India Ordered, Modernized, Perhaps Regrets SU-30MKIs
Readiness issues & controversy explained and detailed; Cause of the October crash is still unclear, but SU-30MKIs returning to service soon anyway.
May 27/15: India is to review its SU-30MKI fleet following the loss of one aircraft earlier this month. The high-level safety audit is a response to not only this latest crash, but the loss of six SU-30MKIs since the Indian Air Force received the first batch in 2002, a high attrition rate for a fighter which comprises roughly a third of the IAF’s fast jet force.
India’s SU-30MKI fighter-bombers are the pride of its fleet. Below them, India’s local Tejas LCA lightweight fighter program aims to fill its low-end fighter needs, and the $10+ billion M-MRCA competition is negotiating to buy France’s Rafale as an intermediate tier.
India isn’t neglecting its high end SU-30s, though. Initial SU-30MK and MKI aircraft have all been upgraded to the full SU-30MKI Phase 3 standard, and the upgraded “Super 30” standard aims to keep Sukhoi’s planes on top. Meanwhile, production continues, and India is becoming a regional resource for SU-27/30 Flanker family support.
India’s Flanker Fleet
India originally received standard SU-30MKs, while its government and industry worked with the Russians to develop the more advanced SU-30MKI, complete with innovations like thrust-vectoring engines and canard foreplanes. The Su-30MKI ended up using electronic systems from a variety of countries: a Russian NIIP N-011 radar and long-range IRST sensor, French navigation and heads-up display systems from Thales, Israeli electronic warfare systems and LITENING advanced targeting pods, and Indian computers and ancillary avionics systems.
Earlier-model SU-30MK aircraft and crews performed very well at an American Red Flag exercise in 2008, and the RAF’s evident respect for the SU-30 MKIs in the 2007 Indra Dhanush exercise is equally instructive. The Russians were intrigued enough to turn a version with different electronics into their new export standard (SU-30MKA/MKM), and even the Russian VVS has begin buying “SU-30SM” fighters.
So far, India has ordered 272 SU-30s in 4 stages:
1. 50 SU-30MK and MKIs ordered directly from Russia in 1996. The SU-30MKs were reportedly modernized to a basic SU-30MKI standard.
2. Another 40 SU-30MKIs, ordered direct in 2007. These machines have reportedly been upgraded to the “Phase 3” standard.
3. A license-build deal with India’s HAL that aims to produce up to 140 more SU-30MKI Phase 3 planes from 2013-2017
4. An improved set of 42 HAL-built SU-30MKI “Super 30s”. A preliminary order was reportedly signed in 2011, but the final deal waited until December 2012.
The Super 30 represents the next evolution for the SU-30MKI. Upgrades are reported to include a new radar (probably AESA, and likely Phazotron’s Zhuk-AE), improved onboard computers, upgraded electronic warfare systems, and the ability to fire the air-launched version of the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.
India may eventually upgrade its earlier models to this standard. For now, they represent the tail end of HAL’s assembly schedule, as the assembly of standard SU-30MKIs continues. The big challenge for HAL is to keep that expansion going, by meeting India’s production targets.
The overall goal is 13-14 squadrons by 2017. Based on 3rd party sources, IAF SU-30MKI squadrons currently comprise:
- 2 Wing’s 20 Sqn. “Lightnings” & 30 Sqn. “Rhinos”, at Lohegaon AFS in Pune (W)
- 11 Wing’s 2 Sqn. “Winged Arrows”, at Tezpur AFS in Assam (NE, near Tibet)
- 15 Wing’s 8 Sqn. “Eight Pursuits” & 24 Sqn. “Hawks”, at Bareilly AFS in Uttar Pradesh (NC, near W Nepal)
- 14 Wing’s 102 Sqn. “Trisonics”, at Guwahati/Chabua AFS in Assam (NE, near Tibet)
- 27 Wing’s 15 Sqn. “Flying Lancers”, at Bhuj AFS in Gurajat (NW)
- 34 Wing’s 31 Sqn. “Lions” & 220 Sqn. “Desert Tigers”, at Halwara AFS in Punjab (NW)
- 45 Wing’s 21 Sqn. “Ankush”, at Sirsa AFS in Haryana (NW)
Initial SU-30 MKI squadron deployments had been focused near the Chinese border, but the new deployments are evening things out. There have also been reports of basings in other locations, though the number of active squadrons suggest that these are yet to come:
- Bhatinda AFS in Punjab (NW, currently 34 Wing’s 17 Sqn. “Golden Arrows” MiG-21s)
- Jodhpur AFS in Rajasthan (NW, currently 32 Wing’s MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons)
- Thanjavur AFS in Tamil Nadu (SE) needs to finish building out, but is expected to permanently house SU-30MKIs by 2018. Its SU-30MKIs will offer India comfortable strike coverage of Sri Lanka, including the major southern port of Hambantota that’s being built with a great deal of Chinese help.
Contracts & Key Events
2013 – 2014
Engine and Fly-by-Wire issues; Industrial issues highlight cost waste; Crash grounds fleet.
May 27/15: India is to review its SU-30MKI fleet following the loss of one aircraft earlier this month. The high-level safety audit is a response to not only this latest crash, but the loss of six SU-30MKIs since the Indian Air Force received the first batch in 2002, a high attrition rate for a fighter which comprises roughly a third of the IAF’s fast jet force.
Nov 17/14: Air Chief Arup Raha was cited by PTI as saying that the reason for the sudden ejection seat activation in the Oct 14/14 crash isn’t clear, but inspections aren’t showing problems in the remaining fleet. The Court of Inquiry’s report is being finalized, and the fleet should be back in use by Nov 21/14. Sources: Russia & India Report, “India’s Su-30s to be back in use this week”.
Oct 23/14: Readiness. According to India’s Business Standard, the readiness rate for IAF SU-30MKIs has risen from 48% before 2013 to around 55%, meaning that 87 of 193 fighters are grounded at any one time. The paper cites MoD figures and documents that show 20% of the fleet (about 39) undergoing 1st line and 2nd line maintenance by the IAF, another 11-12% (about 22) undergoing overhaul at HAL, and 13-14% (about 26) grounded waiting for major repairs.
What’s interesting is that HAL is beginning to push back against the IAF, offering to take most maintenance off of the IAF’s hands under a Performance Based Logistics (PBL) arrangement that would pay HAL for fighters fit to fly, instead of paying for parts and labor. PBL would threaten a lot of military jobs, so the IAF has resisted such offers for the SU-30MKI and Hawk Mk.132 fleets. But HAL is touting the possibility of a 20% absolute improvement, under a contract structure that directly links pay and performance. That’s 2 full operational squadrons worth.
Meanwhile, the current arrangement continues, with the IAF vastly underspending on spares (INR 500 million per year, vs. INR 34.5 billion at a standard 5%/year rate), and spares worth INR 4 billion stockpiled by HAL at Nashik. Even if the IAF doesn’t adopt PBL, HAL would like to see 5 years worth of spares stockpiled. Most of the spares must still come from Russia, and surge capability is very poor. Sources: India’s Business Standard, “Govt takes note of Su-30MKI’s poor ‘serviceability'”
Oct 22/14: Grounded. IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Simranpal Singh Birdi says that the IAF’s SU-30MKIs are all grounded, which removes a substantial chunk of India’s front-line airpower.
“The fleet has been grounded and is undergoing technical checks following the latest accident in Pune. It would be back in air only after a thorough check…. A Court of Inquiry is in progress to ascertain the actual cause of accident…”
Meanwhile, the need to deal with the Sukhoi fleet’s various issues means that HAL needs to ramp up their ability to overhaul India’s SU-30s, from the current pathetic rate of 2 per year to 15 or so. Sources: | IBNS, “India temporarily grounds Sukhoi-30 fighter jets” | Hindustan Times, “Cloud over cause of Sukhoi crash”.
Oct 14-22/14: Crash. An IAF SU-30MKI crashes about 20 km from Pune airbase. Wing Commander Sidharth Vishwas Munje survived the type’s first crash in Indian service as a co-pilot, which was also a dangerous low-altitude ejection. The pilots apparently did quite a job, as Shiv Aroor (incorrectly) reports:
“They grappled to control a doomed fighter and eject only after ensuring it would glide into a sugarcane field, away from a built-up area that may have been the site of impact had the pilots chosen to eject earlier…. The IAF is still piecing together the full sequence of events, though it appears clear at this time that Munje and his junior had mere seconds to take a decision after lift-off.”
Both pilots escaped safely, but Aroor’s account turns out to be completely wrong. The IAF subsequently issues a release that says:
“One Su-30 fighter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was involved in an accident on October 14, 2014 in which both ejection seats had fired whilst the aircraft was coming in to land.”
The Russian specialists brought into the investigation say that’s impossible without the pilot’s command, but Former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major is quoted as saying there have been a few incidents in other air forces. Sources: India PIB, “IAF SU30 Crashed” and “Update on Su-30 Accident” | Livefist, “Twice Lucky: Pilot In Yesterday’s Su-30 Crash Also Survived 1st MKI Crash In 2009” and “Flanker Trouble: Did Fly-By-Wire Glitch Crash IAF Su-30?” | Bangalore Mirror, “No engine failure, pilot error in Sukhoi crash” | Deccan Chronicle, “Cause of Sukhoi-30 crash unclear” | Hindustan Times (Oct 23/14), “Cloud over cause of Sukhoi crash”.
Crash & fleet grounding
Aug 4/14: Engine issues. NPO Saturn has proposed a set of modifications designed to reduce mid-flight AL-31FP engine failures (q.v. July 20/14), and the IAF has accepted it. The modified engines will be tested first, then the refit of India’s 200 plane fleet will be carried out in batches over the next 18-24 months at HAL’s Sukhoi engine plant in Orissa. The Russians will reportedly include modified engines in India’s remaining 72 kits. Sources: Tribune News Service, “Engine rejig to cut Su-30 burnouts”.
July 20/14: Engine issues. Reports indicate that the IAF fleet’s problems aren’t limited to mission computers and displays (q.v. March 15/14). It also has a problem with engine failures in flight. Fortunately, as a 2-engine fighter, it can generally land on 1 engine, and the accident rate is low. The flip side is that this isn’t something you want to happen in a dogfight. Worse, every time this happens, the engine has to be taken out, tested, fixed, and put back. That takes a minimum of 4-5 days, which cuts readiness rates.
“The IAF has so far not arrived at a conclusion of its findings, but as a precautionary step, it has started servicing the engine after 700 hours instead of the mandated 1,000 hours of flying, adding to the non-availability of the aircraft…. The IAF had told Russians after studying each failure in detail that Sukhoi’s engines – AL-31FP produced by NPO Saturn of Russia – had been functioning inconsistently for the past two years (2012 and 2013). The number of single-engine landings by planes in two years is high and not healthy. It lowers the operational ability of the fleet, besides raising questions about war readiness, said sources.”
sources: Tribune News Service, “Su-30MKI engine failures worry IAF; Russia told to fix snag”.
June 16/14: Display fix. HAL chairman R K Tyagi discusses the issue of SU-30MKI display blanking and mission computer failure (q.v. March 15/14):
“The issue has been addressed by upgrading the software by the Russian side and replacing the mission computer and HUD wherever it was found unservicable during service checks [in India].” He further said that following the software upgrade and other service action taken, no problems concerning the Su-30 fighters has been reported from any IAF base.”
Sources: Defense World, “Software Upgrade Solves IAF Su-30MKI’s Display Problem”.
May 5/14: Astra AAM. An SU-30MKI successfully test-fires an Indian Astra BVRAAM (Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile), marking the next stage beyond the avionics integration and seeker tests that went on from November 2013 – February 2014. The firing marks a significant milestone for India.
The SU-30MKI will be the 1st fighter integrated with India’s new missile, giving its pilots an indigenous option alongside Russia’s R77 / AA-12 missiles. It will also be integrated with India’s LCA Tejas light fighter, alongside RAFAEL’s Derby. Sources: The Hindu, “Astra successfully test-fired from Sukhoi-30 MKI”.
April 22/14: Waste. India’s Business Standard discusses HAL’s planned schedule, and explains some of the difficult aspects of their contract with Russia. Deliveries currently sit at 15 per year, but completion of the program will be late. Final delivery is now scheduled for 2019, instead of 2016-17.
The second issue is price, which began at $30 million but rose to $75 million each, even though most work is being done in a lower-cost country now. The key is the contract, which mandates that all raw materials must be sourced from Russia. Of the SU-30MKI’s roughly 43,000 components, there are 5,800 large metal plates, castings and forgings that must come from Russia. Another 7,146 bolts, screws, rivets, etc. have similar stipulations, and Russia also produces major assemblies like the radar and engines. Those plates, castings, and forgings are a source of considerable waste:
“For example, a 486 kg titanium bar supplied by Russia is whittled down to a 15.9 kg tail component. The titanium shaved off is wasted. Similarly a wing bracket that weighs just 3.1 kg has to be fashioned from a titanium forging that weighs 27 kg…. manufacturing sophisticated raw materials like titanium extrusions in India is not economically viable for the tiny quantities needed for Su-30MKI fighters.”
An assembly line that wasn’t state-owned wouldn’t be wasting all that left-over titanium. Sources: India’s Business Standard, “Air Force likely to get entire Sukhoi-30MKI fleet by 2019”.
March 29/14: MAFI. India’s Business Standard discusses India’s INR 25 billion “Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure” (MAFI) project, which is being led by Tata Power’s strategic electronics division. It uses Doppler Very High Frequency Omni-directional Radio Range (DVOR), and Category II Instrument Landing Systems (ILS), allowing direction from 300 km and operations in visibility as low as 300 meters.
Bhatinda is MAFI’s pilot project, and a SU-30MKI was used to test the system on March 25/14. The challenge is that they can only upgrade 5-6 bases at any given time. The eventual goal is 30 IAF and navy bases set up by 2016, including 8 along the Chinese border. By the end of 2019, the goal is to expand MAFI to 67 air bases, including 2 owned by the ministry of home affairs. The larger goal is greater tactical flexibility for all fleets, and the SU-30s will be a major beneficiary. Sources: India’s Business Standard, “First upgraded IAF base commissioned”.
March 15/14: Readiness. India’s Sunday Guardian obtains letters and other documents sent by HAL to its Russian counterparts, pointing to serious maintenance problems with India’s SU-30MKI fleet. Compared with India’s older Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 fleets, whose readiness rates hover near 75%, fully 50% of the SU-30MKIs are considered unfit for operational flying. That’s a strategic-class issue for a country like India, and could provide the missing explanation for reports that India may abandon the joint FGFA/SU-50 5th generation fighter program in order to pay for French Rafale jets.
This isn’t the first time such issues have arisen (q.v. Dec 16/11), and the Russians have general reputation for these kinds of problems. One February 2014 letter from HAL’s Nasik plant reminds the Russians that they’ve been pursuing a critical issue since March 2013, with no reply:
“…multiple cases of repeated failure of Mission Computer-1 and blanking out of Head Up Displays (HUD) and all Multi-Function Displays (MFD) in flight… As the displays blanking off is a serious and critical issue affecting the exploitation of aircraft (it) needs corrective action/remedial measures on priority…”
From a Dec 24/13 letter:
“Due to non-availability of facilities for overhaul of aggregates [aircraft parts], the serviceability of Su-30MKI is slowly decreasing and demand for Aircraft on Ground (AOG) items on the rise…. Huge quantities of unserviceable aggregates [parts] are lying due for overhaul at various bases of IAF…. It appears that Rosboronexport and Irkut Corporation have limited control over other Russian companies [which provide vital parts like engines].”
One reason the MiG-29 fleet is doing better is that India has worked to build infrastructure like local RD-33 engine plants, bypassing the Russians entirely. Russian firms were supposed to set up a SU-30MKI repair-overhaul facility at HAL by December 2013, but that has fallen into a black hole, and so has the posting of aircraft specialists. India itself is often at fault in these scenarios, and indeed they’re reportedly haggling over price – but the specialist support contract reportedly states that they’re to be posted even if price negotiations aren’t finalized. India’s core defense posture demands that they resolve these issues, one way or another. Sources: India’s Sunday Guardian, “Russians go slow, Sukhoi fleet in trouble”.
Serious maintenance & readiness issues
Jan 4/14: Russia and India Report looks at the way the SU-30MKI is changing the IAF’s strategy, citing the huge April 2013 IAF exercise based on “swing forces” in a 2-front war against China and Pakistan. The SU-30MKIs range made them the natural swing force, flying 1,800 km bombing missions with mid-air refuelling. The report also makes an interesting observation:
“There is another ominous angle. India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) has asked for 40 nuclear capable strike aircraft to be used conjointly with land-based and submarine launched ballistic missiles. Although it’s not clear whether the IAF or the SFC will operate this mini air force, what is clear is that exactly 40 Su-30 MKIs have been converted to carry the BrahMos. That’s some coincidence.”
Sources: Russia & India Report, “How the Su-30 MKI is changing the IAF’s combat strategy”.
July 11/13: Weapons. Russian BrahMos Aerospace Executive Director Alexander Maksichev promises that 1st test-launch of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile from an Indian Su-30MKI will be scheduled in 2014. Integration is underway, and 2 SU-30MKIs are being adapted for the missile. Sources: Russia & India Report, “First test-launch of BrahMos missile from Indian Su-30MKI in 2014”.
May 27/13: Infrastructure. The IAF has finished modernizing the old WWI vintage airbase near Thanjavur in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, across the strait from Sri Lanka. A pair of SU-30MKIs took off from the runway as part of the ceremonies, and the base is eventually slated to house a full squadron of the type. The airfield last served as a civil airport in the 1990s, and renovations began in 2006.
Thanjavur was used as an emergency airstrip during flood relief in 2008, but the dedication marks its inauguration as a base for high-performance fighters, which will reportedly include a squadron of SU-30MKIs. They will offer India comfortable strike coverage of Sri Lanka, including the major southern port of Hambantota that’s being built with a great deal of Chinese help. While the runway and other facilities are in place for “lily pad” deployments, Thanjavur AFS still needs flight hangers, avionic bays, labs, fuel dumps and other infrastructure before it will be ready to host SU-30MKI fighters on a permanent basis.
Sources: India MoD, “Antony Dedicates to Nation New Air Force Station at Thanjavur” | Defence News India, “Sukhoi-30MKI’s to dominate South India and Indian Ocean” | The Hindu, “Full-fledged IAF airbase at Thanjavur from May 27”.
2011 – 2012
Dec 24/12: Super-30s contract. Russia signs over $4 billion worth of defense contracts with India, including the deal for 42 “Super 30” upgraded SU-30MKIs. Key Super 30 upgrades are reported to include a new radar (probably AESA, and likely Phazotron’s Zhuk-AE), improved onboard computers, upgraded electronic warfare systems, and the ability to fire the air-launched version of the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.
Russian sources place the Super 30 deal at $1.6 billion, which is significantly below previous figures. The Hindustan Times places its value at Rs 16,666 crore instead, which is about $3.023 billion at current conversions. The Times’ figure is in line with previous estimates, and is the one DID will use. The planes will arrive at HAL as assembly kits, and will be added to HAL’s production backlog. So far, the company says that they have assembled and delivered 119 SU-30MKIs to the IAF.
Other major agreements signed at the 2012 summit include a buy of 59 more Mi-17 helicopters, and a memorandum of cooperation regarding Russia’s GPS-like GLONASS system. India has indicated that it isn’t looking to add to its Flanker fleet after this deal, but they may choose to modernize older aircraft to this standard. That would keep Russian firms busy for quite some time. Indian Ministry of External Affairs | Hindustan Times | Times of India | RIA Novosti || Pakistan’s DAWN | Turkey’s Hurriyet |
Wall St. Journal.
“Super 30” contract?
Nov 23/12: More upgrades? Indian media report that India and Russia may be set to sign a $1 billion deal to upgrade the basic avionics of its existing SU-30MKIs, alongside the $3.8 billion “Super 30” deal. The big deadline date is just before Christmas, when Russia’s Vladimir Putin arrives in India for high-level talks.
The report mentions a SU-30MKI squadron in Jodhpur, near Pakistan, but all other sources offer the same total of 8 current and near-term squadrons without listing this as a Flanker base. 32 Wing’s 32 Sqn. “Thunderbirds”, who are currently listed as a MiG-21bis unit, would be the most likely conversion candidates in Jodhpur. Russia & India Report.
Oct 17/12: Indonesia. During his visit to Jakarta, Indian Defence Minister A K Antony agrees to train and support the Indonesian Air Force’s Flanker fleet. India flies a large fleet of SU-30MKIs, and is conducting manufacturing and final assembly work in India at HAL. They’ve already leveraged that base to provide similar support to Malaysia’s fleet of SU-30MKM fighters, though there are some items like engines that still need to be handled by Russia.
Note that this isn’t a contract just yet. Indonesia needs to firm up its requirements, and a India high-level Indian Air Force team will be sent to finalize the training and spares support package. The move will have an importance that goes far beyond its dollar value, as it’s part of a wider set of enhanced defense cooperation agreements the 2 countries are reportedly pursuing. Indonesia isn’t looking to antagonize China, but China’s aggressive claims in the South China Sea are comparing poorly with India’s support for freedom of navigation, and for multilateral resolution of these disputes under international law. The result is an important Indonesian tilt toward more cooperation with India, which fits very well with India’s own strategic priorities. India MoD | Indian Express | The Jakarta Globe.
Oct 5/12: Infrastructure. Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne offers a window into planned Su-30 deployments:
Code-named Flying Lancers, the process to set up a new 15 Squadron in Punjab would be started in December and become operational by the middle of next year, he said.
“By the end of this year, in December and early next year, we will be inducting a new Su-30 squadron, based in Punjab. That will be the 10th squadron of Su-30s… Two extra squadrons are being raised in the eastern sector…. One more squadron will be based in Punjab and one will be in Thanjavur. Therefore, we will eventually have 13 to 14 squadrons of Sukhois,”
Sources: Hindustan Times, “IAF to modernise, raise four more Su-30MKI squadrons”.
Aug 8/12: Infrastructure. An Indian government response to a Parliamentary question shows that the Thanjavur base is behind schedule:
“Audit Para 2.7 (Inordinate delay in development of Air Bases) of Comptroller and Auditor General Report No. 16 of 2010-11 (Air Force and Navy) had made observations regarding delay in the establishment and activation of air bases at Phalodi and Thanjavur. The delay was due to various factors including change in plans necessitated due to operational requirements of the Indian Air Force, paucity of resources as well as changes in the geopolitical situation.”
Aug 5/12: Air chief NAK Browne confirms that the IAF has identified a “design flaw” with the SU-30 MKI’s Fly-By-Wire system. He says that the planes are still fit to fly, but more checks are being implemented within the fleet, and India has taken the issue up “with the designing agency.”
The implicit but unstated corollary is that the IAF’s fighters will have corresponding flight restrictions and/or changed procedures until the problem is fixed, in order to avoid another crash. Hindustan Times.
March 23/12: Russian order. Russia’s own VVS moves to buy 30 SU-30SM fighters, for delivery by 2015. These planes are a version of the canard-winged, thrust-vectoring SU-30MKI/M variant that was developed for India, and has since been exported to Algeria and Malaysia. Which raises the question: why didn’t Russia buy 30 more SU-35S fighters? A RIA Novosti article offers one explanation:
“Irkut has been churning out these planes for 10 years thanks to its completely streamlined production method. This means that its products are of high quality, relatively cheap… and will be supplied on time.
It is one thing if, in order to make 30 aircraft, you have to breathe life into an idling plant, to fine-tune (or develop anew) your technological method, buy additional equipment, and – still worse – hire personnel. But it’s quite another if you have been manufacturing standardized aircraft for years and years and can easily divert your workforce to produce an “improved” modification for your own country’s Air Force… This approach (buying quickly and on the cheap what can be produced immediately) has been growing in popularity in the Russian military.”
The systems inside will differ, but overall, this is very good news for India. Similar designs have been exported to Malaysia and Algeria, but Russia’s order locks in loyalty within the equipment manufacturer’s home country. Other Russian orders follow, but we won’t be covering them here.
Dec 20/11: Super-30s. Russia has reportedly signed a preliminary deal with India to sell 42 upgraded Su-30MKI “Super 30” fighters, to be added to HAL’s license production backlog. That brings total Indian SU-30 orders to 272. Price was not reported, but Parliamentary transcripts place the budget for this buy at around $2.4 billion.
The Super 30 deal is 1 of 5 trade & defense deals signed in Moscow during the summit meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. A proposed nuclear plant deal was not among them. Assam Tribune | Deccan Herald | AP.
“There was a problem in the fly-by-wire system… This is a new thing. Pilot did not get any warning. There were no indications in the cockpit and the aircraft was out of control,” the IAF chief told PTI here. He said the pilot “tried his best to control the aircraft for 15-20 minutes” before ejecting out along with the Weapon Systems Operator (WSO)…”
Dec 16/11: Readiness. The Hindustan Times reports that perennial problems with Russian spares & reliability have become an urgent issue for the SU-30MKI fleet now:
“Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to red-flag [SU-30] serviceability, product support and pending upgrade… at the annual [Russian] summit meeting… Top government sources said that Air Headquarters has urgently requested the Prime Minister to raise the issue of engine serviceability with his Russian counterpart after few incidents of engine failures… the top brass has conveyed to government that “shaft bearing failures” have occurred in some [AL-31FP] engines. “In peacetime, the fighter can land on the other engine but this can be a life and death situation in adverse conditions, said a senior official.”
Dec 13-15/11: An SU-30MKI crashes 25 minutes after takeoff, in the flying area of the Lohegaon IAF base, in Pune. Both pilots ejected safely. This is the IAF’s 3rd SU-30MKI crash; the 1st crash in 2009 was due to a fly-by-wire fault, and the 2nd also happened in 2009 when foreign matter was sucked into the plane’s engine.
In response, A Court of Inquiry (CoI) has been ordered to look into the reasons behind the crash. India also grounds its SU-30MKI fleet, pending maintenance inspections and some idea of what caused this crash. Rediff | Economic Times of India | IBN Live | Indian Express | Hindustan Times
Crash & grounding
Nov 23/11: Industrial. Minister of State for Defence Shri MM PallamRaju is grilled about SU-30 deliveries by Parliamentarians in Rajya Sabha, and explains both the project history, and HAL’s manufacturing responses. So far, he says that “Out of the total 180 aircraft”, India has received 99 SU-30MKIs “till 2010-11”.
That delivery total and date is very ambiguous. It implies orders with HAL for 180 planes, which would entail a 2nd contract for another 40-42 fighters (vid. Aug 9/10 entry). Earlier reports re: HAL deliveries (vid. June 26/10 entry) pegged them at 74 planes from HAL, and the Russian deliveries are expected to wrap up in 2012; 99 total planes from both sources would fit that model, if the answer is read as “99 by the beginning of the 2010-11 fiscal period.” With expected 2010 production of 28 HAL SU-30MKIs, however, a read of “99 of 180 SU-30MKIs delivered as of November 2011” only makes sense if all the planes he’s referring to are from HAL. HAL’s responses to production delays are said to include:
- Commissioning of additional tooling jigs & fixtures in manufacturing and assembly Shops.
- Increased Outsourcing.
- Development of alternate vendors.
- Improvements in manufacturing processes & Operations in order to reduce cycle time.
- Effective monitoring and timely actions through Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).
- Recruitment/Redeployment of manpower in critical work Centers.
Oct 11/11: AESA. India is reportedly looking at fitting its Su-30MKIs with Phazotron’s Zhuk-AE active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, instead of their present Tikhomrov N011M Bars passive mechanically scanned array radars. The switch would improve reliability, radar power, and performance, but the new radars would have to be tied into the combat system, tested for aerodynamic balance and other changes they might create, etc.
The X-band Zhuk-AE can reportedly track 30 aerial targets in the track-while-scan mode, and engage 6 targets simultaneously in attack mode. Aviation Week.
Aug 29/11: Super 30. Russia and India have reached agreement on the technical specification of the Super 30 upgrade, including BrahMos missile integration and an AESA radar. The exact nature of that radar is still in question. Reports to date have discussed an enlarged version of the MiG-35’s Phazotron Zhuk-AE, but Tikhomirov’s NIIP could also be chosen, and the firm demonstrated an improved version at the Moscow Air Show (MAKS 2011). AIN.
2009 – 2010
Aug 18/10: Defence Minister Antony replies to Parliamentary questions about the “Super 30” upgrade:
“There is proposal to upgrade the SU-30 MKI aircraft of the Indian Air Force by M/s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) with the support of the Russian Original Equipment Manufacturer. The current estimated cost is Rs. 10920 crores and the aircraft are likely to be upgraded in a phased manner from year 2012 onwards.”
Note the word “proposal.” At this point, the estimate in rupees is equivalent to about $2.41 billion.
Aug 9/10: Super 30. Defense minister Antony offers an update re: additional SU-30MKI purchases, in a written Parliamentary reply to Shri Asaduddin Owaisi:
“The Defence Acquisition Council has accepted a proposal for the procurement of 42 Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft from M/s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, India. The proposal is being further progressed for submitting to the Cabinet Committee on Security. The estimated cost of the project is Rs. 20,107.40 crores [DID: about $4.36 billion, or about $104 million per plane] and the aircraft is planned to be delivered during 2014-2018. The proposal is being progressed as a repeat order from M/s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, India under the Defence Procurement Procedure-2008.”
That’s even higher than the estimates in June 2010, when the story broke (vid. June 26/10 entry). The cost of this deal soon attracts controversy, especially given that a 2007 deal for 40 SU-30MKIs cost only $1.6 billion/ Rs 7,490 crore. That prompts speculation that these will be upgraded “Super 30” aircraft. DNA India.
July 4/10: Upgrades. India’s Economic times quotes unnamed sources within India’s MoD:
“As part of IAF’s modernisation programme, we are going to upgrade 50 Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft with help of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) from Russia… The ones to be upgraded are from the first phase [from Russia, before the HAL order, of mixed SU-30MKs and MKIs] and the project is likely to be completed in the next three to four years…”
Details are consistent with earlier “Super 30” reports. Is there, in fact, a contract to do this work? Not yet.
June 26/10: Super 30. The Times of India reports that India’s Cabinet Committee for Security has cleared a nearly Rs 15,000 crore (about $3.3 billion) order for another 42 Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters, for delivery by around 2018:
“The present order for 42 fighters was originally supposed to be 40, but two more were added to the order book to make up for the two crashed fighters. A senior official said that HAL is expected to complete all the SU-30 MKI orders by 2016-17 period… last year it delivered 23 of these fighters, this year it is expected to produce 28. HAL has already supplied 74 of these fighters.”
May 30/10: Super 30. India Today magazine reports that India has placed orders with the Russian defense industry to modernize 40 Su-30MKI Flanker-H fighters to “Super 30” status, with new radars, onboard computers, and electronic warfare systems, and the ability to fire the air-launched version of the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. RIA Novosti.
Dec 7/09: Industrial. Defense minister Antony offers an update on the existing program to assemble SU-30MKIs in India:
“In addition to licensed manufacture of 140 SU-30 aircraft by M/s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a contact for procurement of additional 40 SU-30 MKI was signed with M/s HAL in 2007. Out of these three aircraft have been delivered to the Indian Air Force and delivery of the remaining aircraft is expected to be completed by 2011-12”
Nov 30/09: A SU-30MKI crashes near the firing range at Pokharan, triggering a fleet-wide grounding and investigation. Both pilots eject safely, and initial suspicion focuses on the plane’s engine. MoD announcement | Indian Express re: Grounding | Indian Express.
An SU-30 had also crashed on April 30/09, reportedly due to the failure of its fly-by-wire system. These 2 accidents are the only SU-30 losses India has experienced.
Crash & grounding
Nov 12/09: Sub-contractors. India’s Business Standard reports that the SU-30MKI program is about to include Samtel Display Systems’ multi-function displays; their first delivery will equip 6 Su-30MKIs in lieu of Thales systems manufactured under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd in Nashik. Samtel has a joint venture with Thales, and went forward on its own through the 5-year road to “airworthy” certification from DRDO’s CEMILAC. A public-private partnership with HAL has created Samtel HAL Display Systems (SHDS), which may create wider opportunities for Samtel’s lower-priced displays – if both delivery and quality are up to par on the initial SU-30MKI orders.
The article notes that Samtel has succeeded, in part, by embracing obsolete technology that others were abandoning (CRT displays), even as it prepares to leapfrog LCD displays with Organic Light Emitting Diodes. The road to military certification isn’t an easy one, though:
“Starting with liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, commercially procured from Japan and Korea, Samtel has ruggedised them for use in military avionics. The display must be easily readable even in bright sunlight; it must be dim enough for the pilot to read at night without losing night vision; it must work at minus 40 degrees Centigrade when conventional LCD screens get frozen solid; and it must absorb the repeated violent impacts of landing on aircraft carriers.”
Oct 9/09: Super 30. The Indian Ministry of Defence issues a release regarding the 9th meeting of the Russia-India Inter-Governmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation on Oct 14-15/09:
“The modernisation of the SU 30 MKI aircraft is also expected to come up for discussion in the Commission’s meeting. The aircraft, contracted in 1996, are due for overhaul shortly and the Russia side have offered an upgrade of the aircraft with incorporation of the latest technologies during the major overhaul.”
Obvious areas for modernization would include the aircraft’s N011M Bars radar, now that Russian AESA designs are beginning to appear. Engine improvements underway for Russia’s SU-35 program would also be a logical candidate for any SU-30MKI upgrades. The most important modification, however, might be an upgraded datalink that could reduce the level of coalition fratricide observed in exercises like Red Flag 2008. Indian MoD | RIA Novosti.
Oct 2/09: +50 more? Jane’s reports that India is looking to buy another 50 SU-30MKIs, quoting Air Chief Marshal P V Naik who said that the IAF was “interested.” This comes hard on the heels of comments that the IAF’s fleet strength was 1/3 the size of China’s, coupled with comments that the IAF would eliminate its fighter squadron deficit by 2022.
Interest is not a purchase, but reported prices of $50-60 million for an aircraft that can can equal or best $110-120 million F-15 variants do make the SU-30 an attractive buy, even relative to options like the foreign designs competing for the MMRCA contract. Forecast International offers an additional possibility, citing the context within which that interest was expressed, and wondering if the new SU-30KIs might be tasked with a nuclear delivery role. Their range and payload would certainly make them uniquely suited to such a role within the IAF.
If a purchase does ensue, it would be good news for a number of players, including Indian firms that have contributed technologies to the SU-30MKI design. Samtel Display Systems (SDS), who makes avionics for the SU-30MKI’s cockpit, would be one example of a growing slate of private Indian defense firms with niche capabilities. Construction firms may also benefit; The Deccan Herald reports that:
“The IAF is keeping one squadron of its most advanced Su-30 MKI fighters in Bareilly whose primary responsibility is the western and middle sector of the LAC. Similarly a Su-30 base is being created in Tezpur, Assam, for the eastern sector [near China].”
See: Jane’s | Russia’s RIA Novosti | Times of India | Associated Press of Pakistan | Pakistan’s Daily Times | Avio News | Forecast International | IAF size comments: Daily Pioneer and Sify News | Frontline Magazine on Indian-Chinese relations.
2000 – 2008
March 31/06: Speed-up +40. India’s Cabinet Committee on Security approves the speeded-up delivery plan. The IAF signs revised contracts for 140 previously-ordered SU-30MKIs, to be delivered by 2014-15. A 2007 contract adds another 40 SU-30MKIs, by the same deadline, but those are ordered direct from Russia. Source.
June 2005: Speed it up. IAF Headquarters looks at its fleet strength and planned aircraft retirements, and asks HAL if it could deliver all of the SU-30MKIs by 2015 instead. HAL responds with a proposal that they believe will get them to a full-rate assembly flow of 16 planes per year. Source.
Dec 12/04: Irkut Corp. announces that they have begun delivery of final “3rd phase” configuration Su-30MKIs to the Indian Air Force.
Initial deliveries involved aircraft optimized for aerial combat, while Phase 2 added more radar modes for their NIIP N-011 radars, TV-guided Kh-59M missiles, the supersonic Kh-31A/ AS-17 Krypton multi-role missile, and simultaneous attack of 4 aerial targets by guided air-to-air missiles. Phase 3 Su-30MKIs fully implement all navigation and combat modes in the contract, including laser-guided bombs, weapon launch in thrust-vectoring “supermaneuverability” mode, and engagement of up to 4 aerial targets in front or rear. Ramenskoye Design Bureau (RPKB) is responsible for the avionics and software, and also provide the Sapfir maintenance and mission planning ground suite.
SU-30MKI Phase 3 deliveries begin
Oct 6/04: The SU-30MKI’s Saturn AL-31FP engines have their “Certificate of the AL-31FP life-time” signed by the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defence, the Central Aviation Engines Institute (CIAM), NPO Saturn, UMPO, SUKHOI Corporation, and IRKUT Corporation.
The statistics are: MTBO (Mean Time Between Overhauls) 1,000 hours, and 2,000 hours assigned life. The thrust-vectoring nozzles take a beating, though, with only 500 hours MTBO. Irkut Corp.
January 2001: Indian government formally approves the SU-30MKI project, with an expected full-rate assembly flow of 12 planes per year, beginning in 2004-05 and continuing until 2017-18. Source.
Dec 18/2000: India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approves the project to assemble the SU-30MKIs in India. Source.
Oct 4/2000: Russia and India sign an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for transfer of License and Technical Documentation to India, for “production of 140 SU-30 MKI Aircraft, its Engines and Aggregates.” Source.
SU-30MKIs: initial local assembly order
Readers with corrections, comments, or information to contribute are encouraged to contact DID’s Founding Editor, Joe Katzman. We understand the industry – you will only be publicly recognized if you tell us that it’s OK to do so.
The SU-30 MKI
- Wikipedia – SU-30MKI
- Bharat Rakshak – Sukhoi Su-30 MKI [Flanker]. Picture gallery, with some background.
- Bharat Rakshak – Sukhoi-30MKI – Project Vetrivale. By a former director of DRDO’s ADE.
- Vayu Sena – Irkut/HAL Su-30MKI Air Dominance Fighter
- India Defence Projects Sentinel blog – Su-30MKI Acquisition and Upgrade [dead link]. Other history here.
- Defense Update – Phazotron Zhuk AE AESA Radar
- Air Power Australia – Phazotron Zhuk AE/ASE: Assessing Russia’s First Fighter AESA. Written in July 2008.
- Jane’s – N011M Bars (Russian Federation), Payloads
Related IAF Programs
- DID – India’s M-MRCA Fighter Competition. Intends to buy 126 aircraft that will be very competitive with SU-30MKI performance, but will cost much more – $18 billion has been mentioned. Dassault’s Rafale is the preferred bidder. Essentially pays more up front to have a SU-30MKI analogue with better electronics, and much better support and readiness.
- DID – PAK-FA/FGFA/T50: India, Russia Cooperate on 5th-Gen Fighter. Will probably become the SU-50. Early read is F-35 class stealth and F-22 class aerial performance, probably slightly less than its cited peers in both areas. SU-30MKI troubles may be affecting India’s willingness to spend the billions of development and acquisition dollars required.
News & Views
- Russia & India Report (March 10/14) – Dissecting a dogfight: Sukhoi vs USAF at Red Flag 2008. The publication is part of state-owned Russia Today.
- Russia & India Report (Jan 4/14) – How the Su-30 MKI is changing the IAF’s combat strategy.
- Flight International (Nov 6/08) – US Red Flag pilot candidly assesses Su-30MKI’s limits, Rafale’s dirty tricks. Compared to US F-15/F-16s, the USAF pilot describes the SU-30MKI as “a bit better.”
- The DEW Line (Nov 5/08) – USAF pilot describes IAF Su-30MKI performance at Red Flag-08. Video Briefing – really enlightening re: tactics, also use of French Rafales for industrial espionage.
- Indian Defence Review (Vol 23.4, Sept-Dec 2008) – Strategic Implications of Exercise Red Flag 2008 By Air Marshal BK Pandey.
- Milavia – Flankers in Eagle’s Realm, 08-04. notes that the SU-30MKI’s Tikhomirov Instrument Bureau (NIIP) radars were restricted to training mode, in order to preserve secrecy, and the only missiles they allowed themselves to simulate were older AA-10s, not short-range AA-11/R-73 Archers or AA-12/R-77 “AMRAAMSKIs”. The exclusion of the AA-11 is odd, since the USA got plenty of training with them from German MiG-29s.
- Livefist (Nov 19/08) – LiveFist Column: Vishnu Som first-hand on what really happened at Red Flag 08.
- Aviation Week (Aug 21/08) – Indian Advanced Su-30MKIs Come to USA [dead link].
- DID (July 17/07) – Typhoon vs. SU-30MKI: The 2007 Indra Dhanush Exercise.