Speedy Updating of Russian Su-30MKI is Imperative for Indian Air Force

By Girish Linganna

The slow progress of updating the Su-30MKI jets in the Indian Air Force might lose the advantage they had when they first got these special planes. This delay could lead to buying more planes from other countries, which would cost more and make India more dependent on others.

The Indian Air Force got their first group of Su-30MKI jets from HAL in early 2002. Since then, these planes have not been updated at all. There have been no new versions like Block-1, Block-2, Block-3, or even a Mk.2 or Mk.3.

When the Indian Air Force first got the Su-30MKI, it was very advanced for its time. But now, the plane’s old electronics and weapons systems are almost embarrassing, especially since it’s still a key part of the air force. In the fast-moving world of military planes, ignoring updates for over 20 years can make even the best aircraft outdated. Fortunately for the Indian Air Force, this hasn’t fully happened to the Su-30MKI.

It might be unexpected that after the Indian Air Force’s Balakot strike on February 26, 2019, when the Pakistan Air Force responded the next day with Operation Swift Retort, the IAF’s Su-30MKIs lacked missiles with enough range to confront the PAF fighters ?

The latest update on the Su-30MKI upgrade is that on November 30, 2023, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approved the plan for modernizing the IAF’s Su-30MKIs through Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

In the upgrade process, the planes will be equipped with the locally made Virupaksha AESA radar and new avionics. Also, their weapon management system will be updated to include long-range weapons developed in India.

The Virupaksha radar from India is a sophisticated radar system created by the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Its main purpose is to monitor and track air targets over long distances. The name “Virupaksha” is inspired by a version of the Hindu god Mahadeva (or Maha Dev), who is widely recognized and worshipped by Hindus around the world.

Moreover, this upgrade will increase the lifespan of the Su-30MKI fighter jet fleet by over 20 years. Initially, the upgrade will be applied to 84 jets in the first phase.

The history of the upgrade program began when Russia suggested that the Indian Air Force should update its Su-30MKI jets. This proposal was made during Defence Minister Shri AK Antony’s three-day official trip to Moscow on October 13, 2009, for the 9th India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC) meeting.

The Su-30MKI jets, which were agreed upon in 1996, were nearing the time for their major overhaul. During this time, the Russian team proposed updating the aircraft with the newest technologies as part of this significant maintenance work.

Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, in his first press conference on October 5, 2012, stated that the upgrade of the Su-30MKI fleet would begin once all the ordered aircraft had been received.

In 2015, Rostec suggested that Russia and India collaborate to upgrade both the Su-30MKI and the Su-30SM. The Su-30SM is the version used by the Russian Air Force, similar to the Su-30MKIs.

A press release from Irkut on September 11, 2015, announced that the Su-30MKI upgrade would include updates to avionics, radar, and enhanced engine performance. The upgraded version of the Su-30MKI was then termed the ‘Super Sukhoi’ variant.

“Irkut” refers to the Irkut Corporation, a major Russian aircraft manufacturer. They are known for developing and producing military and civilian aircraft, and are notably involved in the manufacturing and upgrading of the Su-30MKI fighter jets among other aircraft models.

India decided that the modernization of the Su-30MKI would only proceed if there was an improvement in the aircraft’s serviceability. This serviceability had been negatively impacted by irregular supply of spare parts.

In July 2016, reports said that due to improved serviceability of the Su-30MKI, the project to upgrade the fighter jet to ‘Super Sukhois’ is progressing. The source mentioned, “The technical specifications are expected to be settled within this year, and the agreement is likely to be signed the following year.”

On August 16, 2016, there was an article stating that the planned upgrade for the jets would feature updated avionics and radar systems, enhanced stealth features to lower the radar visibility, improved electronic warfare systems, and new weaponry.

In the upgrade process, the Indian Air Force was interested in adding long-range missiles for both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat to the Super Sukhoi variant. However, at that point, Russia hadn’t yet used such missiles in operations, so they weren’t part of the upgrade plan.

In June 2017, reports came that Russia was reaching out to European companies for supplying weapon systems and avionics for the upgrade, and had begun discussions with several vendors. Additionally, Sputnik reported in the same month that Russia planned to collaborate with Italy to modernize India’s Su-30MKI multirole air superiority fighters.

On August 24, 2018, A.A. Mikheev, the General Director of Rosoboronexport, informed the media in Moscow that Russia has offered to upgrade the Indian Air Force’s Su-30MKI to the Su-30SM standard as part of the mid-life upgrade process for the IAF’s fleet

Fifteen years after its initial proposal, the Su-30MKI modernization program has received approval. Nonetheless, the progress of the planned upgrades might be gradual due to reliance on the development of domestic sensors, avionics, and weapon systems, which are currently in the preliminary stages of development.

For the upgraded Su-30MKIs, India is yet to develop and deploy long-range missiles for both air-to-ground and air-to-air combat, which are desired by the Indian Air Force for these modernized aircraft.

As India faces challenges in developing a long-range cruise missile, Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) has shown a significant shift in the dynamics of modern warfare.

The main requirement now is to have missiles that can hit targets from a long distance or stop enemy missiles, and it should be challenging for the enemy to defend against or avoid them. It doesn’t make much sense to launch long range missiles that are easy to be destroyed or avoided.

Stealthy cruise missiles, like the Russian Kh-69, British Storm Shadow, French Scalp-EG, and German Taurus, launched by fighter aircraft, have shown to be successful in the SMO (Special Military Operations).

Russia, China, and NATO nations are currently working on developing fighter aircraft-launched hypersonic cruise missiles that use air-breathing technology to enhance their stealth capabilities. These missiles are expected to be extremely challenging to intercept.

India’s future missile called Nirbhay, which is still under development, does not meet the requirements to counter modern anti-aircraft defense systems. It might take India a long time to develop stealthy or hypersonic cruise missiles, as well as an air-to-air missile like the RVV-BD (R-37M) that can hit targets beyond 300 kilometres.

The AESA radar, which is planned to be installed on the upgraded Su-30MKI, is most likely a larger version of the Uttam AESA radar used in the LCA Mk-1A. The Virupaksha AESA radar will make use of the larger frontal area of the Su-30 MKI to accommodate more TR modules compared to the 700 modules used in the Uttam AESA. This will provide the radar with greater power and a longer detection range.

DRDO has been working on the development of the Uttam radar since 2012 for its implementation on the LCA Mk-1A fighter. A life-sized model of the radar was showcased at Aero India 2017.

The deployment of the fully functional Virupaksha AESA radar might potentially be influenced by the feedback received from the operational implementation of the Uttam AESA radar, as well as the duration required to integrate the Uttam radar with the weapons management system on the Su-30MKIs.

The challenges and potential time setbacks associated with equipping the Su-30MKI with weapon systems and sensors that are still in early stages of development are clearly evident.

The IAF’s choice to upgrade the aircraft while keeping the current AL-31FP engine may present certain limitations. This decision won’t enable the modernized variant to accommodate high-powered sensors that demand greater onboard electrical power. As an illustration, there is an increasing trend to install multispectral optical-electronic or radar surveillance systems in detachable pods that can be carried by heavy fighters. These pods can be used to fill gaps in AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) surveillance.

Additionally, there is a growing trend to enhance the strategic capabilities of fighter aircraft by equipping them with long-range hypersonic aeroballistic and cruise missiles. These missiles are significantly heavier than the current generation of air-launched cruise missiles.

It is puzzling why the IAF did not choose the AL-41F-1S engine, a more potent version of the Su-30MKI engine that HAL is already manufacturing under license, considering the significant extension in airframe lifespan (20 years) resulting from the modernization. The AL-41F-1S engine offers a 16% increase in power, is 100% more cost-effective based on engine lifespan, and provides better fuel efficiency. Moreover, Russia asserts that incorporating the AL-41F-1S engine would not necessitate any airframe alterations.

It is advantageous for India to upgrade the Su-30MKI, taking into consideration the present and future trends in air warfare and learning from the Russian SMO. The modernization should enable the Su-30MKI to utilize existing sensors and weapon systems, while also allowing for the integration of future systems. Establishing a reliance on Indian-developed sensors and weapons can result in project delays, and consequently, it would not serve India’s long-term objectives. (IPA)