Flight of the Flankers – Part 2 “The Capabilities”

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2

After an overwhelming response on the first part of Flight of the Flankers -“The Induction” , we present to you the Part 2 of the series. There are a lot of different Flanker types operating in the South Asian region. Apart from India, there are few types with China (J-11, J-16 & Su-35), Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Myanmar. But the Su-30MKI stands out in this crowd and shares the stage with the Su-35S to be the most capable Su-30 derivatives flying in the South Asian skies. We are here to specifically talk about what makes the Su-30MKI so fearsome.

There are two aspects to this discussion, the first being the various characteristics of the aircraft that makes it exceptional & the second being the way IAF has been able to strategically deploy the MKI to get the best out of the aircraft. We’ll talk about the first aspect in this article.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
Thrust vectoring nozzles of the Su-30MKI


There are manoeuvrable fighters & then comes what is called “Super Manoeuvrable” fighters. The Su-30MKI belongs to the later. The fighter can literally dance in the sky like no other.

The aerodynamic configuration unlike Tejas has relaxed stability but the canard deflects automatically to allow high angle of attack (AoA) flights, allowing it to perform complicated manoeuvres like Pugachev’s Cobra. What augments the agility is the presence of thrust vectoring nozzles of the engines which results not only in extremely capable manoeuvrability but also improves taking off and landing characteristics. This high agility allows rapid deployment of weapons in any direction as desired by the crew during a dogfight.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
N011 Bars Radar

Radar: The Su-30MKI uses the Russian N011 Bars radar. The Russian radar technology developed more aggressively than western counterparts in the 1980s & 90s & this can be clearly in this radar. The N011 Bars is a powerful digital multi-mode dual frequency band passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar capable of functioning in air-to-air and air-to-land or sea mode simultaneously while being tied into a high-precision laser-inertial or GPS navigation system. The radar has a search range in excess of 400 km which is almost double by contemporary fighter aircraft standards. The maximum tracking range is 200 km & up to 60 km in the rear hemisphere of the aircraft. The radar can track 15 enemy aerial targets and engage 4 simultaneously with its radar guided missiles. Small targets like Cruise missiles & UAVs can also be detected. Usually it is difficult for radars in fighters to detect low flying helicopters & the game becomes even more difficult if the enemy helicopter stops moving. But this is not a problem with the Bars radar as the radar waves detect the helicopter’s rotating blades even if it is close to the ground.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
OLS-30 on Su-30MKI

OLS-30: Radar is not the only system that acts as the eyes of the Su-30MKI. It also have an optical Infra-red search and track mounted just above the nose in front of the cockpit. These “eyes” look for the heat signature of the target in air & have a detection range of 90 km. Since this doesn’t require the radar to be turned on for identifying the targets, it is also called passive scanning.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
ELM-8222 Jammer on the underwing pylon of Su-30MKI.

Electronic Warfare:

The EW components include a RWR named Tarang developed by DRDO & an Israeli external Jamming pod known as ELTA ELM-8222. This is pretty standard pod used by the MKI & the LCA Tejas. In fact, this is the same pod used by the Israeli F-15 Eagles. The pod contains an antenna on the forward and aft ends, which receives the hostile RF signal and after processing, delivers multiple reflected responses after phased delays to confuse the enemy radar. It was due to this self-protection jammer that Su-30MKIs could successfully evade multiple AMRAAM missiles fired by Pakistani F-16s after the Balakot Airstrike.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
SAP-18 pods on the wingtips

But what really is the game changer in this respect is the Russian SAP-518 wingtip mounted & SAP-14 centreline mounted jammer pod. Recently the Su-30MKI was spotted equipped with these jammers while flying routine sorties in Eastern Ladakh sector. The aircraft can have two of these powerful pods, each on one wingtip. The SAP-14 escort jammer can jam all the enemy’s advance air defences & can be used for SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) missions which is creating a breach in the enemy air defence umbrella for safely carrying ground attack missions. This works by artificially creating radar waves which replicate the reflected signature of an actual aircraft. Hence many false targets are created which saturates the enemy radar screen & it has no way to tell which target is actual. Hence the SAP-18 is considered highly effective against enemy radar & radar guided missiles. These jammers make the Su-30MKI an Indian equivalent of the E/A-18 Growler Electronic warfare aircraft, thus projecting the true multirole capabilities of the platform.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
Twin cockpit of Su-30MKI

Cockpit: It is a no brainer that two heads are better than one & hence the standard version of the Su-30MKI, unlike usual fighters, have twin cockpits. The forward cockpit sits the pilot & the rear one sits the WSO (Weapon Systems Officer) though the flight controls are replicated in both the cockpits. The WSO, as the name suggests is responsible for tracking & weapons deployment. In long endurance missions where the SU-30MKI needs to be in the air for 8-10 hours with the help of aerial refuelling, this twin cockpit concept comes to rescue to the crew as the workload is shared between the pilot & the WSO.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
Su-30MKI carrying full air to air combat loadout

Armament: The MKI can fire a wide array of most Russian & Indian made air to air & air to surface/sea munitions. In air to air mode the primary weapon of the MKI is the R-73 missile for short range, R-27 & R-77 for the medium range & the KS-172 “AWACS killer” for long range. The advanced variants of the R-73 is a very potent missile. It is the same missile that shot down the Pakistani F-16 from Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s MiG-21 in early 2019. The missile has been updated to R-74 standard with +/- 60 degree off bore shoot capability. This means the aircraft no longer needs to align itself at 6 o’clock of the enemy during a dogfight to shoot the missile. The pilot just needs to look at the target through his HMS (Helmet mounted Sight) & can lock & fire at the target. This proves extremely effective in close quarter air battles.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
Mounting the R-77 on a hardpoint on the Su-30MKI

The R-27 & R-77 are used for beyond visual range engagements. The R-27 is heavier & older but still a very reliable system. In 2019, IAF ordered a large cache of air to air missiles from Russia of which 300 were R-27s. It comes with two variants: ER & ET. The R-27ER is the semi-active-radar homing version. Effective kill range for a target flying at same altitude is 65 km in head-on & 16 km in tail chase mode. The maximum effective range for a slow moving target is 130 km. The R-27ET is the infrared-homing version with an effective kill range of 52 km in head-on mode & 12 km tail chase. Maximum firing range is 120 km.

The R-77 is a much more modern & lighter missile with a maximum range of 110 km. Of the missiles ordered in 2019, 400 of these were the R-77. Unlike the R-27ER, the R-77 has an active seeker & hence gives the fire & forget capability. These are extremely capable missiles & are directly compared to the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles from the west.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
Astra Mk1 Missile on the Su-30MKI

The Russian Missiles are gradually being replaced by Indian systems. The Astra BVRAAM (Beyond visual range air to air missile) developed by DRDO has been ordered by IAF & will gradually replace the R-77s in service. The Su-30MKI can also adapt the British ASRAAM (not tested yet), the French MICA-IR which are highly respected missiles for short range air combat. The Israeli I-Derby-ER will be integrated in the future into the MKI. 

For air to ground attack the Su-30MKI uses mostly Russian missiles like the Kh-59 (air launched land attack cruise missile) & the Kh-31P (supersonic anti-ship missile). But in recent development, 40 su-30MKI are modified to carry the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. This proves to be a game changer. IAF has demonstrated the ability of Su-30MKI aircraft to fly 4,000 km before launching the BrahMos & hit a sea target 300 km far, giving a cumulative striking distance of 4,300 km. The aircraft took off from a base in Punjab & hit its target in Indian Ocean. This is to project power to the Dragon in the east that their ships are well within the striking distance of Su-30MKI if it takes off from INS Baaz in Andaman Islands.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
Su-30MKI carrying the BrahMos

Another interesting weapon the MKI recently tested is the Rudram-1 Anti-radiation missile which homes on the enemy radar waves & is used for SEAD missions for a standoff range of 150-250 km. In future, the Su-30MKI will also be able to carry the Nirbhay Cruise missiles with a maximum engagement envelop of 1,000 km.

For tactical bombing, the Su-30MKI uses the Russian KAB-500 & FAB-500 bombs. In recent times the DRDO has shown exceptional developments in this area. Now the MKI can also carry Sudarshan laser-guided bombs, SAAW (Smart anti airfield weapon) or the HSLD (high speed low drag) general purpose bombs. To guide these precision weapons, the MKI uses the Litening pod, the most widely used precision targeting pod in the west.

Flight of the Flankers - Part 2 "The Capabilities"
Litening Pod on the Su-30MKI

These are the capabilities of Individual Su-30MKIs as machines but what actually makes them fearsome is the man controlling the machine. IAF fighter pilots are globally considered as highly skilled & one of the best. With tremendously strict selection & training, continuous improvement & a lot (trust me, a lot) of flying hours every year both in cockpit & in simulator not only sharpens the edge but also keeps it sharp & ready. What happened on 27 February 2019 between a 2nd gen MiG-21 & a 4th Gen F-16 is a testament of that.

What makes this combination of a skilled pilot & a menacing fighter is the way these assets are utilised by masterminds in the IAF. The discussion on deployment is so vivid & interesting that it needs an entire article for itself & that’s what the third & final article of this series is going to be about. We’ll talk about different Su-30MKI squadrons, their placement in interest of our good neighbours & the operational history with IAF. We’ll also take a brief look at how the Su-30MKI fared in the international joint exercises. Till then sleep well because somewhere every few minutes an IAF fighter is taking off to protect our borders.

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Subhadeep is a military aviation & defence systems enthusiast who writes well researched & unbiased content. He has written over 300 articles which have helped close to 5 million viewers to have an understanding of Defence. Hailing from a military family, he has experienced the functioning of Indian Armed Forces for years which has led to the understanding & accurate portrayal of the forces in his content. He will be frequently writing about aircraft, strategy, weapons & all his content will be easily comprehensible even by the common man with a limited understanding on the subject.