Key point: India needs more advanced fighters to compete with China's military modernization.
Indications in recent months suggest that the upgrade program for India’s fleet of Su-30MKI 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 to begin in earnest, and up until recently, there was very little information about it in the public domain.
Recently, however, the influential Indian newspaper The Hindu reported that in July 2016 Russia and India held consultations on Sukhoi Super 30, and that they hoped to sign a deal very soon. Another well informed newspaper, The Economic Times, reported that the technical requirements would be finalized by the year’s end, and that the contract would be signed in early 2017. The estimated cost of the program is $7-8 billion. It is therefore clear that the program is still 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’s Make 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 1993 during a visit to India by representatives of the Irkutsk Aircraft Plant and the Sukhoi Design Bureau; the contract was signed in November 1996. Incidentally, the final technical specifications of the Su-30MKI were very different from the Su-30K Russia had originally tried to sell to 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 are very slow. They include, for example, the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 upgrades. Such upgrades, however, appear to be the best way 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 number of its squadrons to 45. Upgrading the existing planes obviates the need for increasing the already excessive number of various plane models in service with 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 the IAF 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 the Chinese 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 under control. 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 Force is 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 catch up with the Indian Air Force in terms of technology, while also maintaining its impressive numerical superiority. India’s old defense procurement model, in which 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 the Su-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-27/30 fighters with the original Su-30MKI program. Two decades on, India needs to respond to China’s Su-35 and J-31 jets with the Sukhoi Super 30.
The choice of the specific upgrade option will represent some kind of compromise between the price tag, the time frame, and the capability of the upgraded plane. In theory, this leaves a broad variety of technological solutions on the table. The most conservative solution - which is also the cheapest and quickest – would be to roll out to the entire Su-30MKI fleet the improvements already incorporated in the latest versions of the plane. The Su-30MKI is the oldest member of the family that also includes the Malaysian Su-30MKM (the 2007 model), and the Russian Su-30SM (the 2011 model). A conservative upgrade option would include a limited number of additional self-defense systems (similar to the ones used in the Malaysian model), as well as the numerous new missiles and smart bombs that are now being developed as part of the Russian 2020 State Armament Program for the Su-30SM. The conservative approach would essentially bring the Su-30MKI up to the Su-30SM level.
Meanwhile, the most radical upgrade option would be to develop an equivalent of America’s Silent Eagle fighter. This option would include replacing most of the plane’s systems. Most importantly, its passive phased array radar would be replaced with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Changes would also be made to the plane’s airframe to reduce its radar cross-section. The obvious drawback of this option is the high cost and the long time it would take to implement.
Finally, the most realistic option that would deliver great returns in terms of the plane’s capability without costing too much or taking too much time sits somewhere in the middle. It includes a deep upgrade of the plane’s N-011M Bars radar and integration of the latest Russian and Indian-made electronics, optics and infrared systems without modifications to the airframe.
It would also make sense to implement the Su-30MKI upgrade program in several batches of 50-55 planes, with each successive batch incorporating more complex technology. Such an approach was mentioned as a possibility by Yuri Beliy, chief of the NIIP Tikhomirov company, the developer of the Bars radar. Speaking in an interview, Beliy said that the first phase of the program could include upgrading the Bars radar to give it a greater range, higher resolution, better jamming resistance, and support for new weapons systems. At a later phase, the Bars radar could be equipped with an active phased array. The planes upgraded in the first batch could later be brought to the technical standard of the latest batches without any major difficulties.
The approach would make it possible to start the program quickly (thereby securing orders for India’s HAL and other local suppliers). It would improve the IAF’s capability in an evolutionary way, and it would be easier on the IAF pilots, who will not have to deal with a quantum leap in the complexity of the upgraded plane’s systems. Such a phased strategy worked well in 2002-2004, when Russia delivered the first 32 Su-30MKI planes. The fighters were supplied in three batches of 10, 12 and 10. Each successive batch included some improvements that were later incorporated in the previous batches, so all 32 planes were eventually brought to the same standard.
When the Su-30MKI specifications were being drawn up, the Indian military came up with an extremely well-balanced set of requirements for the new plane. Those requirements were at the cutting edge of – but not beyond – the Russian defense industry’s capability at the time, and could be implemented at a reasonable cost and within reasonable deadlines. It is to be hoped that a similarly well-balanced solution will be found for the Sukhoi Super 30 program.
Konstantin Makienko is deputy director of the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow. This article first appeared in 2016.