Defence minister A.K. Antony informed the Rajya Sabha that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is extremely happy with its front line air superiority fight, the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, and will increase its fleet to 230 aircraft by 2015, notwithstanding the recent crash of one.
China has been increasing it’s belligerence over the north eastern state of Arunachal Pradhesh and has a significant ground force superiority over India in the region. It is aided by two friendly governments — the military junta in Yangon (Burma) and the Maoists in Nepal, leaving the entire and vital eastern half of India vulnerable.
To counter this increasing threat, in June, the Indian Air Force located a squadron of the Sukhoi Su-30MKI at the Tezpur air force base in Assam. Read a related article.
Tezpur is located near Arunachal Pradesh and is less than 350 km from the last army post at Bumla on the imaginary McMohan Line that divides India and China. Tezpur is also the headquarters of the 4th Corps of the army, which would shortly have two mountain division deployed in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Chinese army air base closest to India is in the Chengdu military region, which borders India, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, and is home to two fighter divisions.
But, is India and the IAF putting to much faith in the Su-30MKI ?
At the 2008 Red Flag exercises, the US Air Force analysed the remarkable fighter. The video below shows some remarkable comparisons. While there is no doubt on the strengths, it also reveals some startling weaknesses — for example, the Saturn NPO Al-31FP engines on the Su-30MKI are very prone to FOD (foreign object damage) which requires a one minute separation between take-offs. One minute in a combat situation is eternity. Also Russia demands that India return all damaged engines to them for repairs, and only after the engine reaches them will they send a replacement. Surely this will cause a tremendous supply chain crunch in the face of any hostilities. The USAF officer also refers to the second video which compares the F-22 Raptor with Sukhoi Su-30MKI in similar manoeuvres.
Not to say that it is all bad. There is no doubt that the Su-30MKI is a formidable aircraft and it’s remarkable capabilities coupled with the abilities of fighter pilots of the Indian Air Force who are counted way up there with their US and Israeli counterparts amongst the best of the best, are a potent combination.
It is also important to remember the Su-30MKI is an air superiority fighter i.e. intended to defeat enemy aircraft in the air and seize control of enemy airspace. The F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor are probably the finest examples of air superiority fighters of their generation with the Su-30MKI being in between the two. While the Su-30MKI can also perform some multi-role activities including ground strikes, it is wasted in this role. India has to remain committed to the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) procurement time-table and sign the contracts within the 2010-2011 fiscal year as currently planned. The Israeli Phalcon equipped IL-76 AWACS procurement too must be continued on schedule or improved.
On this topic, I read a book by Humphrey Hawksley, the former BBC correspondent with extensive experience in China and South Asia titled Dragon Fire. While a work of fiction, Dragon Fire is extensively based on facts, and tells the story of a three-sided war — India versus China and Pakistan. Very interesting reading.