On Friday, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF) the first Sukhoi-30MKI fighter ever overhauled. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar travelled to HAL's new overhaul facility in Nashik - the first of its kind worldwide - to hand over the overhauled fighter to IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha.
With the IAF down to just 34 fighter squadrons against its authorised strength of 45, and with negotiations over the Rafale yielding no breakthrough so far, it is critical for the IAF to keep its Su-30MKIs flying.
After flying 1,500 hours or 14 years (whichever is first), a Su-30MKI must be pulled out of the flight line for a comprehensive overhaul. This involves dismantling and stripping the fighter down to its skeleton, checking every component, repairing or replacing them as required, carrying out more than 600 modifications, and finally rebuilding these into a current standard Su-30MKI. This involves 2,478 separate processes, which are monitored on line.
An overhaul equips the fighter to fly for another 1,500 hours/14 years. During its service lifetime of 6,000 hours/25 years, a Su-30MKI would undergo three overhauls. That means the overhaul facility would have to do 816 overhauls just for the IAF's planned fleet of 272 Su-30MKIs. "The Su-30 overhaul facility at HAL Nashik is (the) only (one) of its kind in the world and has export prospects since nearly 10 countries have Su-30 fleet (sic)," said the defence ministry (MoD) on Tuesday.
Potential overseas customers, who together fly over 200 Su-30 fighters, include Russia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Algeria, Venezuela, Angola and Uganda. China too operates the Su-30MKK, a variant of the Indian version, but would be unlikely to get them overhauled in India.
HAL's overhaul facility chief, S Subrahmanyan, told Business Standard in October 2014 that overhauling the Su-30MKI in India cost roughly one-third the price of a brand new fighter. HAL is currently supplying the fighter to the IAF at Rs 358 crore; HAL sources say overhauling a Su-30MKI costs Rs 110 crore.
The market potential for overhauling 200 Su-30s in service overseas is, therefore, worth about Rs 22,000 crore.
HAL is ramping up overhaul capacity to 15 fighters a year. "We have already approached the MoD to step up capacity to 30 fighters a year, which will cater to our requirements into the 2030s," said Subrahmanyan.
Depending on orders from foreign operators, this capacity would be further enhanced.
R K Tyagi, chairman, HAL, said on Friday the second overhauled Su-30MKI is ready for delivery. "HAL will also act as a single window OEM for supporting Su-30MKI fleet," he said.
When India first procured the Su-30MKI from Russia, the overhaul schedule was 1,500 hours/10 years. But, when the earliest fighters, which had joined the fleet in 2000, became due for overhaul in 2010, the IAF found they had flown far less than 1,500 hours. The Russian vendor, Sukhoi, revised the time stipulation to 14 years.
Setting up the overhaul facility at Nashik, and overhauling the first Su-30MKI has taken 14 years. This is because the initial contract, signed in 2000 for building 140 fighters in India, did not provide for establishing an overhaul facility - a mistake, say contract lawyers.