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South Asia , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

HAL Offers Indian Air Force 40 New Su-30MKI Elite Fighters - A More Cost Effective Option than the Rafale?

May 17th - 2018

Long the backbone of the Indian Air Force’s combat capabilities, the Su-30MKI remains one of the most capable air superiority platforms in the world today and the country retains almost 300 in service. The heavy fighter is relied on to engage near peer air superiority platforms such as China’s J-11B and Su-35 in the event of conflict, and is key to maintaining the Indian qualitative advantage against Pakistan’s own air fleet - comprised entirely of single engine light fighters such as the F-16 and JF-17 which pale in comparison to the Su-30’s capabilities in the air. More recently, a number of Su-30 fighters have been converted to fulfil a strike role and deliver the Brahmos cruise missile, a platform approaching speeds of Mach 3 near impossible to intercept with modern air defence systems, which pose a serious threat to hostile military facilities and warships near India’s borders. Combined with the Su-30’s long range, one of the longest of any fighter in the world even without aerial refuelling, it allows the Indian Air Force to threaten hostile targets far out at sea and deep into enemy territory.

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), India’s leading military aerospace company responsible for a number of prolific weapons projects including the indigenous Tejas light fighter, has recently offered the Indian Air Force 40 additional Su-30 fighters. The contract would be fulfilled by both HAL and Sukhoi, and would allow the Indian Air Force to expand its fleet and field its foremost fighter in greater numbers. The rationale behind the sale was that allocating a number of the Su-30 fighters a strike role by equipping them with the Brahmos has undermined Indian air superiority capabilities, and more of the elite platforms were thus needed to compensate. The fighters were offered at a highly competitive price of approximately $64 million each - making them among the least costly modern air superiority fighters in the world despite their advanced capabilities. With several Su-30MKI fighters currently being provided with upgrades by Russia, new fighters would come readily equipped with these upgrades. These include new radars, electronic warfare systems, jammers, warning systems and displays. The fighters would be built in India.

The offer to provide the Indian Air Force with more Su-30MKI fighters comes amid accusations being levelled at the government regarding the decision to purchase Dassault Rafale fighters from France, with 36 aircraft being acquired at an average cost of over $200 million each. The Rafale’s shorter range, slower speed, lower payload, poorer manuverabilty and lack of long range air to air munitions were but a few of its shortcomings when compared to the Su-30MKI, and the fact that India chose the troubled French fighter over further Sukhoi aircraft led to allegations of corruption and undue political influence undermining defence by exerting undue influence over acquisition choices. Where India's Su-30 can engage enemy aircraft at up to 130km the Rafale is restricted to an engagement range of just 50km, while the French fighter's relatively short range and inability to carry air to ground or anti ship munitions as capable as the Brahmos makes it less suited to a strike role. The European fighter has otherwise struggled to find export customers, and France has resorted to offering extensive economic benefits to potential clients to push its otherwise high uncompetitive merchandise. Whether HAL’s offer for the Su-30MKI will be accepted, or whether India will instead consider purchasing further Rafale units due to political concerns, remains to be seen. 

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