A shocking 50% of the Indian Air Force's (IAF's) Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter fleet is on the ground due to unresolved servicing issues with the aircraft's Russian manufacturers. This has also eroded the combat capability of India's frontline long-range strike aircraft and compromised even that part of the fleet which is capable of being flown.
The IAF and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have rung the alarm bells about the repeated mid-flight failure of the Su-30 mission computer and the blanking out of all cockpit displays. The Russians have not responded to the repeated SOS' from the Indians for over a year.
The managing director of HAL's Nasik complex, which is tasked with assembly and repair of the IAF Sukhois, has, in vain, desperately flagged "multiple cases of repeated failure of Mission Computer-1 and blanking out of Head Up Displays (HUD) and all Multi-Function Displays (MFD) in flight" with earmarked representatives of both Rosboronexport — the Russian government's arms export agency — and Irkut, the original manufacturer of the Sukhoi-30.
"As the displays blanking off is a serious and critical issue affecting the exploitation of aircraft (it) needs corrective action/remedial measures on priority," he pleads in a letter dated 28 February this year, reminding the Russians that he's been raising the issue since 7 March 2013 but to no avail.
Failures of the mission computer and cockpit displays are critical. The entire sortie is programmed on the mission computer, which is vital for managing requirements of aerial combat. The "blanking off" of cockpit displays distracts pilots and diverts attention away from the mission. The IAF is worried at the spearhead of its fighter fleet being hit by these nagging snags. The IAF has planned a Sukhoi-30 fleet of 272 aircraft, of which an estimated 200 have been delivered.
Air Marshal Denzil Keelor, one of IAF's most decorated fighter pilots, is dismayed. "In-flight failures such as the ones being reported render a fighter aircraft vulnerable. When a fighter is being flown below optimum capability, it becomes more vulnerable to an adversary. No aircraft should be flown unless it performing to 100% capability," he warns.
What seems even more worrying is the Russian go-slow, which has severely hit the maintenance and availability of the fleet. Even five years after the signing of contract for the setting up of Su-30 repair and overhaul facilities in India at HAL, there's no progress despite "agreements" and assurances even at the level of the Defence Ministers of the two countries.
"Due to non-availability of facilities for overhaul of aggregates (aircraft parts), the serviceability (availability for flying) of Su-30MKI is slowly decreasing and demand for Aircraft on Ground (AOG) items on the rise," HAL's Nasik division again pleads with Russia's Rosboronexport in a telling letter dated 24 December 2013. Even the revised deadlines committed the Russians to set up the repair-overhaul facility at HAL by December 2013, and overhaul the first aircraft by June 2014. This seems nowhere on the horizon.
Worse, Russia has put on hold the posting of its Sukhoi specialists to India for helping set up repair and maintenance capability. Documents available with The Sunday Guardian suggest that the two sides are haggling over price. This goes against an agreement that posting of Russian specialists would not be disrupted even if price negotiations were not concluded. In the absence of these specialists, HAL has been forced to fend on its own, as Aircraft on Ground (AOG) are piling up.
"Huge quantities of unserviceable aggregates (parts) are lying due for overhaul at various bases of IAF," HAL states, disclosing that the number of Su-30s being grounded for want of quick repair is increasing. The Russians have been informed that five Su-30MKI fighters are already parked at HAL for extensive overhaul, and another 15 will be due for overhaul in the current year. This number is equivalent to an entire squadron.
While warning that operating the fighters without conclusively sorting out the recurring snags could affect pilot confidence, Air Marshal P.S. Ahluwalia, who recently headed the IAF's Western Command, also questions the Ministry of Defence and HAL for the sorry state of affairs. "It's an issue of mismanagement of maintenance arrangements. The Ministry of Defence's Department of Defence Production is responsible. They have failed to resolve the problems," he says.
As the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Air Command, Air Marshal Ahluwalia did not hesitate to ground the MiG-29 fleet for three months after suspicions of its airworthiness arose following a crash. He flew the fleet again only after the maintenance issue was nailed.
Figures reveal how serious the problem of availability of the IAF's Su-30MKI fleet is. Against the Sukhoi figure of just 50% aircraft fit for operational flying, statistics reveal just how much ground is to be covered. The availability rates of the IAF's French-origin Mirage-2000 and even the Russian-origin MiG-29 is about 75%. As India quibbles with Russia over maintenance arrangements, the larger question is: What good is a weapon if it cannot be used?