May 30, 2020
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Shadows Of Doubt

The euphoria over the Su-30 deal clouds the more acute aircraft shortage facing the IAF

Shadows Of Doubt

EXCITEMENT, at the Yelahanka Indian Air Force station 25 km outside Bangalore, was a Russian word last week. The lone Sukhoi-30 fighter aircraft parked at the end of the apron at the Aero India ‘96 air show cast a palpable spell as a wide-eyed audience admired and caressed the 24-tonne jet—the first addition in a decade to the aging family of India’s combat aircraft. A few days before the air show, a team of top Indian Defence Ministry officials fina-lised a Rs 6,142-crore deal—the largest-ever signed by the country—with the Russian defence export agency Rosvoorouzhenie for the supply of 40 Su-30 MKIs by the year 2000. The deal also has a clause for licensed production of the aircraft in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to meet future requirements of the Indian Air Force (IAF). So it was no coincidence that Rosvoorouzhenie had brought in the state-of-the-art aircraft to be showcased by its chief test pilot, Igor Vontintsev, before India’s decision makers.

"Indeed, it is a significant acquisition," says Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, director, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis. "Considering there’s been no acquisition of aircraft by the IAF for 10 years now, anything would be a significant acquisition." The first new-generation, multi-role aircraft to join the IAF, the Su-30 MKI can be used for long-range patrolling, tracking and radar loitering, training high accuracy weapons against ground and above-water targets without entering the enemy air-defence zone, and also increasing air combat possibilities including attack against several targets. Guaranteed against stalling, the aircraft provides for application of air to air missiles; medium-range missiles and close-in missiles with radar and infra-red seekers; air-to-surface guided weapons; anti-ship and anti-radar missiles with TV and telecode guidance; and corrected bombs with TV and laser guidance.

And IAF’s deal of the decade is set to more than match any of its present combat aircraft, including the multi-role French Mirage-2000 or the Mirage-2000-5 which Pakistan has been hoping to acquire for some years now. "We will now be able to intercept targets at a distance of 120 km using the medium-range missiles on the Su-30," says a senior IAF officer. "Which is double that of the MiG-29 and the Mirage-2000 which can target only between 40 and 60 km." Besides, the Sukhoi can fly non-stop for nearly 10 hours at twice the speed of sound, carrying 8,000 kg of weapons. "So if there is a war with Pakistan, we will finish it in a day." Adds Singh: "The Su-30 MKI would be superior to the Mirage 2000-5 and the American F-15 and in many aspects will compare well with the F-22 which costs $110 million a piece, about 35 times more expensive than the Sukhoi." 

Yet, the way India has gone about the deal has raised several questions about the future of the Sukhoi and the tangible difference it will make in the IAF. While the first batch of eight Su-30s will be delivered around June 1997, it would take another four years for the remaining 32 to arrive, which would be the upgraded MK and the MKI (the I suffixed to denote India). Which implies that the initial Sukhois would have to go back to Russia to be upgraded to MKI. Moreover, with nearly 30 combat squadrons of the Air Force due to retire over the next decade, the IAF officer feels the force would require at least 150 machines of the Sukhoi variety. "So this deal for 40 Su-30s is certainly no cause for great excitement as, after all, the IAF is getting just two squadrons, that too over the next four to five years," observes Singh. And, going by past experience, defence analysts fear a repeat of the piecemeal shopping habit India has displayed more than once in the past. Despite the existence of the clause for production of the Sukhois at HAL’s Nasik facility, analysts apprehend that the IAF might want to go in for more aircraft from Russia in batches of 15 and 20 than plump for their indigenous production.

 Like it did in the case of both the Mirage-2000 and the Jaguars. Both aircraft were bought in sets of 45 each with the option of manufacturing another 110 each by HAL. However, with changes in government and in the thinking of the IAF top brass, the order for the subsequent aircraft in the case of the Jaguars was cancelled while the manufacture clause in the case of the Mirage-2000 was not used. And the IAF bought more Jaguars in batches of 15 and 20, off-the-shelf. Creating a situation where the aircraft have to be returned to their manufacturers abroad for even minor repairs—a habit that has been criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament for obvious reasons of forex outflow.

Just as all excitement over the breathtaking Sukhoi manoeuvres at the airshow clouded the questions behind the deal, a significant indigenous breakthrough in air surveillance technology, showcased at the air show for the first time, too got overshadowed. Indeed, the drone of the HS-748 Avro carrying the rotating, saucer-shaped radome housing an antenna was drowned by the roar of the Sukhoi. But for scientists of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), who braved the vicissitudes of the Defence Ministry and the IAF for 12 years since the inception of the project, it had been the first milestone in developing the Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) they had toiled for.

The Indian AWACS is a force-multiplier with a capability of tracking down 50 flying objects (aircraft or missiles) from a distance of 200 km and coordinating counter-offensive measures by air, sea and ground forces. While only the US, Russia and Israel, to some extent, have the capability to manufacture AWACS, India joined the quest for its own AWACS in 1984 after Pakistan sought four American E2-C Hawkeye AWACS. The instrumental role of the AWACS was overwhelmingly demonstrated during the Israel-Syria conflict over the Bega’a Valley in 1982. Though Syria possessed double the fighter strength of Israel, it lost 86 fighters to just one Israeli fighter three days after the Israel Air Force brought in the American E2-C Hawkeye AWACS.

India’s AWACS project has, however, remained a non-starter, with the IAF not showing interest and the Government consequently starving it of funds. With the Government sanctioning only Rs 100 crore for the next three years for the project last year, the Centre for Airborne Studies (CABS),Bangalore, was forced to settle for the outdated Avro as the platform—the aircraft to carry the radome—for the technology demonstrator. "It took us time to develop the transmitter and the antenna. And the radar was successfully tested only during the last six months. So we decided to show it around now," says a senior DRDO scientist associated with the project.

Coming as it does on the heels of Pakistan finally acquiring clearance for the transfer of the American P3-C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, India’s unveiling of its own AWACS can’t be termed mere coincidence. Though the Indian AWACS is the least expensive of the technology demonstrators, the future of the project hinges upon the requirements of the IAF which is "only now showing some interest in the project". "We have passed the examination stage and are now being interviewed by the IAF," says the DRDO scientist. The project would now need to move on to a new platform, a long-haul aircraft that would be used by the Air Force when the AWACS are inducted. While the DRDO has the Boeing 767, the Airbus, the Hercules and the Iluyshin-76 or 62 to choose from, those criticising government and IAF apathy towards the project don’t predict much change despite the technology demonstrator.

"An AWACS can’t be built with Rs 100 crore. The point now is, since we have started it are we going to adequately fund it in future?" asks Jasjit Singh. "Besides, having chosen a weak platform, the effort and time required to prove the AWACS on another platform will be very high. Considering all these handicaps, it would be a good 15 years or more before the AWACS become operational." All of which ultimately relegates the AWACS to being just another technology demonstrator for the present. And once again highlights the knee-jerk and reactive defence production and preparedness pursued at the cost of the rich scientific expertise available in the country.

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