India's Super Sukhoi upgrade is an emblem of our geopolitical neutrality | Mint

India's Super Sukhoi upgrade is an emblem of our geopolitical neutrality

India stood out for the sacrilegious act of fusing a Russian aircraft with Western technologies, but this is how a path was set for Indian SU30s to evolve into a hybrid weapon boasting of the best of both worlds.
India stood out for the sacrilegious act of fusing a Russian aircraft with Western technologies, but this is how a path was set for Indian SU30s to evolve into a hybrid weapon boasting of the best of both worlds.

Summary

  • The fighter aircraft project involves an eclectic blend of technologies fused into a Russian platform. It speaks of India’s defence sovereignty.

For aviation enthusiasts, the Cold War was perhaps the most interesting time to be alive, given the myriad fourth-generation aircraft being launched in quick succession. The American and Soviet obsession to outdo each other added to the excitement. Rival fighter pilots would be enticed to defect with their flying machines to study rival technologies. Until the fall of the iron curtain, Western and Soviet aircraft types were distinct, thanks to that secrecy. Since neither side knew the true potential of the other’s fighter platform, peace prevailed on the principle of uncertainty.

Geopolitical neutrality has made India an exception to that rule of technological separation. While India has long operated fighter aircraft of Soviet origin, our fighter eco-system has always had an eclectic mix of platforms (including French and British). The emphasis has been on acquiring the best, with care taken to overcome the non-interoperability of diverse platforms. India’s recent decision to upgrade its Russian SU30 MKI fleet to ‘Super Sukhoi’ status, boasting a variety of global technologies, reveals the country’s determination to retain sovereign control of its air defence hardware.

After the Soviet Union’s disintegration, its successor state Russia eventually took New Delhi’s relations with Moscow forward, giving India access to Russian aircraft advancements. The SU30 fighter is a combination of the SU27 platform and SU37 tech-demo prototype, making it the most advanced 4+ generation fighter in its category. Platform exclusivity, however, remained a contentious issue at the time of its acquisition.

Under the Vajpayee government, India’s foreign policy began taking an ‘island approach’; i.e., moving towards and away from big powers as and when necessary. This led to a paradigm shift in defence procurement. India began to explore interoperability and expanded its parts bin to include inputs from countries like Israel and France. We could now rework Russian equipment with the world’s best available technologies. By the time India began assembly of the SU30 MK-I (Indian prototype) in 2004, this platform had adopted Israeli avionics and self-protection jammers as well as French navigation systems, and attained compatibility with British retractable refuelling probes.

India stood out for the sacrilegious act of fusing a Russian aircraft with Western technologies, but this is how a path was set for Indian SU30s to evolve into a hybrid weapon boasting of the best of both worlds. We have also fused it with homegrown components.

India’s 60,000 crore plan to upgrade the SU30 MKI fleet into lethal 4++ generation aircraft can be considered a facet of New Delhi’s current policy bent and objectives. While the ‘Super Sukhoi’ will include an array of domestic technologies, two aspects of it are especially revelatory. The induction of the Virupaksha AESA radar system, a gallium nitride derivative of India’s indigenous Uttam radar, followed by planned upgrades to AL31FP aero-engines are cases in point here.

The Virupaksha upgrade can be a game-changer because it will widen vastly the choice of compatible weapons for SU30s. In its current guise, the SU30 MKI uses the Russian Bars Leopard radar system, which is incompatible with Western weapon systems. This makes interoperability of SU30 with other Indian fighter platforms difficult, primarily because Western suppliers are unwilling to share their weapon codes for integration with a Russian platform.

This status quo, however, was shattered on 27 February 2019, when an air skirmish with Pakistan’s Air Force demonstrated the need for longer range Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile systems, which were not available at the time.

This led to the realization that reliable systems such as the European Meteor and US AIM-120 could easily be integrated with Indian-origin radar and jammers, irrespective of platform origin.

Once completed successfully, the Virupaksha’s integration will transform our Super Sukhois into possibly the only Russian aircraft that can carry weapon systems of European and American origin, along with those from Russia.

The second important upgrade here pertains to engines, which India’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) hopes to enhance indigenously. While the AL31FPs may receive minor upgrades based on GTRE’s learnings from technology transfer agreements with France, the future could involve much more dramatic changes.

India plans to fly its Super Sukhois until 2050, and given that the current crop of AL31s are already 20 years old on average, a complete replacement will be necessitated sooner than later.

Since India is not interested in the Russian offer of the more powerful AL41s, it is possible that Super Sukhois might carry a derivative of Indian made French or American aero-engines in the not-so-distant future. These upgrades would make our fleet of Super Sukhois a true manifestation of Indian foreign policy, which is to stay unaffiliated with any geopolitical bloc.

It is to the country’s credit that the Super Sukhoi can potentially blur the traditional lines that have been held sacrosanct in modern aviation history. If India manages to pull this upgrade off along expected lines, this fighter-jet platform could serve as an emblem of the country’s approach to the rest of the world, which is to be uninhibited and cooperative with other countries, while also being agnostic on geopolitics.

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