November 17, 2000



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Major General Ashok K Mehta

The IAF is living in a period of tragic-comedy

The IAF has a history of many a slip between the cup and the lip. Recently, in Nagpur, the chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis, announced that the decision to acquire an advanced jet trainer would be taken before the end of the year, but that it would take up to 30 months for the AJT, whichever it is, to be delivered.

For those of us who have been following the AJT saga, these could be another set of famous last words. The IAF is living in a period of tragic-comedy as confirmed by the story of the Sukhoi 30 fighter.

When the advanced multi-role Su-30 was called into the IAF in 1996, the country was oblivious to what had transpired in the previous three years. There was no air staff requirement (ASR) for such a class of fighter, as the chief of air staff had dismissed the Sukhoi as "irrelevant to the IAF".

Air Chief Marshal S K Kaul had also criticised Russia for failing to provide critical product support. But six months later, he reversed his opinion and the government, without even signing a contract, paid an advance of Rs 5 billion to Russia's Irkutsk Aircraft Production Organisation for developing an aircraft that did not exist.

After the initial order for 40 Su-30MKIs, followed by another 10, India recently signed a letter of intent to produce, under licence, another 140 aircraft of the same make. The intention is fraught with risks and uncertainties much more serious than the ones that went with the decision to acquire the Sukhoi 30 MKI in the first place.

But the idea of licensed production is not new. The secretary for defence production had suggested that only eight aircraft be purchased and the remaining be made in the country. The idea was shot down.

The first eight Su-30s arrived in 1997, but were non-operational in the absence of any matching weapons. Further, the Russians had dumped used support equipment as new. Only two years later did the Su-30 acquire its primary profile as SU-30K.

The first prototype of the intermediate version -- SU 30MK -- with state-of-the-art aerodynamics was test-flown in Bangalore, but later, on June 12 this year, crashed at the Le Bourget Paris Air Show.

This confirmed reports about the infighting between the Sukhoi organisation and Russia's arms export agency, RosVooruzheniye, and raised doubts about Sukhoi's credibility and capability to design and produce a super-multi-role fighter. A turf battle has been going on between the two for some time. In December 1999, the IAF took delivery of another 10 Su-30Ks, which were originally meant for Indonesia.

The delivery schedule of the final version, Su 30MKI, is very complicated, given the rush of conversions and fitting avionics from French, Israeli and Russian companies. The best-case scenario of the 50 Sukhois becoming operational is 2006, though the government says 2003.

After India went nuclear in 1998, the IAF went into raptures justifying the choice of the Su-30 as a strategic long-range deterrent against China. The air-to-air refuellers that would give the Su-30 the required range and endurance for this have yet to be ordered.

Further, refuellers have to remain well within Indian airspace, thereby limiting the range of the Su-30. In any case, by the time these strategic bombers get operational, Agni III, the primary strategic deterrent, should be in place, making the Su-30, at best, a backup force.

China is rapidly modernising its air force. It already possesses around 70 to 100 Su-27 single-seaters. It is quite possible it might opt for a few two-seater, multi-role SU-30MKs.

Some senior Air Force officers are wondering whether the decision to produce 140 more Su-30MKI under licence is a wise option. While the detailed project report on establishing a production facility must be awaited, preliminary estimates on costs are likely to make the IAF have second thoughts. It is proposed to replace the MiG-21 plant at Nasik, which is technology of the 1940s, with a modern facility. Experts at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bangalore, have estimated this cost at around $1 billion and around four years to set up.

The amortised per unit cost of the Su-30MKI will be a staggering Rs 1.61 billion. The up-front cost of the multi-role aircraft is the avionics and weapons fit. The 25 tonne Su-30MKI has eight hard points to carry another eight tonnes of missiles and bombs. This will cost money. That is not all. The hidden expenditure lies in the ownership or life-cycle cost, which in Russian aircraft is very high compared to the Western versions. The life-cycle cost of an Su-30MKI is likely to shoot up to Rs 4.5 billion.

Why is the maintenance and life support to Russian aircraft so expensive and complicated? First, the engine life is short and the TBO (Time Between Overhauls) low. After every 300 hours of flying, a lifespan of 3,000 hours, the engine has to be changed. The Su-30MKI has two engines. This gives it immense power and aerodynamics, which depend on canards and thrust vectoring for superb agility. After every 300 hours of flying, two engines, each costing $5 million, will need replacement.

The second problem relates to the IAF's flight philosophy. To this day, it has been woven around single-seater planes. By introducing the twin-cockpit concept, the IAF is arguably revolutionising the flying philosophy for its pilots, who, for want of an AJT, have been on an erratic learning curve.

Further, it will need to develop dedicated software for the crew. The IAF is already short of 400 pilots. If all goes well, the last of the 140 SU-30MKIs will roll out in 2018. By then, an additional 400 pilots would be required to cope with this.

The Su-30MKI, which the IAF neither asked for nor required, is an excellent multi-role fighter. In view of the high costs of licensed production and ownership, the IAF has to decide whether it wants to produce this aircraft and also if it could do with a mix of single- and twin-seater versions.

The options are:

  1. to buy outright another 200 Su-30MKIs in a mix of 150 single- and 50 twin-seater versions; or
  2. to buy two to three squadrons of the improved Mirage 2000-5. The earlier Mirage 2000-H has an excellent flight safety and operational flying record. Only three out of 49 aircraft have crashed, two from bird-hits. Another 10 Mirage 2000-H have been ordered, five twin-seater trainers and five single-seaters, and will be delivered over the next two years.
  3. to include the French offer of the Mirage 2000-5 while evaluating the option of licensed production. The Mirage overhaul factory at Gwalior, which is at present underused, could then be maximised. Diversification will enable the IAF to slowly loosen the Russian stranglehold on its inventory.

    The biggest snag in building air power to bolster India's security has been inept and erratic decision-making. Thanks to the whims and fancies of air chiefs, there has also been no continuity in sustaining its long-term re-equipment plan. The government has played no mean role in this. Time and cost overruns have afflicted every project, be it the LCA, AJT, Su-30MK and even the MiG-21 BiS upgrade.

    To a lesser extent, unfortunately, this is the story of the other two services too. Till an integrated higher defence management system is put in place, the IAF will not take off, with or without the Su-30 MKI.

    Ad-hocism has become integral to defence planning and equipment acquisition.

    Major General Ashok K Mehta

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