In an effort to arrest the shortfall in the combat fleet of the Indian Air Force (IAF), India has asked Russia to help build another squadron of Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jets at the factory of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at Nashik in Western India. This facility already has orders for licensed production of 222 of this platform as part of an existing contract with Sukhoi of Russia. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has approached Russia to supply HAL with the necessary raw materials and sub-systems required to produce 18 more Sukhois, the equivalent of one Squadron, the production of which can be initiated as early as next year. The cost quoted is 450 crore per aircraft.
During the days of the Cold War and the bi-polar world, even though India was not formally a part of any global alliance, the nation remained cold-shouldered by the United States (US) in respect of supply of military hardware. Consequently, the IAF had remained almost totally dependent on the very friendly Soviet Union for combat platforms and other weapon systems required by the IAF. A large number of aircraft and weapon systems were acquired through direct Government-to-Government deals thus eliminating the need for a global tender and its associated complexities as well as excruciating delays. The last major procurement under this dispensation was the purchase in the late 1990s, of 50 Sukhoi Su-30MK fighters in fly-away condition. These aircraft were later upgraded to the MKI standard. Thereafter, in the period 2000 to 2012, additional orders were placed in batches bringing the total to 272 aircraft to equip 13 Squadrons. After the first lot of 50 bought in fully built condition, the remaining 222 are being license-manufactured in India. If the fresh offer for 18 aircraft is accepted, the IAF will have 290 aircraft equivalent of 14 Squadrons of Su-30MKI on its inventory. In 2014, HAL was able to integrate the BrahMos air-launched cruise missile on to the Su-30MKI enabling it to engage targets up to 295 km away. Given the rapidly dwindling strength of the combat fleet, adding one more Squadron to the order for 13 placed earlier, will only provide partial relief to the IAF. Of course, something is better than nothing for the IAF and for HAL this will provide a transient breather as closing down the Su-30MKI production line on completion of orders by the IAF would be financially catastrophic.
The licensed production of the Su-30MKI by HAL in Nashik has been somewhat different from similar ventures by HAL in the past such as with the fleets of the variants of the MiG-21 and MiG-27 also acquired from Russia. The ‘Make in India’ programme initiated by the Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been a recent phenomenon as is known to us. However, the contract between Sukhoi of Russia and HAL to manufacture the Su-30MKI was based on progressive indigenisation of the process of production in four phases. In Phase I, HAL was required to build the aircraft from completely knocked down (CKD) kits. In Phase II, HAL was to progress to manufacturing the aircraft from semi knocked down (SKD) kits. Thereafter, the process of manufacture of the Su-30MKI was required to be progressively indigenised in Phases III and IV. These last two stages have already been achieved by HAL validating albeit only partially, the ‘Make in India’ capability of the Indian aerospace industry well before the scheme was launched with seriousness and determination by the present Government. Unfortunately, on account of a number of limitations and constraints, the level of indigenisation achieved by HAL in the manufacture of the Su-30MKI fighter jet has been just over 50 per cent of the value of the aircraft. What has prevented HAL from achieving higher levels of indigenisation is the fact that a major part of the raw materials including 5,800 types of titanium blocks and forgings, as well as aluminium and steel plates, have still to be procured from Russia. Unfortunately, HAL is constrained on account of economy of scale to undertake production of these materials indigenously. As the number of aircraft ordered is small, setting up facilities to manufacture these components in India would not be financially viable. Apart from the limitations listed above, the production contract between HAL and Sukhoi stipulates that over 7000 standard components such as nuts, bolts, screws and rivets must all be mandatorily sourced from Russia. There are some valuable lessons for the Indian aerospace industry to learn to enhance the chances of success of the recently launched ‘Make in India’ initiative.
In mid-2018, Sukhoi and HAL offered to the IAF 40 more of these aircraft over and above the 272 already on order bringing the number to 312 or 16 Squadrons. Unfortunately, the IAF was not inclined to accept the offer as it found the operating and maintenance costs to be exorbitant and the fleet suffered from poor product support resulting in average flight line availability to be around 50 per cent as against the normal requirement of 70 per cent. Besides, the IAF already had ordered numbers that would constitute 31 per cent of the fleet and was keen on other types with better attributes and flight line availability. If the IAF does accept the fresh offer of 18 Su-30MKI, it will primarily be on account of the precarious situation its combat fleet currently is in.