IT was a spectacular display that served as a riposte to doubters. The fire power demonstration, codenamed Vayu Shakti-98, by an array of Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft at the Pokhran range on March 21 gave an indication of its varied capabilities. The centrepiece was the SU-30 with its high agility, its high scope for combat manoeuvring and low-level aerobatics. As it fired eight bombs on a simulated runway with perfect marksmanship, its capacity for accurate weapons delivery was also showcased.
The air force is in the process of replacing its fast depleting fighter fleet and would need to replace about 100 aircraft over the next 10 years. Out of a field of choice comprising the Mirage-2000, Mirage 2000-5 and SU-30, the IAF plumped for the latter—but not without some criticism. It carried out a detailed evaluation of all aircraft along with the DRDO, and settled for the SU-30. One reason was simple: the Mirage 2000-5 was found to be twice as expensive, that too with much lower operational capability.
There were other pluses. In view of the fast developing threats in the region, the SU-30 is widely felt to be a powerful deterrent. It can carry 8 tonnes of external bombs or up to 10 air-to-air missiles (with a range of over 100 km) in addition to the external 30 mm gun. It's a multi-role, air superiority fighter capable of long-range interception, loitering for long duration and performing deep penetration escort role. In the combat role, two SU-30s can do what four MiG-29s can do due to the increased loiter time.
More importantly, it is argued that India's threat perception has changed. China, for instance, has acquired a large number of SU-27s and launched an ambitious plan to manufacture them. It had also evinced interest in the SU-30 and is expected to purchase over 450 SU-27/SU-30 planes in the next 10 years. It is also building new airfields and improving its communications network and other infrastructural facilities near the border. This would allow its air force to strike as deep as Gwalior.
On the western side, defence experts felt India did not have necessary resources for adequate air defence for offshore targets such as the Bombay High area and strategic and economic targets along the west coast in Gujarat and Maharashtra. And except for the Mirage-2000, none of the air defence fighters have adequate range to penetrate deep into enemy territory as defence escorts for India's fighter bombers. Sources say the flying endurance of MiG-29 is limited and it is purely an air defence aircraft, making it unsuitable for escorting fighter bombers. The two Mirage-2000 squadrons are tied down with specialist roles like electronic warfare and precision bombing.
Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen, who's faced a lot of flak in recent months because of the agitation in the air force, was naturally pleased with the Pokhran show, watched by a large number of invited guests, especially military attaches of foreign embassies in India. The IAF also displayed some modifications on existing aircraft like Mirage-2000 and Jaguar, which, as a senior officer stated, "needed to be highlighted to the world". For the IAF, the highly efficient SU-30 display was an appropriate way of answering criticism over its purchase. As Sareen told Outlook: "This exercise should once and for all put at rest all controversies. The aircraft performed creditably in its bombing mission and showed its superlative agility in the mock dog fight. Its solo aerobatics display proved beyond doubt that it is the finest aircraft available today. "
Besides, the air chief noted, "over the next few years, the SU-30 would be further upgraded with latest avionics and electronic warfare equipment to improve its mission effectiveness". He said that another 12 SU-30 aircraft, which are expected by early next year, will be equipped with the beyond-visual-range Precision Guided Missiles. The SU-30 contract is worth Rs 6,300 crore for 40 aircraft with complete infrastructure.
The argument against acquiring the SU-30s were many. Some pointed to faulty procurement procedures and the alleged huge kickbacks. Others questioned the need for another class of fighters when the Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 are already in service. This lobby feels India's threat environment hasn't changed so dramatically so as to warrant its induction. Besides, it was argued that with respect to certain aspects, the demonstrated capability of the SU-30 suffers in comparison with the performance of other contemporary combat aircraft.
The votaries cite the positive aspects: the joint R&D of key components, like mission control and advanced navigation systems, by Indian and Russian scientists. This will help Indian scientists acquire expertise, which can't but have beneficial spinoffs. The 40 SU-30 are to be acquired in four batches and the last one, expected in 2000 and called SU-30MKI, will be the most sophisticated.The earlier variants too will be upgraded to this level. Hopefully making India's air defence impenetrable.