It’s one thing to buy expensive & cutting edge weapons & totally another to be able to effectively use them in combat. When it comes to the Su-30MKI, the IAF can do both. In this final article of the series Flight of the Flankers, we’ll begun where we left off on our last article. In the next few minutes of reading you’ll understand how the masterminds in IAF extract the best out of these machines.
First things first. IAF has a big inventory of the Su-30MKI. The fleet strength of 260 (upcoming 12) fighters is larger than the entire combat aircraft fleet of the German, French or Royal Air Force. Having a big fleet is of no use if it is not deployed effectively, but that’s not a problem for the IAF. The IAF has strategically deployed the squadrons all over the Indian mainland.
Starting from South India, the most strategically important base of Su-30MKI is the No.
222 “Tigersharks” Squadron based out of Thanjavur. The squadron is tasked with responsibility of Maritime Reconnaissance as well as Maritime Strike role. It is the first squadron equipped with air launched BrahMos cruise missile. Su-30MKI with BrahMos is undoubtedly the strongest maritime combination that we have in terms of weapon capability. Thanjavur is an ideal location because of access to vast stretches on both the eastern & western sides of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The aircraft being a long range high endurance fighter can take off from this squadron & can fly to Strait of Malacca, the entry point of Chinese ships into Indian waters & can create a blockade from air. The Su-30MKI equipped with BrahMos is a lethal deterrent against Chinese Navy’s aggression in the Indian Ocean.
Coming to the Northeast, the IAF has established extremely heavy defences against China with four squadrons, of which three are Su-30MKI squadrons (the fourth one being a Rafale squadron). These are No.2 squadron “Winged Arrows” & the No.106 squadron “Lynxes” based in Tezpur Air Force Station & the No. 102 squadron “Trisonics” based in Chabua Air Force Station. These squadrons are in a very close proximity with the Indo-China border & can react in an extremely short notice if any Chinese aerial aggression occurs. This becomes more important considering the fact that the Chinese air bases are also in close proximity on other side of the border.
The major concentration of Su-30MKI bases are in the western & northern sectors to counter any attempt to build aerial supremacy by the Pakistani & Chinese side. In the west, the MKIs are stationed in Jodhpur & Pune. The northern side witnesses the highest density of the Flanker squadrons starting from Sirsa, Halwara & Bareilly, together they hold a strength of 5 squadrons of the Su-30MKI. These are already in close vicinity of the Indo-Pak & Indo-China international border but in times of crisis like the Eastern Ladakh standoff, these squadrons can be quickly moved to the Forward Air bases like Leh & Srinagar which are even more closer to the border to further cut the reaction times.
These movements include temporary transportation of ground crew, pilots along with support equipment, armament & spares via heavy life aircraft like the IL-76 or the C-17. This forms a detachment. These advanced fighter detachments can be deployed to any forward air base in a matter of hours.
Finally, the last but the most important base of the Su-30MKI is based out of Gwalior. This is not a combat airbase, but to be here, the pilots have to be the best among the best. This is known as the Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment or TACDE, an elite unit for training aerial combat to the top one percent fighter pilots of the IAF. Similar to Topgun of the US Navy, this institution evolves tactical procedures for various combat aircraft, implements standard operating procedures and trains pilots in operational doctrines. The extremely high selection standards of the prestigious TACDE ensures high competition between the pilots to grab a seat here which in turn further polishes their flying & combat skills. This is one of the few reasons why IAF combat pilots are unarguably considered the best globally. Currently, apart from Su-30MKI, the Mirage 2000 & the MiG-29UPG are also part of the TACDE inventory.
Thanks to the high level of training, the Su-30MKI has always been fielded by the IAF in bilateral and multilateral air exercises internationally.
Shortly after induction in 2004, India sent Su-30MKs, an earlier variant of the Su-30MKI, to take part in war games with the United States Air Force (USAF) during Cope India 04 exercise. Thanks to the pilot skills combined with aircraft capability, Su-30s won 90% of the mock combat missions against the USAF’s F-15 Eagle. Next year in Cope India 05, the Su-30MKIs reportedly beat the USAF’s F-16 Fighting Falcons.
In 2006 the Indian Flankers first participated in an exercise with the RAF. RAF’s Air Vice Marshal, Christopher Harper, praised the MKI’s dogfight ability, calling it “absolutely masterful in dogfights”. In 2007, the Indian Air Force fielded the Su-30MKI during the Indra-Dhanush exercise once again with Royal Air Force, this time head to head with Eurofighter Typhoon.
In 2008, the IAF sent 6 Su-30MKIs and 2 Il-78MKI aerial-refuelling tankers, to participate in the Red Flag Exercise in the US.
France & India also have been doing joint exercises since long. In 2010, during the 4th edition of joint air exercise “Garuda“, Su-30MKI took place for the first time with French Aircraft in various missions ranging from close combat engagement of large forces, slow mover protection, protecting and engaging high value aerial assets. During “Garuda-V” in 2014, the Su-30MKI flew in mixed groups with other IAF aircraft and French Rafales.
2015 was again a bright year for the Su-30MKI. This year India and UK began the bilateral exercise named “Indradhanush” where the SU-30MKI & the Eurofighter Typhoon were pitted against each other. In within visual range (WVR) engagements, the MKI harassed the Typhoon with a score of 12-0. In close combat, thrust vector control on the Flankers more than compensated for the greater thrust-to-weight ratio of the Typhoon. The Su-30MKIs also held an edge over the Typhoons in BVR engagements though not in as dominating manner.
The first real combat mission against an active enemy was in 2019 during the Balakot airstrike when four Sukhoi Su-30MKIs escorted Mirage 2000s and guided them into the Pakistani airspace. The day after 2019 Balakot airstrike, two Su-30MKIs on combat air patrol were ambushed & attacked by multiple Pakistani F-16s using AMRAAM missiles. Thanks to the electronic warfare & jamming capabilities, all of the missiles were successfully evaded.
During the Eastern Ladakh standoff in 2020, the Su-30MKIs were deployed in forwards air bases in J&K & Ladakh against anticipated air aggression of Chinese Air force.
This charts out how the MKI has proved it’s worth time & again. The strategically spread out deployment, exceptional piloting skills & developing tactics in joint exercises combined have made this a lethal weapon of destruction. This is the very reason why the Su-30MKI is called the backbone of the IAF. It is being gradually developed into Super Sukhoi via different upgrades. The aircraft is going to stay in the inventory beyond 2040 when it’ll be gradually replaced by the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) developed by HAL.
This is one of the reasons which gives us so much confidence against adversaries like China who have a numerically superior air force, but it is the skills of pilots, the capability of aircraft, deployment & tactics of IAF which is unmatched & unquestionably the best in the world.
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