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India’s ‘Sukhoi’ Masterstroke! IAF To Indigenously Modernize Its Su-30 MKI Fighters With Under-The-Radar Russian Assistance

The IAF’s decision to indigenously modernize the Su-30 MKI fighters is a bold and brilliant decision. It’s a masterstroke of creative thinking that elegantly promotes self-reliance in defense, circumvents possible US sanctions, and yet continues to nurture close defense cooperation with Russia.

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The 262-aircraft Su-30MKI fleet is and will likely remain the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for many decades.

The large size of the aircraft not only facilitates upgrades but also leaves room for metamorphoses to futuristic roles such as a weapons truck operating with a penetrating sensor & attack platform such as the AMCA, or a mothership controlling LO loyal wingman UCAVs in a system of system approach similar to the US Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD).

The IAF is the largest operator of the Su-30 variant. Over the past 20 years, India has made significant IPR & infrastructure investments in assembling, operating, servicing (overhaul, spares manufacture), and spiral upgrading (Brahmos-A, Astra, Rudram) the Su-30MKI.

It’s time to embark on a comprehensive version upgrade.

According to the IAF chief Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari, the technical parameters for the major Sukhoi upgrade 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.

According to the IAF, modernization will kick off after 4-5 years of design and development.

Besides the ability to carry advanced indigenously developed weapons, the finalized technical parameters would likely include an improved Infrared Imaging Search and Track System (IRST), AESA radar & a more powerful engine.

Su-30 MKI – Improved IRST

The DRDO is already working on the design & development of a Long Range Dual Band IRST for Su-30 MKI aircraft under the ‘Make II’ sub-category. The DAC approved the project in May 2018.

Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI jets
Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI jets

On April 26, 2022, HAL and BEL reportedly signed a contract for the co-development and co-production of Long Range Dual Band IRST.

“The proposed IRST system will be a high-end strategic technology product in the field of defense 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 said in a release.

AESA Radar

The modernized Su-30MKI will likely feature an AESA radar to replace its N011M BARS Radar.

DRDO, which has already developed the Uttam AESA for the LCA, is reportedly working with HAL & Russian OEM to develop an AESA for the Su-30MKI. Considering the size of the nose cross-section of the Sukhoi, the radar could be the most potent airborne AESA equipping a fighter aircraft.

Engine Upgrade

India will likely procure the engine for the modernized fighter from Russia.

Russia is developing an AL-41F-1S (Product 117S) engine variant that could be fitted on Su-30MKI fighters without any airframe modification.

As of January 2022, flight tests of Su-30SM (Russian Su-30MKI analog) with the AL-41F-1S engine were underway, with completion scheduled for December 2023.

Compared to the existing power plant of the Su-30MKI, the AL-41F-1S has 16% more (14,500 kgf) thrust, better Specific Fuel Consumption, improved endurance, and an overhaul life of 4,000 flight hours.

Under-The-Radar Russian Participation

In view of the geopolitical trip wires India has to deal with over the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine, it appears that Russia will help India with the modernization without directly participating in it.

On July 4, 2022, TASS reported quoting a Rostec press statement that Russia will assist India in the assembly and modernization of Su-30MKI as part of the “Make in India” program.

The help will include the supply of additional technical kits for the assembly of the Su-30MKI and joint work on the modernization, including the integration of the latest aviation weapons and avionics.

While vigorously encouraging Indian advances in weapon systems and sensor development by incorporating them in the Su-30MKI, IAF plans deftly avoid antagonizing the West by toning down Russian participation in modernization.

For example, engine procurement from Russia would start after several years and be phased over a long period. The deal’s total amount would be insignificant compared to India’s other imports from Russia. As such, the crucial engine upgrade tie-up with Russia is unlikely to cause consternation in the West.

Russia’s participation in the AESA development, too, would not provoke Western concerns. Russian willingness to accommodate the geopolitical realities faced by India is noteworthy.

  • Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. 
  • Reach out to the author at vkthakur (at) gmail.com
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