When you picture the Indian Air Force, few things invariably pop up in your head, men in crisp blue uniform, the tricolour roundel & a big beautiful metal bird flying in the air. This bird is the venerable & widely respected Su-30MKI, the backbone of the Indian Air Force. This article is the first of three in the series, “Flight of the Flankers”. In this post, we will talk about the induction of this impressive machine into the IAF.
If you don’t know much about this fighter, don’t worry, we got you covered. The Su-30MKI, also known as Flanker-H (something that we’ll use frequently in this article) in the NATO fraternity, is a heavy class, twin engine, long range, twin cockpit, all weather, multirole fighter aircraft, jointly developed by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) & Russia’s Sukhoi design bureau. It is a much improved variant of the widely popular Su-30 family of aircraft which is a real threat from the ex-Soviet Bloc nations. You can call Su-30 the F-15 of Russia as both aircraft share similar dimensions & fall in the same weight category & in fact are real rivals in a competitive airspace.
The Su-30MKI is tailor-made for Indian specifications and integrates Indian systems and avionics as well as French and Israeli sub-systems. It has abilities similar to the Sukhoi Su-35, with which it shares many features and components. Visually what distinguishes the “MKI” with other variants of the Su-30 is the presence of canards in the forward area. This adds to lift & also enhances the manoeuvrability of the aircraft. Other changes include a thrust vectoring nozzle engines & the ability to integrate Indian weapons like the Astra & Rudram Missile along with Sudarshan & SAAW bombs developed by DRDO.
It is not just one of the most capable aircraft in the IAF inventory alongside the Rafale but with 260 aircraft flying, it is also the most widely used aircraft with the IAF. For comparison, The Royal Air Force (UK) has 119 fighter aircraft, German Air Force has 209 fighters & the French Air Force have 212 fighters altogether considering all their types. Our Su-30MKI fleet alone is bigger than all these European air forces, which is necessary too, given the vast expanse of our country. What’s even better is that most of these fighters have been manufactured in India.
In was in 1994 when the Indian Air Force was looking to induct a new fighter aircraft to fill in the shortage of squadrons. The MiG-21 which made the bulk of the IAF fleet strength, were getting old & were due for retirement in the next decade. The LCA program was nowhere near sight, the last purchased aircraft was the Mirage 2000 a decade back in 1985. Thus, India turned towards its old ally Russia. This was after an impressive aerial aerobatics’ demonstration by the Flanker in Aero India 1996 which dropped the jaws of many aviation enthusiasts & IAF personnel. It was like nothing that they had seen before.
Just to be clear here, there are two versions of Su-30MKI that IAF have operated. The initial Su-30MK & the current Su-30MKI.
In 1996, India signed a deal with Russia for 40 Su-30 aircraft in four different batches & configuration. The first batch were eight Su-30MKs, the basic export version of Su-30 delivered just one year later in the spring of 1997. The second batch was of ten Su-30MKs with French and Israeli avionics taking the total number to 18. The third batch was of ten Su-30MKs featuring canards along with the previous developments. The fourth batch was of twelve Su-30 “MKI” with AL-31FP engines, thus taking the tally to 40 aircraft. The delivery timeline was 2000-2002.
The Su-30 induction makes the Rafale deal look like the defence acquisition process has rather progressed backwards with time.
The induction of Su-30 family into the IAF was a gradual one & it ended a 13 year drought period during which no major fighter acquisitions had taken place. The IAF faced a curious problem while shortlisting the Su-30, it needed to put two pilots in the cockpit when it already was about 600 pilots short of the 3,300 authorised. Besides, the organisation was yet to acquire an advanced jet trainer to train its fliers for this state-of-the-art aircraft. In practise, the twin seater combat variant was used as a conversion trainer.
Systems for the Flanker-H were progressively developed & indigenised. Sukhoi Design Bureau, IAF & HAL developed a new aircraft instead of buying an already developed aircraft. The first Indian to travel in space, & then HAL Chief Test Pilot Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma had flown the aircraft & said it was a great choice for the IAF. It was found to be a very agile aircraft with incredibly powerful engines.
Deliveries of the first eight aircraft in 1997 was received in Lohegaon AFB, Pune, when an “An-124” strategic airlift aircraft delivered them in knocked down kits. Russian personnel assembled them & flew it for the first time in India (barring aerial display in Aero India 1996). It was at this time when the first batch of IAF pilots & ground crew were undergoing conversion training at Sukhoi OKB Flight Test facility at Zukovsky, Russia (this is how onsite office trips are for Indian Air Force Personnel). The first batch trained under the supervision of OKB Test Pilot Viktor Pugachev, inventor of the famous Pugachev Cobra Manoeuvre.
The first squadron to get their hands on the Su-30MK was the No. 24 “Hawks” Squadron, currently based out of Bareilly AFB.
In 1998, the MKI production was facing delays & hence 10 more units of Russian Su-30MKs were ordered, taking the total tally to 50 aircraft. These were inducted in 2002.
The first squadron to operate the Russian made Su-30MKI was the No. 20 “Lightnings” Squadron which got the aircraft in September 2002 in Lohegaon AFB, Pune. Its pilots and ground crew were mainly drawn from the first Sukhoi (Su-30K) squadron, the “Hawks” Squadron, who by then had 5 years of experience on the aircraft. The No. 20 “Lightning” Squadron played an important role in making the Flankers fully operational in the Indian Air Force.
The newer Su-30MKIs had AL-31FP engines with thrust vectoring controls. The avionics had western & indian components & the FBW system was also modified. The first batch of Su-30K were also eventually upgraded to Su-30MKI standards.
In second half of 2000 HAL got the rights for license production of the aircraft at the Nashik plant with full technology transfer. Not only the aircraft but license was obtained to make the AL-31FP engines at HAL’s Koraput plant & modify the Russian avionics with Indian, Israeli & French Avionics for the display, navigation, targeting and electronic warfare. A huge order of 140 Su-30MKI was placed by the IAF to HAL & the first Nashik built Su-30MKI was delivered to the IAF by 2004. All the aircraft had to be delivered by 2017 in four phases in a staggered manner. In phase one, HAL assembled the Su-30MKIs from knocked-down kits obtained from Russia, transitioning to semi knocked-down kits in phase two and three where assembly level manufacturing was carried out. In phase four, HAL produced the aircraft from scratch from 2013 onwards with most of the raw material sourced from within the country.
In 2007, 40 more aircraft were ordered to HAL seeing the shrinking squadron strength & also since IAF couldn’t place any more orders of the Mirage 2000 as the assembly line in France was closed. This was going to take the total strength to 230 fighters.
In 2012, an order of 42 more aircraft was confirmed with HAL, raising the planned strength to 272 fighters. This was the final order of the aircraft as in June 2018, India has reportedly decided not to order any further Su-30s as they feel its cost of maintenance is very high compared to western aircraft.
However as of 2020, 12 more aircraft are going to be ordered to backfill for the ones lost in crashes & accidents, thus maintaining the 272 aircraft inventory.
Given the importance of the Su-30MKI in the Indian fleet, it is subjected to constant improvements & upgrades to stay ahead of the rivals in the game of 21st century aerial warfare.
The road was never smooth for the Flanker-H just like it wasn’t for Rafale, but it proved to be an invaluable asset to the air force in maintaining the safety & sovereignty of the country. Many nations operate one or the other variant of the Su-30 but the MKI is considered the best one till now. Even the Russians, the original manufacturers of the Su-30MKI have found its potential so impressive that they have ordered their own variant of the MKI, the Su-30SM which is the latest fighter in their arsenal. All this thanks to the development & integration of systems by countless man hours put in by the engineers from Sukhoi, HAL, & DRDO.
Hope this article gives a clear picture about the early days of the Su-30MKI’s service with the IAF. In the second post of this series we’ll discuss what this aircraft can do in detail & will dive deep into the capabilities of this aircraft.