Indianising the Flanker: Necessity, Challenges, and Future

Already surpassed 2 decades of running and still anticipated to continue its services for at least the next ten years, the Sukhoi Su-30MKI “Flanker-H” has allowed the Indian Air Force to flaunt its capability to possess air superiority along with performing a wide range of missions in domains of air-to-ground combat. The heavyweight combat platform is derived from the classic Su-27 and optimized as per the requirements specified by New Delhi that will meet the criteria essential to suitably fit the IAF operational requirements. As of April 2022, 261 airframes are officially in service and spread across 12 combat squadrons, 1 combat training school (TACDE), and 1 flight and system test center (ASTE). This abundance can be further glorified when comparatively analyzed vis-à-vis the Pakistan Air Force inventory, which
possesses 221 fourth-generation fighters (75 F-16ADF/AM/BM/C/D; 134 JF-17A/B; 5 J-10CE).
Among the salient features of the aircraft, is the diverse nature of sub-systems carried within the Russian-designed airframe. The integration of components from multiple manufacturers, that are France, Israel, and India, has allowed the organization to get the best from the world and combine them to achieve the desired objective.

Necessity

1: Modular Weapon Package

Adding indigenous armament expands the weapon package of the platform instead of running and operating with the same set of armaments for years. Furthermore, it assures choices available pre-mission, which means, curators, can make a decision based on proper analysis of the set of solutions and employ it as per the requirement for desired results.

2: Aid the indigenous industry

The Indian industry that aims to turn itself into a mature and excellent weapon supplier needs proper backing from its domestic user. Choosing Su-30MKI as its first choice of a testbed helps in demonstrating the capability of the local skilled industry to prove itself as a competitive workforce that is fully competent in researching, developing, manufacturing, and operationalizing complex weapon systems, the capability which is said to be mastered
by major global powers only, like United States, Russia or China. Successful integration and
employment of the weapon system bolster the ability of the indigenous sector to keep
progressing with the evolving technology and offer contemporary solutions to meet Indian security demands.

3: Low costs, but with equal or better performance

Indigenous development though takes costs in the development phase which involves
running multiple tests and trials to acquire safe and secure validation, the operating costs
along with maintenance are a lot cheaper than imports. In terms of performance, it must be
noted that Russia, the primary supplier of weapons for the Su-30MKI fleet, provides exportoriented systems, which are nerfed to protect the sensitive data associated with the specific weapon and needs to be absorbed only by the domestic operator (Russian air arm in this case). On the other indigenous substitutes can effectively provide the max output for which the weapon was designed. Additionally, it provides an effective and cheaper substitute in place of costly foreign counterparts.

4: Timely enhancements

Having an indigenous weapon system with source codes available to add on flexibilities as
well as minimizing loopholes if the operator faces operational limitations caused specifically
by the weapon. On the other hand, imported weapons do not allow such freedom and it is
up to the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) whether they are keen enough to provide
the best problem-solving support to customers or not.

5: Reducing dependence on foreign suppliers

War is the time when military service and its abilities to counter crises are best tested. The
outcomes of any conflict depend on which side better utilized the available resources.
However, taking lessons from the past, sometimes it’s all about which side has resources available to utilize. Enough stockpile of weapons is significantly important to sustain any war, and it needs to be maintained via emergency procurements even during the conflict, to refurbish the inventory for disposal. Having a foreign supplier for weapons puts a lot of risk at the time of war it is all up to the company if it is capable or in favor of providing necessary
orders on time. A domestic supplier has far-greater responsibility and tensity to roll out the
products demanded by the services to timely counter any crisis on the frontiers.

The far-sightedness of the Indian Air Force was based on the above criteria. Though challenged by many, the IAF, government, and R&D firms went ahead to develop, test, and integrate multiple India-made substitutes over foreign counterparts.
Following are the major Indian systems that are already well integrated within the Su-30MKI:

1: Mission Computers, Display Processors, Radar computers, and more: Project Vetrivale

The very initiative which reflected the ambition to “Indianise” the platform, Project Vetrivale
(a Tamil name for the victorious lance carried by the youthful Lord Karthikeya or Murugan, a son of Parvati and Shiva) was coined during the negotiations of the acquisition of the aircraft
where the Indian Air Force and the Ministry of Defence were in favor of integrating Indianmade components in the avionics suite of the Su-30MKI, replacing the original Russian
counterparts. The core sub-systems included integrated mission computers, display processors, radar computers, communication equipment, and radar altimeters; all codeveloped, produced, and integrated successfully by DRDO, HAL, IAF, and associated Public Sector Enterprises (PSUs).

2: Radar Warning Receiver: Tarang, R118
Manufactured by: DRDO-DARE
(Replaced SPO-15 “Beryoza”)

An RWR is capable of detecting and identifying a variety of threats emitting radar frequency,
which are multiple types of airborne and ground-based radars, and radar-guided missiles launched either from an aerial platform or ground installation. It provides audio and visual
(via display screen placed in the cockpit) warnings to the pilot, indicating him to take evasive
actions. Designed by the Defence Avionics Research Establishment (DARE) lab of DRDO, Tarang is a Radar Warning solution for Su-30MKI aircraft and was also a part of Vetrivale. In
the Mark-2 version, a further development of Mark 1 which was originally integrated on
MiG-21Bis aircraft, the external antennas of the indigenous RWR are placed in pairs at the
near end of the tail boom and are distinctive with greyish colored bulges.
R118 is new in the family of indigenous RWRs and features a Digital Processing system to
operate in wideband frequency. Tarang, being an analog-based system, is incapable to
detect Low Probability Intercept (LPI) signals and has a high probability of false alarms. Such
scenarios can be minimized with R118 with more data precision in contested airspace due to
the ability to differentiate between overlapping signals and pick the signals from background
noise. The antennas are placed at 6 distinctive points on the airframe, assuring a wide
envelope of coverage. Can be identified with turquoise bulges.

3: Multi-Functional Display (MFD)
Manufactured by: SHDS
(Replaced Thales MFD)

The airframes which arrived in the early batches of the platform possessed MFDs produced
by Thales, a French-based firm. In 2010, Samtel HAL Display Systems (SHDS), a joint venture
between Samtel Avionics Ltd. and HAL received production clearance for 5″x5″ and 6″x6″
MFDs. In 2016, it was confirmed that 1000 units of the MFD had been successfully supplied
for integration, covering the requirement for more than 140 aircraft, out of 261 in service.

4: Beyond Visual range (BVR) Air-to-Air Missile (AAM): Astra Mark 1

An active radar-guided air-to-air missile that is designed to take down aerial targets at
Beyond Visual Ranges, the official estimate of which denotes a max operational range of 110
kilometers in head-on engagement and 80 kilometers for a standard fighter-sized target. The
Indian Air Force is presently the sole operator of Astra, with its frontline fighter aircraft,
Sukhoi Su-30MKI as a launch platform for the current Mark 2 version, while several other
types in the inventory will be armed with the missile in coming years, including Light Combat
Aircraft Tejas. Further developments of the missile, Dual Pulse Rocket Motor based Mark 2
and Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) based Mark 3 are in development, offering
advancements in range, precision, and agility of the system against the variety of hostile
airborne systems.

5: Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM): BrahMos-A

A joint venture between DRDO and NPO Mashinostroyenia, BrahMos is a family of cruise
missiles designed to neutralize threats on the ground and at sea, depending on the variant.
BrahMos-A is a distinctive variant optimized for airborne launch platforms, with comparatively lighter weight from the standard variant and modified airframe. The operational range of the system is estimated at around 400 kilometers, with a speed of Mach and a very low Circular Probable Error (CEP) envelope of 1m, making it one of, if not the fastest and most precise cruise missile systems in the world. The ability to carry a nuclear warhead also allows the system to be counted in the stock of India’s deterrent abilities against adversaries.
In January 2020, the Indian Air Force resurrected its No.222 “Tigersharks” squadron to form
a dedicated BrahMos equipped Su-30MKI unit, based at Thanjavur District, which lies on the
east coast of the peninsula and hence focusing on dealing with maritime operations.

A further lighter variant is also under development, termed BrahMos-NG, that will be
compatible with lighter aircraft to carry, unlike the current active variant which can be
carried solely by Su-30MKI. The new system will not compromise on range and precision and
offers a significant boost to multiple combat aircraft and their strike capabilities while
expanding the provision for Su-30MKI to carry additional units instead of only one.
However, it is not just about developing and placing the component in place. Certain challenges need to be overcome before expecting the result we want.

Challenges

1: Source Codes accessibility

Any integration process requires tweaking of source codes to interface the systems within
the data-bus network for proper utilization. There are certain cases where source codes
remain embedded within the system, and the foreign operator is restricted to access the
protocol or make changes. This is done to ensure the sensitive technology cannot be
modified and absorbed in an unfriendly scenario. For example, the American-produced AIM120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) is restricted to be integrated
into any other non-US combat aircraft except the ones produced by its allies, like Eurofighter
Typhoon, JAS-39 “Gripen”, etc. However, reverse engineering the product may allow the
acquisition of the design with desired capabilities. Something which is very well practiced in
Iran where engineers manage to successfully incorporate their own designed equipment on
legacy F-14 “Tomcats”.

2: OEM disapproval

Connected to the earlier point, an OEM may not desire to see its product operating in
conjunction with a system produced in a hostile country. Or, it may not enjoy looking at its
customers preferring a rival solution over the original product. This leads to conflict,
something similar to what happened in mid-2020 when Russia’s Federal Service of MilitaryTechnical Cooperation (FSMTC) was not pleased to look at the Indian Air Force carrying out the integration process of MBDA ASRAAM on the Su-30MKI, stating “This is mostly out of concern for the security of the technology. We are concerned about a foreign manufacturer invited to integrate anything on our equipment.”

3: Bottleneck

“Bottleneck” is a term in the context of a computer system, that refers to the occurrence
where two components destined to operate co-operatively, limit each other’s potential
capacity due to differences in their maximum capabilities. This causes trouble in regular
operations. Similar cases occur when systems of two different origins are attempted to be
integrated on a single platform. Indian Air Force had to face interfacing problems between
Israeli EL/M-8222 Self Protection Jammer and Tarang RWR in the initial years of limited
operation. There is a general solution to overcome the particular challenge, the first being the rounds of the testing phase, carrying out necessary alterations to acknowledge issues arising, and later effectively integrating upgrades to achieve successful integration and certification for operations.
The Su-30MKI is regarded as the backbone of the Indian Air Force not just because of its substantial quantity available to employ, but also because the experience gained by the organization while operating the battle machine throughout the years has allowed both aviators and engineers to thoroughly understand the complexities that lie within the platform and how to make it flexible to accommodate desired changes. This is the reason why IAF is further looking to expand the indigenous content in the airframe with multiple projects on the table. Following are the systems that are planned to be integrated or are in process of integration

1: Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (AESAR): Uttam by LRDE
(proposed)

Unveiled in 2017 by Aero India, Uttam is originally a lightweight multimode radar with Active
Electronically Scanned Array system. It is distinctive in the sense that it has multiple solidstate Transmit/Receive Modules (TRMs) to convey data to/from the processing unit of the
radar from/to antennae elements. It is already projected for integration on 63 airframes of
LCA Tejas Mk1A with nearly all the tests completed on various testbed platforms. In October
2020, observing the smooth development and performance of the radar, the IAF deputy
Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sandeep Singh formally confirmed IAF’s interest in the
radar for integration on Su-30MKI. However, the original size that is optimized for Light
Combat Aircraft like Tejas is not compatible to be accommodated within the Flanker’s huge
nose. To solve this, the radar does have a provision for upscaling, which will also offer
addition in the TRMs, bolstering the range that is suitable for a heavyweight fighter aircraft
like Sukhoi Su-30MKI. The indigenous system is preferred over the Russian Irbis-E PESAR and
Zhuk-AE AESAR radar and will replace the currently fitted N011M BARS PESAR.

2: InfraRed Search and Track (IRST) by BEL
(in-development)

On April 26, 2022, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) confirmed that it will initiate the
development of an indigenous InfraRed Search and Track (IRST) system in collaboration with
Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). The long-range dual-band IRST system will be employed on
SU-30MKi and replace the Russian OLS-30 system. An IRST system allows detection and
tracking of the target via passive mode, that is the infrared spectrum, and simultaneously
engages it when necessary. IRST is a salient feature for combat aircraft of the modern
generation as it reduces the dependence on primary radar, hence, ensuring survivability in
radar jamming scenarios.

3: Dual Color Missile Approach Warning System (DC-MAWS) by DRDO
(in-trials)

A Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) is now one of the cardinal defensive systems
for any modern combat platform. While RWR is designed to deal with radar-guided threats,
the role of MAWS is to sense and track infrared homing missiles launched toward the
aircraft and avail early warning to the operator about the threat’s type and location. Early
examples were suitable enough to detect the incoming projectiles’ direction. Newer
generation systems, with dedicated bandwidth, are more robust in all-weather conditions,
extended range envelope, and additional features like calculation of the distance of the
missile from its target. Dual Color Missile Approach Warning System (DC-MAWS) is a pod-
based component that can be carried externally by the Su-30MKI on any of the hardpoints
during a sortie. It operates in dual-color bandwidth that is capable to differentiate efficiently
between sunlight reflections, background radiation, and the radiation from the missile. This
allows clutter rejection and decline scenarios of false alarms.

4: Advanced Self Protection Jammer (ASPJ) by DRDO
(in-development)

Advanced Self Protection Jammer (ASPJ), said to be in the stage of fabrication in the facility
of Hyderabad-based firm Aditya Precitech Pvt Ltd, will be a High Band Jammer designed to
challenge hostile radars and missiles operating in X-band and Ku-band frequencies. It will
utilize the Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) process for jamming, which is a
deception tactic to fool the radar seeker by creating false targets, concealing the actual
location of its own and the carrier platform. It will reportedly replace the Russian-produced
SAP-518 jammers which are said to be witnessing interfacing issues with other non-Russian
components onboard the Su-30MKI, the primary being the RWR. Indigenous ASPJ can be
developed around requirements to have proper feasibility to work in conjunction with other
systems integrated on the platform.

5: Anti-Radiation Missile: Rudram-1
(in-trials)

Anti-Radiation Missiles are more or less a “must-use” weapon of war. As the name suggests,
the primary targets of ARMs are radiation sources like radar sites. By disabling hostile radar
sites, the adversary can be blocked from performing regular operations due to a lack of air
activity intel, allowing friendly forces to ingress and complete the objectives unchallenged.
Rudram-1 is designed exactly for that purpose where it can be carried by a Su-30MKI and
launched from standoff distance (current estimate of 200-250 km), with a speed of Mach 2.
The projectile secures mid-flight guidance with an Inertial Navigation System (INS)
augmented by GPS or NavIC (Indian counterpart to GPS), and then switches to active mode
to home on the intended radiation source and detonate its 130 lb warhead.

6: Cockpit
(proposed)

In 2020, HAL had proposed an up-gradation of the SU-30MKI cockpit that will be aimed at
converting the contemporary semi-glass cockpit to a full glass cockpit with an enlarged
Multi-Functional Displays, fewer analog systems, and additional digital input and output
features, for both front-seat pilot and Weapons Systems Operator (WSO) who is a rear-seat
occupant.
While till now, we discussed the array of products with Indian DNA, what about the state of
manufacturing with license? Under the Su-30 program, New Delhi has managed to acquire
production license for multiple foreign systems in India and it has done very well in the domain.

Following are the three systems locally developed in India:

  1. Passive Electronically Scanned Array Radar (PESAR): N011M BARS
    Locally designated as RLSU-30MK, the Russian radar has been produced on license from
    Rosoboronexport Division Hyderabad. The system is a long-range detection radar that can
    detect airborne targets at 400 kilometers while tracking a fighter-sized target at 135
    kilometers. Being a multi-mode system, it can also track surface targets at a 250-kilometer
    range, offering great precision and standoff sensing capability to catch multiple forms of
    threats.
  2. Turbofan Engines: AL-31FP
    HAL facility based in Koraput, Odisha, hosts a dedicated division for manufacturing (since
    2004) and overhaul (since 2007) of AL-31FP engines under license from Russia. Designed and
    developed by NPO Saturn, the engines are enabled with three-dimensional Thrust Vector
    Nozzles, with pitch, yaw, and roll movements to carry out complex and tight maneuvers in
    the middle of the sky and all-weather scenarios.
  3. Airframe components: Vertical Fins, Slats, Canards & Air Brakes by Dynamatic
    Technologies
    Dynamatic Technologies served as the largest private partner in the Su-30MKI program
    where it was involved in the production of major airframe components for the platform,
    which included vertical fins, slats, canards, and air brakes.
    The license production of such major systems, along with several others, allowed Indian firms to gain
    valuable experience, that is very well employed in the development of Indian alternatives.
    Looking to further continue with the platform till at least 2035, making the aircraft feasible to deal
    with the challenges of the future, upgradation is a must. As there are inordinate delays in
    negotiation with Russia on the “Super Sukhoi” upgrade, the indigenous solution should be explored
    that is readily available, while the full package is anticipated to be ready in coming years. The
    evolution of Su-30MKI will not just be for the fleet enhancement of IAF, but also for progressive
    growth of the Indian aerospace sector.

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