The Buzz

Russia's Sukhoi Super 30: The Outlook for India’s Ultra-Advanced Flanker Upgrade

Indications in recent months suggest that the upgrade program for India’s fleet of Su-30MKI fighters is finally gathering pace. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has so far placed orders for 272 aircraft, of which 50 were delivered by Russia in 2002-2004 and 2007. Another 222 are to be supplied by the HAL Corporation; production under Russian license began at HAL’s Indian facilities in 2004. So far, more than 200 planes have already been delivered, and the Su-30MKI is the most numerous of the multirole fighters currently in service with the IAF.

Even though the Su-30MKI is one of the most advanced of the Generation 4+ fighters in service with the IAF, the need for its upgrade is becoming ever more obvious. The first of the planes built to the current specification were delivered to India back in 2004. Since then, a lot of new technology has become available in Russia, India, and other markets, including advanced new radars, air-launched missiles and bombs. Retrofitting the plane with this new hardware can make it much more capable. In fact, the Su-30 platform itself is extremely well suited for all kinds of upgrades, from fairly conservative to the most radical because the plane has a two-seater cockpit and can accommodate a lot of bulky and heavy additional equipment.

For a long time, the only thing we knew about the proposed Su-30MKI upgrades was the name of the program: Sukhoi Super 30. There was no information about the technical specifications, timeline or costs. Commentators often confuse Sukhoi Super 30 with another upgrade program that aims to integrate the Su-30MKI with the air-launched version of the BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile. These are in fact two independent and unrelated projects. BrahMos will be installed on only 40-42 planes. The program has already reached a fairly advanced phase of flight-testing to ascertain mechanical compatibility of the BrahMos-A air-launched missile with a reinforced Su-30MKI airframe. Live missile launches are due to commence very shortly. The Sukhoi Super 30 program, on the other hand, will be rolled out to the entire Indian fleet of Su-30MKI fighters; it has yet to begin in earnest, and up until recently, there was very little information about it in the public domain.

Recently, however, the influential Indian newspaper The Hindu reported that in July 2016 Russia and India held consultations on Sukhoi Super 30, and that they hoped to sign a deal very soon. Another well informed newspaper, The Economic Times, reported that the technical requirements would be finalized by the year’s end, and that the contract would be signed in early 2017. The estimated cost of the program is $7-8 billion. It is therefore clear that the program is still at the very early stages, and that the Sukhoi Super 30 technical specifications have yet to be agreed. One of the central issues in the upcoming discussions will certainly be the use of local suppliers as part of the Indian government’s Make in India industrial policy.

The Specifics of Indian Procurement Policy

The original Su-30MKI program was implemented at lighting speed, by Indian standards. The upgrade program, however, has been making glacial progress, which is fairly normal for the Indian defense procurement system. After Russia introduced the original Su-30MKI proposal, it took only three years to sign the first contract. The proposal was submitted in December 1993 during a visit to India by representatives of the Irkutsk Aircraft Plant and the Sukhoi Design Bureau; the contract was signed in November 1996. Incidentally, the final technical specifications of the Su-30MKI were very different from the Su-30K Russia had originally tried to sell to India. The differences concerned not just avionics but even the platform itself.