The gradual pace with which the Indian Air Force is going regarding the Su-30MKI modernisation program could fritter away the edge that it gained when it acquired the custom built Su-30 variant early this century and force the IAF to resort to imports to fill operational gaps, increasing budgetary strain and dependency on foreign countries

The first batch of Su-30MKIs were delivered to the IAF by HAL in the beginning of 2002, there have been no upgrades to the aircraft. No Block-1, Block-2, Block-3 let alone a MK-2 or MK-3.

The outdated electronics and weapon systems threaten the image of the aircraft that continues to serve as the backbone of the Indian Air Force. Keeping in mind the pace of technological advancement in military aviation, over 20 years of neglect can reduce a bleeding edge aircraft system to junk status. Luckily, that didn't happen with the Su-30MKI.

Current Status of Su-30MKI Modernisation

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) on November 30, 2023, granted Acceptance of Necessity (AoNs) for the modernisation of IAF Su-30MKIs by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

As part of the modernisation, the aircraft will be fitted with indigenously developed Virupaksha AESA radar and avionics. Its weapon management system will integrate indigenously developed long range weapon systems.

Additionally, the modernisation will extend the life of the Su-30MKI fighter jet fleet by more than 20 years! The upgrade will be limited to 84 fighters in the first tranche.

Modernisation Program History

Russia first proposed that the IAF upgrade its fleet of Su-30MKI jets during the Defence Minister Shri AK Antony three day official visit to Moscow on October 13, 2009, to attend the 9th meeting of the India-Russia Inter Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC).

The Su-30MKI aircraft, contracted in 1996, were due for overhaul shortly and the Russian side offered an upgrade of the aircraft with incorporation of the latest technologies during the major overhaul.

During his inaugural press conference on October 5, 2012, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne said that modernization of the Su-30MKI fleet would start after all the aircraft on order have been delivered.

In 2015, Rostec proposed that Russia and India jointly upgrade the Su-30MKI and the Su-30SM, the latter being the RuAF analogue of the Su-30MKI. An Irkut press release on September 11, 2015 stated that Su-30MKI modernization would cover avionics, radar and improved engine performance. The proposed upgraded Su-30MKI aircraft was then referred to as the Super Sukhoi variant.

India, however, made the modernisation conditional to the improvement in the serviceability of the Su-30MKI which was adversely affected by erratic supply of spares.

In July 2016, the ToI reported quoting anonymous source that following improvement in Su-30MKI serviceability, the plan to upgrade the fighter into 'Super Sukhois' is being advanced. "The technical requirements should be finalised this year, with the contract being inked next year," said the source.

The Hindu reported on August 16, 2016 that the upgrade would include new avionics and radar, improved stealth characteristics to reduce the radar cross-section, better electronic warfare capability and new weapons.

Long Range Weapons

As part of the upgrade, the IAF was keen to integrate long range air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles with the Super Sukhoi variant. At that time, Russia had not operationally fielded such missiles and so did not include them in the upgrade.

In June 2017, India Today reported that Russia is also trying to involve European companies for providing weapon systems and avionics and has already started talking to some of the vendors there. Also, in June 2017, Sputnik reported Russia will modernise India's Su-30MKI multirole air superiority fighters in cooperation with Italy.

Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport CEO Alexander Mikheev told reporters at the Paris Air Show 2017, "In cooperation with the Italian side, we will start modernising Indian Su-30MKIs."

Scope of The Upgrade

According to Indian media, the DAC's AoN does not include any change in the airframe or the engine of the Su-30MKI. In its earlier coverage of the modernisation program, the Indian media has never quoted an Indian official as saying or implying that the engine would be replaced.

Russian officials, however, have repeatedly proposed that India upgrade the Su-30MKI engine as part of the Super Sukhoi upgrade.

In February 2017, CEO of Russian United Engine Corporation Alexander Artyukhov said that the Indian version of Su-30MKI after modernization will get the AL-41F turbofan engines designed for 4++ generation aircraft currently being installed on the Su-35 fighters.

On August 24, 2018, A.A. Mikheev, General Director of Rosoboronexport told the press in Moscow that Russia has proposed upgrading the IAF Su-30MKI to the Su-30SM standard during the course of mid-life upgrades of the IAF aircraft.

In July 2022, Rosoboronexport, which until then had proposed to modernise the Su-30MKI in Russia initially, offered to assist HAL in modernising the aircraft in India itself.

JSC Rosoboronexport said in a statement that it will "carry out joint work on [Su-30MKI] modernization, including the integration of the latest aviation weapons, avionics, and so on."

Impact of Delays

Fifteen years from when it was first proposed, the Su-30MKI modernisation program has finally been given approval. However, the planned modernisation could be slow in gaining momentum because of its dependence on development of indigenous sensors, avionics and weapon systems that are still in early stages of development.

Weapon Systems For Modernised Su-30MKI

India has still to develop, let alone operationally field, long range air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles that the IAF wants for the modernised Su-30MKI.

Even as India struggles with developing a long range cruise missile, Russia's Special Military Operation (SMO) has demonstrated that the game has changed.

The operational requirement now is for long range strike or interception missiles that are extremely difficult to engage or evade by the adversary. Launching long range missiles that are easy to shoot down or evade makes little sense.

Fighter aircraft launched stealthy cruise missiles, such as the Russian Kh-69, British Storm Shadow, French Scalp-EG and German Taurus, have proven to be effective in the SMO.

To augment their stealth missile arsenals, Russia, China and NATO nations are already developing Fighter aircraft launched air breathing hypersonic fighter cruise missiles which will be extremely difficult to intercept.

Missiles like India's yet to be developed and fielded Nirbhay do not meet the challenges posed by modern AD systems. It may be long before India is able to develop stealthy or hypersonic cruise missiles or an air-to-air missile like the RVV-BD (R-37M) with a range in excess of 300-km.

AESA Radar

The AESA radar proposed to be fitted on the modernised Su-30MKI very likely represents a scaled up variant of the Uttam AESA radar developed for the LCA Mk-1A. The Virupaksha AESA will take advantage of the significantly increased forward cross sectional area of the Su-30 MKI, to feature more TR modules than the 700 fitted on the Uttam AESA, giving the radar more power and increased detection range.

The Uttam radar has been under development at DRDO for use on the LCA Mk-1A fighter since 2012. Its full-scale model was displayed at Aero India 2017.

As of December 2021, the radar had been tested on two Tejas Mk-1 fighters as well as a Hawker Siddeley 800 executive jet for over 250 hours. Based on the flight testing, the National Flight Testing Centre of the IAF reportedly greenlighted the radar for operational trials.

The HT reported on December 9, 2021 that the IAF is set to demonstrate the use of the Uttam AESA. There have been no updates on the project since then.

A prototype of the Tejas Mark 1A prototype successfully completed its maiden flight on May 20, 2022. HAL is on track to deliver the first Tejas Mark 1A by February 2024. However, it's not yet clear if the initial batch of Tejas Mk-1A fighters will feature the Uttam AESA. HAL had planned to fit the first 16 Tejas MK 1A aircraft with Israeli ELM 2052 AESA radars and the remaining, with the indigenous Uttam AESA radar. If that is the case, HAL may not deliver the first LCA Mk-1A with Uttam AESA till 2026.

The time taken to field a fully operational Virupaksha AESA could be affected by the feedback from operational use of the Uttam AESA and the time taken to integrate the Uttam with the weapons management system on the Su-30MKI.


The risks and likely time delays involved in upgrading the Su-30MKI with weapon systems and sensors that are still in early stages of development are obvious.

The IAF's decision to upgrade the aircraft retaining the existing AL-31FP engine may also prove limiting. It will not allow the modernised variant to carry powerful sensors that require more onboard electrical power. For example, there is a growing trend to fit multispectral optical-electronic or radar surveillance systems in pods that can be carried by heavy fighters, which can then be deployed to plug gaps in AWACS surveillance.

There is also a trend to give fighter aircraft a strategic capability by arming them with long range hypersonic aeroballistics and cruise missiles, which are much heavier than contemporary air launched cruise missiles.

Considering the significant (20 yrs) extension of airframe life that will accrue from Su-30MKI modernisation, it's difficult to understand why the IAF didn't opt for the AL-41F-1S, a more powerful variant of the Su-30MKI engine, which HAL is already licence producing. The AL-41F-1S is 16% more powerful, 100% more cost effective (based on engine life) and more fuel efficient. Russia claims that fitting the AL-41F-1S would not require any airframe modifications.

It would be in India's interest to modernise the Su-30MKI keeping in mind the current and future trends in air warfare, imbibing the lessons of the Russian SMO. The Su-30MKI should be modernised to use the sensors and weapon systems that are already available, while retaining the ability to integrate sensors and weapon systems of the future. Creating a dependency between the upgrade program and Indian developed sensors and weapon systems, is a recipe for project delays. As such, it would not be in India's long term interests.