As four Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI fighters roar over northern Australia as part of Exercise Pitch Black 2018, Livefist has learnt that the IAF is looking favourably at a proposal to order 40 more such jets from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which license-builds the jets in western India. The IAF currently operates over 250 Su-30 jets, with the total order of 272 jets to be completed next year.
In February this year, just as the Indian MoD was beginning work on the IAF’s Make-in-India fighter program, HAL made an unsolicited proposal to the Ministry of Defence offering to supply an additional 40 Su-30 jets to the IAF on financial terms matching the current deliveries. While the IAF is yet to formally record its opinion on the proposal, Livefist can confirm that internal discussions are favourable.
A senior IAF officer at the Air Force Headquarters told Livefist, “The Su-30 is undoubtedly the backbone of the air force strength now. The current lot of fighters will soon enter a cycle of upgrades involving both HAL and Sukhoi. Since we have bet on this very capable fighter, there is a view from a planning perspective that it makes sense to acquire at least three more squadrons of the type.“
Internal arguments against the proposal include availability problems that have beset the Su-30 fleet, the aircraft’s footprint and a range of recent technical and maintenance issues that the IAF is hoping to resolve with HAL and Russia. Sukhoi, on its part, has amplified HAL’s proposal for more jets with its own publicity campaign.
The last leg of HAL’s Su-30 production coincides with high turbulence in India’s quest for more fighters. Aside from political warfare over India’s 2016 deal for 36 Rafale jets, the IAF continues to battle dwindling squadron numbers, with a significant number of old MiG-21s to be retired over the next two years. But there’s significant budgetary headwind that has forced the IAF to rejig its purchase priorities. Sources indicate, however, that additional Su-30s would be easier to justify from an expenditure perspective than several other proposals.
While HAL won’t be seeing any ‘action’ in India’s Rafale jet purchase — a bone of political contention now in India’s fraught election season — the company has its hands full. Only days after HAL made its proposal to build more Su-30s for the IAF, the company joined a three-way partnership with Boeing and the Mahindra Group to compete for the Indian government’s Make-in-India fighter program and build the F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet in India. Elsewhere, the company is under pressure to ramp up production rates of the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas to meet IAF order timelines. To be sure, as an HAL executive pointed out, the company’s push to build more Su-30s won’t add any pressure on resources, considering the Nashik production line only builds the Russian jet.
An HAL executive on the Sukhoi build program told Livefist, “Supplying at least three more squadrons of Su-30s from the Nashik facility makes sense in the current circumstances. It is a low risk, low cost option with no variables, with a predictable delivery schedule and existing infrastructure.”
The MoD is likely to take a final decision on HAL’s proposal for 40 more Indian-assembled Su-30s by the end of this year. If the MoD says yes, the IAF will have acquired 312 Su-30s. India has lost a total of eight Su-30 jets in accidents since 2009, the most recent being a brand new jet crashing during pre-delivery trials in June this year.
The Su-30 MKI meanwhile, an Indian staple at war games abroad, is currently flexing muscle at the ongoing Pitch Black 2018 multi-nation exercise in northern Australia. Some pictures from on site: