With the Sukhoi-30MKI fighter — the backbone of the air force fleet — nearing the end of its production run, its manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), is taking up a case to build 40 more. If the defence ministry accepts HAL’s proposal, the inventory of the Russian fighter would be enhanced from the planned 272 to 312.
With HAL offering to price the additional Su-30s at just Rs 4.25 billion, the fighter will be barely one-third the cost of the Rafale. According to a Business Standard analysis, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is paying Rs 11.25 billion per Rafale, excluding the price of weapons and logistics.
HAL Chairman T Suvarna Raju said: “We will offer a very competitive price. Since 2010, we have been delivering the Su-30 at Rs 4.25 billion. We can deliver another three squadrons at that same price.” So, the IAF will pay Rs 170 billion for 40 additional Su-30s.
However, that would involve buying the fighters in ready-to-assemble kits from Russia and putting them together in Nashik. “HAL has already absorbed the technology for building and supporting the Su-30s. Now, the aim is to build those three new squadrons as quickly, and as cheaply, as possible,” said Raju.
Rationalising the proposal for 40 additional Su-30s, Raju said they were needed to carry the BrahMos air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).
“We are required to modify 40-odd Su-30s to carry the BrahMos ALCM. Instead of upgrading older fighters, with a shorter residual lifespan, it would be better to build three more squadrons of Sukhois with the capability to carry BrahMos missiles,” said Raju.
The air-launched version of the BrahMos has been downsized to 8 metres and 2,560 kgs. Even so, mounting it on a Su-30 requires reinforcing the aircraft’s underbelly and installing a heavy-duty mounting station. After years of development, the BrahMos was successfully test-fired from a Su-30 in November.
Ministry sources indicate a proposal to build more Su-30s would be considered positively, given the shortfall of IAF fighter squadrons. HAL is currently building the last 23 Su-30s of the 272 it was mandated to build. The IAF’s first 50 Su-30s were built in Russia.
Even as HAL Nashik builds the last Su-30s on order, HAL and Sukhoi have negotiated the upgrade of the Sukhoi fleet. HAL officials said they wanted to be the lead agency, but Sukhoi has indicated it wanted a 50 per cent share in this lucrative contract to upgrade the fighter’s avionics, including radar, glass cockpit displays, electronic warfare systems, warning systems and jammers. “The IAF has already frozen its upgrade requirements. We are now waiting for the commercial proposal from Russia,” said Raju.
HAL estimates an avionics upgrade for the Su-30 would cost upwards of Rs 1 billion per aircraft, placing the cost of upgrading 312 fighters at Rs 312 billion. Officials said the upgrade would have two distinct parts. In Phase I, Sukhoi would take over some IAF Su-30s and use them as prototypes to install and certify new-generation avionics and weapons upgrades. HAL would install those upgrades in the entire fleet. Phase II, which would involve India-specific enhancements, would be designed and developed by HAL and also incorporated on to the fighter by HAL.