In order to prevent Western sanctions from affecting India’s defence sector, Moscow will help New Delhi with the modernization effort without officially taking part in the program, writes Drago Bosnic

In recent times, India has been working hard to develop a plethora of domestic defence industry capabilities. In this regard, Russia’s help has been of prime importance and this has not gone unnoticed in New Delhi. Despite tremendous pressure from the political West to cut ties with Moscow, India has been adamant it will do no such thing. Although this sovereigntist stance is causing frustration in the US, UK and EU, New Delhi seems unconcerned by the opinions of those who completely lack understanding of realpolitik. And this doesn’t only include India’s surging economic cooperation with Russia, but the traditionally close defence ties between the two Eurasian giants, which have stood the test of time. This also includes Moscow’s readiness to help New Delhi in developing indigenous capabilities of strategic importance for the country’s defence.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) decided to indigenously modernize its Russian-designed Su-30MKI fighter jets, while still being able to keep Russian help and expertise, and simultaneously avoid Western sanctions. India’s 262-strong fleet of Su-30MKI fighter jets is set to remain the IAF’s backbone in the coming decades. The jet is based on Russia’s legendary Su-27 “Flanker” design, the size of which not only facilitates relatively cheap and easy upgrades, but also leaves room for giving it completely new and futuristic roles. IAF could easily turn the versatile platform into a weapons carrier operating together with India’s domestic designs such as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) or controlling stealthy “loyal wingman” drones in a similar manner to the Su-57 and S-70 “Okhotnik-B” duo.

The IAF is by far the largest operator of the Su-30 variant. Over the past 20 years, India has made a significant investment in assembling, operating, servicing and upgrading the Su-30MKI. Russia’s contribution to this has been tremendous and cannot be overstated. And although Western sanctions have made it more complicated to maintain this cooperation on the same level or expand it further, India is determined to keep its defense a priority. According to IAF Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, the technical parameters for upgrading Su-30MKI jets are being refined.

“We have decided this upgrade will be done indigenously with many indigenously-designed weapons, electronic warfare systems, and the like. We are looking at upgrading 84 Sukhois in the first tranche,” Chaudhari noted.

Sources from the Indian military indicate that the modernization effort will take 4-5 years of design and development work and will be implemented soon after. Apart from the ability to deploy indigenous advanced weapons, the overhaul will most likely include an improved Infrared Search and Track System (IRST), AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar, as well as a more powerful jet engine. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is working on the R&D project for the Long Range Dual Band IRST which will be installed on existing Su-30MKI jets.

“The proposed IRST system will be a high-end strategic technology product in the field of defence avionics and technically competitive to existing IRST system in the global market with features of Television Day Camera, Infrared & Laser sensors in a single window for air-to-air and air-to-ground target tracking and localization,” HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) stated in a press release.

The modernized Su-30MKI’s new feature will also include an AESA radar to replace the existing N011M “Bars” PESA (Passive Electronically Scanned Array) radar. DRDO is actively working with HAL and the Russian defense industry sector to develop an AESA radar for the Su-30MKI. As previously mentioned, due to its size, Su-30MKI could be equipped with one of the most (if not the most) powerful airborne AESA radars ever used by a fighter jet. Likewise, India could also opt for the variant of the N036 “Byelka” AESA radar which could be used in future upgrades.

And last but not least, India will also acquire a more advanced Russian jet engine for the modernized Su-30MKI. Russian companies have developed the state-of-the-art AL-41F-1S (Izdeliye/Product 117S) engine used by the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Su-35S fighters. According to military sources from Russia, its defense industry is working on a variant that could be fitted on Su-30 jets, including the Su-30MKI version, without any airframe modification. This would not only improve the jet’s kinetic performance, range and combat readiness, but would also make replacing the Su-30MKI’s jet engines easier and significantly cheaper. Flight testing of Su-30SM (the jet on which the Su-30MKI was based) with the AL-41F-1S engine has been underway since January. The new engine has 16% more thrust, better Specific Fuel Consumption, improved endurance, and an overhaul life of 4,000 flight hours.

In order to prevent Western sanctions from affecting India’s defence sector, Moscow will help New Delhi with the modernization effort without officially taking part in the program. Back in early July, TASS quoted a ROSTEC press statement that Russia would assist India in the assembly and modernization of Su-30MKI fighter jets within the framework of the “Make in India” program. This will also include the delivery of assembly kits for the standard production of additional Su-30MKI and joint work on the integration of the latest weapons and avionics. With Moscow’s support, New Delhi will continue advances in domestic weapon systems and sensor development by incorporating them into Su-30MKI. Russian realpolitik approach and willingness to take into account the geopolitical factors India is facing are highly appreciated in New Delhi, which is why both countries will continue nurturing their close defence ties.