ISLAMABAD: New Delhi has approached Moscow for one more squadron of most sophisticated supersonic Sukhoi-30MKIs fighters for its air-force. Reliable defence industry sources in Russia told Indian media that India wants Sukhoi to provide Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) with the raw materials and sub-systems needed to build 18 more Sukhoi-30MKIs at its Nasik facility.

Production of this additional tranche can begin in 2020, when HAL Nasik completes delivery of an ongoing contract for building 222 of the twin-engine, heavy fighters. Russia's defence export agency, Rosoboronexport, is currently working on an offer and a price.

It is understood that the existing Russian licence for building 222 Sukhoi-30MKIs in Nasik would be extended to 18 more aircraft. At HAL Nasik's current price of about Rs 450 crore (Rs 4.5 billion) for each Sukhoi-30MKI, the IAF can expect to pay about Rs 5,850 crore (Rs 58.50 billion) for 18 new fighters. Before HAL Nasik began building Sukhoi-30MKIs under licence, the IAF bought 50 fully built Sukhoi-30MK fighters in late 1990s, which were later upgraded to the MKI configuration.Including them, the IAF planned to fly 13 squadrons of the Sukhoi-30MKI -- or 272 fighters.

If the new request for 18 more fighters translates into a contract, the Sukhoi-30MKI fleet size will go up to 14 squadrons or 290 fighters. The Sukhoi-30MKI has been a 'Make in India' programme well before it became a buzzword for indigenisation. The Sukhoi-HAL production contract mandated that Sukhoi-30MKI production in Nasik would be incrementally indigenised in four phases.

The HAL would build the fighter from completely knocked-down kits in phase I, from semi knocked-down kits in phase II, and then progressively indigenise manufacture in phases III and IV, which have already been achieved. Even so, various constraints have restricted indigenisation to just a little over 50 percent of the value of each Sukhoi-30MKI.

A key reason for this is that most of the raw materials, including 5,800 types of titanium blocks and forgings, and aluminium and steel plates, must be sourced from Russia. Reducing these to aircraft components, using Sukhoi's manufacturing technology, results in enormous wastage of the expensive metal. A titanium bar from Russia weighing 486 kg is machined down to a 15.9 kg tail component. The titanium shaved off is wasted. Similarly, a wing bracket, weighing barely 3 kg, comes out of a 27-kg titanium forging imported from Russia.

Yet, India continues to import titanium extrusions because manufacturing them in India is not economically viable in the tiny quantities needed for Su-30MKI production. Similarly, the HAL-Sukhoi production contract stipulates that 7,146 'standard components' like nuts, bolts, screws and rivets must all be sourced from Russia. The IAF got its first Sukhoi-30s in the late 1990s; after India signed a $1.5 billion contract for buying 50 fully built Sukhoi-30MK fighters.

In 2000, a memorandum of understanding was signed with Sukhoi for the staggered production of 140 Sukhoi-30MKIs. These would be built at HAL's Nasik plant and progressively delivered by 2017-2018. Subsequently, in addition to these 190 Sukhoi-30MKIs, India bought 82 more fighters in two additional tranches. One tranche of 40 fighters was ordered in 2007, and another for 42 was ordered in 2012. Since buying the first Sukhoi-30MKIs in 1996, the aircraft has been substantially improved. First, with the IAF demanding better aerodynamic performance, Russia added canards and a thrust-vectoring engine, the AL-31FP, which can push the fighter in multiple directions, adding agility. Then, the IAF specified a sophisticated avionics suite, creating the 'MKI configuration' -- with I standing for India.