Wednesday, July 29, 2009

IAF presses HAL for more Sukhois

Keen to deploy its most potent fighter jets at strategic airbases on both the eastern and western fronts, IAF has asked Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to step up the production rate of the Russian-origin Sukhoi-30MKIs. IAF till now has inducted 98 of the 230 twin-engine Sukhois contracted from Russia, with HAL tasked to manufacture 140 of them under transfer of technology, under three deals worth a total of around $8.5 billion. IAF wants HAL to step up the production rate from the current 14 to at least 18 Sukhois per year, as also "not bunch them towards the end of the year", said a senior officer. Apart from the initial figure of 140 Sukhois, HAL will also be assembling 40 more of these "air dominance" fighters, the procurement of which was fast-tracked through the last $1.6-billion contract. "The first lot of these 40 Sukhois should begin to roll out from 2011 onwards," said the officer. Defence minister A K Antony, on his part, contends India will have a fleet of 230 Sukhois by 2015. IAF, however, may be forced to go in for another deal for the ‘heavy’ category Sukhois if the gigantic $10.4-billion project to acquire 126 new ‘medium’ multi-role fighter aircraft and the proposed induction of seven squadrons (18 jets each) of the indigenous ‘‘light-weight’’ Tejas Light Combat Aircraft are ‘‘delayed beyond a reasonable timeframe’’. The slow pace of deliveries from HAL has meant that the first of the two Sukhoi squadrons earmarked for Tezpur (Assam) in the eastern sector will only be fully operational by early-2010. Four Sukhois were based in Tezpur in mid-June as part of the overall strategy to bolster military capabilities along the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control to counter China’s build-up of military infrastructure in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and south China. Incidentally, IAF has identified Chabua (Assam), Halwara (Punjab) and Jodhpur (Rajasthan) as the new airbases to house the Sukhois as they come in. It already has Sukhoi bases in Pune and Bareilly, with the former also housing a dedicated training squadron for rookie pilots. ‘‘But with Sukhois not available in required numbers, training and flying operations are obviously being adversely impacted,’’ said the officer. Fresh inductions are also crucial because IAF is grappling with a sharp dip in the number of its fighter squadrons, down to just 32 from its ‘‘sanctioned strength’’ of 39.5. IAF, of course, having already inked a Rs 3,840-crore deal with Russia to upgrade its 69 MiG-29s by 2011, is looking to sign a Rs 10,000-crore contract with France for a similar package for its 51 Mirage-2000s to enhance its combat potential. "While a Sukhoi-30MKI, capable of simultaneously operating as a bomber and an interceptor, can be loosely said to be equal to three MiG-21s, numbers do matter at the end of the day,’’ said another officer. "We will only start feeling good as a force around 2015 and achieve 39.5 squadrons by 2017 or so. We would like 42 squadrons by 2022," he added.

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