The ET reported on October 2, quoting sources, that the long-awaited Su-30MKI upgrade plan, valued in excess of Rs 60,000 crore ($7.5B), will touch all aspects of the fighter jet except for its airframe and engines.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will be the lead agency for the upgrade in partnership with the Indian Air Force and other partners. The upgrade will be done entirely in India.
The upgrade will initially be limited to 100 fighters in the first tranche and encompass avionics, radars, and electronic warfare suite upgrades.
“The upgrade is likely to include enhanced beyond visual range capability, new electronic warfare suites, and a new radar,” one of ET sources said.
Indigenous Weapon Systems & EW Systems
In October 2022, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhary, said that “technical parameters for Su-30MKI modernization are now being refined.
“We have decided this upgrade will be done indigenously with a plethora of indigenously-designed weapons, electronic warfare systems, and the like. We are looking at upgrading 84 Sukhois in the first tranche,” he said.
The design and development phase will take four to five years, following which fleet modernization will kick off. The Su-30MKI fleet has been undergoing a “spiral upgrade” with new weapons and sensors for over 10 years now.
“BrahMos and Astra air-to-air missiles, for instance, have been added to Sukhois indigenously,” IAF Vice Chief Air Marshal Sandeep Singh told ToI.
Other indigenous weapons likely to be integrated with Su-30MKI include Rudarm-1 new generation anti-radiation missiles (NGARMs), Rudram-2, Rudram-2, and Astra-2.
The Rudram missiles are designed to destroy a variety of enemy surveillance, communication, and radar targets on the ground from stand-off distances.
The Rudram-1 NGARM was successfully flight tested from a Su-30MKI fighter on October 9, 2020, when it struck a radiating target located on Wheeler Island off the coast of Odisha.
After Rudram-1 with a strike range of 150 km, the DRDO will develop Rudram-2 (350 km range) and Rudram-3 (550 km) air-to-ground missiles.
During Aero India 2023, HAL displayed a schematic for an electronic warfare suite under development for IAF’s Su-30 MKI fleet to replace current Russian SAP-51 pods. In the past, HAL has successfully developed indigenous EW suites for Jaguar & Mig-29 UPG aircraft.
Modernization To Be Done In India With Russian Help
According to ET, talks on the upgrade have been ongoing with Russia since at least 2017, with India looking at maximizing indigenous systems on the aircraft.
Following the 19th IRIGC-M&MTC meeting in Moscow on November 6, 2019, it was reported that Russia will provide support in developing a prototype of an upgraded Su-30MKI at HAL.
Surprising Omission Of Engine Upgrade
The IAF’s decision to omit the upgrade of the Su-30MKI engine is likely based on a desire to keep costs low and the IAF’s faith in beyond-visual-range (BVR) combat which relegates the importance of supermaneuverability.
The decision is surprising because Russia has already developed a variant of the Su-35 fighter’s AL-41F-1S (Product 117S) engine that can be fitted on the Su-27 and Su-30 without any airframe modification.
Russia is already in the process of upgrading its Su-30SM fighters, which are Su-30MKI analogs with Russian avionics, to the Su-30SM2 standard.
Besides improved avionics, weapons, and sensors, the Su-30SM2 features the AL-41F-1S engine of the Su-35S.
Compared with the Su-30MKI’s AL-31FP power plant, the AL-41F-1S features a 16% increase in max thrust (14,500 kgf) and twice the service life (4000 hrs) while retaining the same weight and dimensions. Importantly, the more powerful AL-41F-1S facilitates increased electrical power generation allowing more powerful radar and EW systems to be fitted on the fighter.
The higher-powered Irbis radar of the Su-30SM2 increases the detection range of air and ground targets.
Fighter upgrades tend to add weight to a fighter which adversely impacts the fighter’s thrust-to-weight ratio and, consequently, its combat performance.
The IAF’s experience with Jaguar upgrades is a case in point. Initial variants of the Jaguar assembled at HAL from 1983 onwards had acceptable take-off and medium-altitude maneuvering capabilities.
Following DARIN upgrades, Jaguar performance degraded due to additional weight. The IAF’s inability to upgrade Jaguar engines at a reasonable cost is now leading to the Jaguar’s early retirement from service.
The ET report quoted above states that the planned upgrade includes a new radar.
The ToI earlier reported on October 7, 2019, that the upgrade would include a much more powerful radar “almost as good as an AESA (active electronically scanned array) one.”
It was then speculated that the more powerful radar would likely be the Tikhomirov NIIP N035 Irbis E (Snow Leopard), a 20 kW class steerable hybrid ESA radar currently fitted on the Su-35S.
Operating in the peak power mode, the N135 Irbis radar of the Su-35S can detect an F-35 at a distance of 58 km (36 miles) and an F-22 at a distance of 36 km (22 miles). The detection distances fall to 29km for F-35 and 18 km for F-22 in the tracking mode.
Without an engine upgrade, it is doubtful whether the Su-30MKI would have the electrical power surplus required for the N135 Irbis. It’s possible that current plans envisage the use of a more powerful Uttam variant, which is an indigenously AESA radar that is yet to be operationally deployed.
In February 2023, talking to TNIE, Director General – Electronics & Communication Systems (ECS) at DRDO BK Das said, ” “Another six months to one year we are going to map it [Uttam Radar] with the LCA Mk1.”
Das said that following successful integration with Tejas Mk-1, the radar will be integrated with fighter jets like Sukhoi-30MKI and Mig-29. The process of integration of Uttam on these platforms would begin by 2025.
Considering that design and development for the Su-30MKI upgrade variant could take another 3 to 4 years, it is possible that DRDO will have a Uttam variant suitable for use on the upgraded fighters. But then, a new development project is prone to timeline slip-ups.
It would be safer to base a fighter upgrade on an existing combat-proven radar. As such, it would make more sense to reserve Uttam AESA radar for the second tranche.
The size of the Su-30MKI gives it a lot of growth potential. Long after it ceases to be the IAF’s frontline fighter, it will likely continue to play an important operational role because of its long-range and good payload capability. It is ideally suited to the role of a weapons truck operating with stealth fighters.
The IAF needs to invest in the long-term potential of the aircraft by upgrading its engine so that the aircraft can be fitted with more powerful sensors. The fighter will additionally feature improved fuel efficiency, and its engine life will be doubled.
I am sure that the IAF has its reasons for not opting to fit a more powerful engine. Hopefully, higher upgrade costs or US pressure to minimize military collaboration with Russia are not among the reasons.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
- Follow the author @vkthakur