30. HAL is tasked to manufacture 140 Su-30MKIs, its AL-31FP engines, avionics, systems and accessories of its Divisions, beginning 2004 and continuing for a decade thereafter.
IRKUT is to complete delivery of 40 aircraft as per the original contract and then upgrade the early aircraft already delivered to India to the MKI configuration. Thereafter, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will manufacture about 140 additional Su-30MKIs in a licence manufacture agreement with Sukhoi. Sources say HAL is planning to invest the equivalent of $160 million in setting up a new assembly line. HAL has a "deep licence" to assemble the planes along with the AL-31FP TVC engines, but without the right of re-export to third partners. While the IAF is tight-lipped over the cost of individual aircraft to India, independent sources have put this at the equivalent of $33 million a piece with the license-manufactured versions working out to about $30 million each.
The first India-assembled Su-30MKIs expected to roll out from the HAL production lines in late 2004. Deliveries were originally expected to continue until 2017 at the rate of about 10-12 aircraft a year (depending on the absorption capacity of the IAF), but a decision has recently been announced for an accelerated production run with the last aircraft to be delivered by 2014 at the latest.
India will also use some of the technologies developed for the Sukhoi-30MKI for its own Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project, which though facing considerable delays, is very much on track with at least two prototypes undergoing extensive testing. The LCA is expected to form the bulk of the IAF during the next decade and progressively replace the ageing MiG-21s.
HAL will a1so manufacture the LCA and the experience with the Su-30 should come good especially in the assembly of avionics and other electronic components.
The Su-3OMKI supersonic multi-role two-seat fighter is the first Russian combat aircraft ever to be designed in conformity with the requirements of a foreign customer. Most observers agree that the time taken by India in defining and developing
the MKI version was rather well spent, as it took great pains to incorporate several technologies from the Su-37 technology demonstrator and mate it with the Su-30 airframe. These include:
At the induction ceremony, the IAF could barely hide its excitement as was evident from an official statement released on the occasion: "...the Su-30MKI offers a comprehensive package that combines super manoeuverability with lethal firepower, making it an excellent instrument of deterrence as well as power projection at long ranges. Its state-of-the-art avionics suite, modern cockpit and integrated fire control system would ensure decisive response to any air opposition in the foreseeable future. In view of its ability to undertake a wide variety of missions, undeterred by any opposition, the aircraft can be aptly termed as an Air Dominance Fighter. This is the order-of-combat-aircraft that other combat aircraft in the world are measured against. Indeed, barring the F/A-22 for the USAF, there is not a fighter in the world that is in sum, better than the Su-30MKI today. The IAF is proud and grateful to the nation and the Ministry of Defence for having filled a void in its inventory so magnificently".
An executive of a British defence firm said "the Indians deserve a lot more credit for the Su-30MKI than they have received. I doubt if it was possible for any other country to develop a super-hybrid taking the best of Russian and Western technology and they have done it quietly and within a reasonable timeframe". The Russians too have been more than generous in their praise of the MKI and some commentators from Moscow have given it a 2:1 advantage in weapons handling, target acquisition, and evasive characteristics over designs such as the Mirage 2000 and the F-15.
Indian defence strategists look upon the Su-30MKI as more than just a fighter aircraft. Its long range, aerial refuelling capability and the ability to carry up to eight tonnes of payload (including a cruise missile) make this aircraft the principal instrument by which India will flex its muscles in South Asia and beyond. The thinking in India is that in the medium to long term, India will have to match China in firepower and also show the Americans that it is no pushover, and the Su-30MKI will be the strategic instrument of choice for these roles.
In particular, India is well on its way to setting up a nuclear command and control system and the Su-30MKI will be an important component of this system. In the long-range bomber role it should serve as the main delivery platform for nuclear weapons, especially the sub-kiloton bombs tested during the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests.