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Friday, December 4, 2009

What's wrong with IAF's Sukhoi?

Even if temporary, the grounding of Sukhoi- 30MKI fighters of the Indian Air Force ( IAF) has opened up a huge gap in the country's air defence system.

Our Sukhois are currently located in the following manner - two squadrons in Pune, Maharashtra, two in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, and one in Tezpur, Assam. A sixth squadron was forming up in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and it was from this squadron that the aircraft that crashed this week belonged. Each squadron has roughly 20 aircraft and the total India has is about 105 aircraft at present.

While the crash that took place in April was attributed to a defect in the computerised flight control system, the causes of the recent crash are yet to be determined, though it is supposed to have been caused by a fire in its engines. Whatever be the case, it has led to a grounding of the super- capable, but very expensive aircraft.

Though the Sukhoi, assisted by in- flight refuelling, has a very long range and can be brought into combat in virtually any part of India within a matter of hours, the location of the squadrons indicate that their primary task was, first, air defence over India's western peninsular areas where many of our key industrial centres and assets are located ( Jamnagar refinery, Kandla, Bombay High, Mumbai- Pune industrial belt and so on). The second major focus was air defence of our northern border with China.

What can fill this gap? " Nothing," according to an aviation analyst.

As a second line, India has three squadrons of Mirage 2000s and three of Mig 29s. They are located in Gwalior ( Mirage) and in Adampur and Jamnagar ( Migs). Neither in terms of range or capability can they even hope to fill the sudden gap that has emerged. In addition India has a number of squadrons of Mig- 21s in Rajasthan, Punjab and Kashmir, which can, at best, provide limited air defence over specific targets - an air base or a city.

In some ways the IAF has brought on the situation on itself.

An ideal air force has a pyramid structure with its best cuttingedge fighter on top, a tier- two workhorse and, at the bottom, large numbers of less capable tier- three fighters. By their current plan, the IAF could end up with an inverted pyramid. It could end up with as many as 280

heavy Sukhoi 30- MKI and around 126 medium fighters for which a competition is currently underway.

We have a total of about 250 Mig- 21s of varying vintages that should have been replaced yesterday.

Instead, they will be painfully slowly replaced by the LCA over the next 15 years.

The large number of Sukhois are not only very expensive ( officially $ 45 million, in reality Rs 350 crore per piece) to buy, but they are horrendously costly to operate and their serviceability is poor in any case.

But things don't look too good for the air force in the coming years. They have messed up their Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft ( MMRCA) competition by mixing apples and oranges, as it were. Instead of acquiring a Mig- 21 replacement - a light fighter like the Swedish Gripen, the American F- 16 or the Russian Mig- 29 - they have opened the competition for much more capable, heavier and expensive fighters like the Boeing FA18, the French Rafaele and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Should, for example any of the last named win the competition, we will have an air force of only top- of- the- line fighters, no workhorses.

And, if the LCA fails to measure up, the air force will try to fill the numbers with more MMRCA acquisitions which could complicate the situation further.


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