Efforts on to undertake most of the upgrades within the country, defence official says

Having taken delivery of all Su-30MKI fighter aircraft and the deal for contracting 12 more Su-30s meant to replace those lost over the years deferred in the back drop of the war in Ukraine, Indian Air Force (IAF) is working to speed up the long-delayed upgrade of these frontline fighters.

“The Air Service Quality Requirements for the first upgrade are being finalised. Lot of work is under way on that front,” a defence official said. “We are trying to do as much of the upgrade as possible within the country involving the private industry,” the official stated.

The upgrade process is as much as procuring an aircraft, the official said while explaining that the upgrade is a complex exercise and is being planned in phases. During the early stage of the deliberations, which have been going on for several years now, Russian side had pitched for the entire upgrade to be done in Russia but given the long timelines, India was inclined to do it in phases with a major part of it in the country. The Make in India effort and the war in Ukraine have accelerated that effort.

Effort is on to do basic mission capabilities, fly by wire and flight controls among others within the country, the official stated. The IAF is looking to add new weapons, avionics and sensors and engines on the Su-30MKIs to keep them contemporary for the next few decades.

India had procured 272 Su-30s from Russia, majority of which were assembled in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and around 11 jets were lost over the years. The IAF has 12 Su-30 squadrons in service, and anywhere between 40-50 aircraft are at HAL for overhaul repairs at any given time, officials said.

A plan to procure 12 additional SU-30MKIs and 21 MIG-29s from Russia has been stuck and with the war in Ukraine and indigenous push, it’s been deferred. Even though the Su-30s are only to replace the lost ones, with the ongoing war in Ukraine, the government does not want to be seen as approving major defence deals with Russia, the official said, echoing the views of another senior official. The deal is unlikely to happen anytime soon, both the officials noted.

The IAF has an authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons which currently stands at 32 including two squadrons each of the Rafale and indigenous Light Combat Aircraft. For instance, the IAF has four MIG-21 squadrons in service with one squadron to be phased out per year. As part of it, the No. 51 ‘Sword Arms’ Squadron based in Srinagar of which Gp Capt (then Wg Cdr) Abhinandan Varthamanam was part of and saw action in February 2019 during the Balakot air strike is set to be phased out later this month.

With the drawdown plan accelerating as older jets complete total technical life and delays in newer inductions, upgrading the Su-30s has become a priority. It is not possible for the IAF to reach the sanctioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons in the next 10-15 years and the force will remain at 35 squadrons given the current phase outs and inductions, Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal (ACM) VR Chaudhari had said earlier.

In addition, IAF is confident that increasing the low availability rates of Su-30 and other fighters in service will offset some of the shortfall in the interim, as an IAF representative informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence as per a report tabled in March this year. “That is one way Air Force fills that. Serviceability state, you are aware of it, has been low. Once we get that, the existing strength itself we can ramp up before the new aircraft come in. That is the best we are looking at as of now,” the representative added.

In the last seven to eight years, several steps have been taken to increase the serviceability rates of the Russian equipment in use, especially the Su-30MKI fleet which constitutes a significant number in the IAF inventory. Part of the measures are long term spares and support agreements as well as Joint Ventures in India with Russian original equipment manufacturers for faster turnaround.