India’s Su-30MKI Upgrade Program: Enhancing Capabilities For Modern Aerial Warfare

With its robust design, advanced technology, and tailored specifications, the Sukhoi Su30MKI exemplifies the synergy achieved through international collaboration in the realm of military aviation, solidifying its status as a cornerstone of India’s air defence capabilities.

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), under the leadership of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, has approved the indigenous upgrade of Su-30MKI Aircraft by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). In a recent media interaction, the Air Chief hinted at plans to upgrade 84 Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jets, with an estimated cost slightly exceeding Rs 60,000 crore. With the exception of airframe and engine modifications, HAL will supervise the improvements in coordination with the Indian Air Force and other partners.

This programme is often referred to as the “Super Sukhoi” upgrade programme.

Initial reports suggest that the first batch of 100 SU-30s will undergo upgrades, focusing on enhancements to the electronic warfare suite, avionics, and radar. The IAF aims to achieve 50 per cent indigenization of the aircraft.

What are the new upgrades?

To minimize costs, there is a deliberate effort considering the Indian Air Force’s preference for beyond-visual-range (BVR) combat, diminishing the significance of super manoeuvrability. The proposed upgrade includes an AESA-like new radar, possibly the Tikhomirov NIIP N035 Irbis E.

DRDO has outlined plans to integrate the Uttam Radar with fighter jets like Sukhoi-30MKI and Mig-29 by 2025, following successful integration with Tejas Mk-1. Given the timeline for the design and development of the upgraded Su-30MKI variant, it is conceivable that DRDO might produce a compatible Uttam variant for these enhanced fighters. However, challenges in new development projects may lead to uncertainties in the timeline.

Indigenous weaponry additions for Su-30MKI include BrahMos and Astra air-to-air missiles, Astra-2, Rudram-2, Rudram-3, and Rudarm-1 new generation anti-radiation missiles (NGARMs) are expected to be further integrated. Rudram missiles are made to neutralise a variety of enemy radar, communication, and surveillance targets that are located on the ground from a distance.

The successful flight test of Rudram-1 NGARM on October 9, 2020, marked a significant milestone, striking a radiating target off the coast of Odisha. Subsequent developments include DRDO’s plans to develop Rudram-2 (350 km range) and Rudram-3 (550 km) air-to-ground missiles. During Aero India 2023, a schematic for an electronic warfare suite hinted at ongoing efforts to replace current Russian SAP-51 pods on IAF’s Su-30 MKI fleet.

But why are these upgrades necessary? 

On February 27, 2019, in response to the Balakot Airstrikes, the Pakistan Air Force launched Operation Swift Retort to bomb Indian military installations in Kashmir. The operations involving two Su30 MKIs revealed several shortcomings of the jet. It was found that due to the aircraft’s high Radar Cross Section (RCS) and lack of BVR capability, the Russian R77 was outmatched and out-ranged by AIM-120 AMRAAMs launched by F16s.

Moreover, new technologies such as machine-man teaming, network-centric communication, and higher fuel capacity can be integrated. Similar upgrades have already been made to the Chinese J16s, which are derivatives or “knockoffs” of the Su30, enhancing their combat capabilities exceeding that of their Indian counterparts and introducing a Wild Weasel (Electronic Warfare) variant named J16D.

Combined with the Indian upgrades of AESA radar, glass cockpit display integration of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, and lower stealth, the Su30 MKI will prove to become a formidable force in the subcontinent and remain relevant in the 4.5 and 5-generation era. These upgrades are crucial for maintaining air superiority and addressing the evolving challenges in modern aerial warfare, ensuring the Su-30MKI’s continued relevance in the rapidly advancing defence landscape.

Russia’s help and its multifunctional stealth tactical aircraft

A two-seater stealth fighter with supersonic and subsonic capabilities is the newest technology successfully patented by the Russian company United Aircraft Corporation [UAC]. The Russian state news agency TASS broke the news of the “new fighter” through a press release.

The document release does not explicitly state that it is a derivative or an upgraded version of the Su30 MK, but the programme may come to alleviate the shortcomings of the Indian Sukhoi. 

This programme can be used to integrate technologies like composite and stealth materials to bring the RCS down and potentially replace the low-powered AL-31 engines with newer better power plants to provide a better thrust-to-weight ratio and integrate better avionics. 

Moreover, new technologies such as machine-man teaming, network-centric communication and higher fuel capacity can be integrated.

The Sukhoi Su-30MKI, designated Flanker-H by NATO, stands as a testament to the collaborative efforts between Russia’s Sukhoi and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in developing a formidable two-seater, twinjet multirole air superiority fighter for the Indian Air Force (IAF). This robust aircraft, a variant of the Sukhoi Su30, is a heavy, all-weather, and long-range fighter, showcasing its versatility on the modern battlefield.

As of late 2023, the Indian Air Force boasts an impressive inventory of nearly 270 units, underscoring the aircraft’s pivotal role in India’s defence strategy. The Su30MKI is anticipated to serve as the cornerstone of the IAF’s fighter fleet well into 2020 and beyond, attesting to its enduring relevance and effectiveness.

A distinctive feature of the fighter is its tailor-made design, crafted to meet Indian specifications. This customisation extends beyond the airframe, integrating indigenous Indian systems and avionics, alongside cutting-edge French and Israeli sub-systems. This collaborative approach enhances the aircraft’s capabilities and adaptability, ensuring it meets the diverse operational requirements of the Indian Air Force.

The jet can be used in a wide range of operations including, air superiority, point defence, ground attack, suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD), maritime strike and the IAF is exploring the possibility of buddy-buddy refuelling.  

Drawing parallels with the Sukhoi Su35, the Su30MKI shares numerous features and components with its Russian counterpart, further enhancing its combat prowess. With its robust design, advanced technology, and tailored specifications, the Sukhoi Su30MKI exemplifies the synergy achieved through international collaboration in the realm of military aviation, solidifying its status as a cornerstone of India’s air defence capabilities.