Next week, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Nashik will complete the first ever overhaul of a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter. HAL's test pilots will now test-fly the aircraft to ensure it has emerged from the overhaul as good as new. Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, has been invited to Nashik next month to accept the overhauled fighter back into his combat fleet.
HAL's new overhauling facility will save the IAF hundreds of crores of rupees, while giving leases of life to its Su-30MKIs. Not even Russia overhauls this fighter, a process that involves stripping it to its bare bones, checking every system and sub-system, replacing numerous components, and then reassembling the fighter anew.
A Su-30MKI is overhauled after flying 1,500 hours or 14 years, whichever is earlier. Over its total service life of 6,000 flying hours or 30-40 years, each fighter undergoes three overhauls. Eventually, the IAF's fleet of 272 Su-30MKIs will undergo 816 overhauls - three per fighter.
HAL officials say overhauling in India costs far less than what "original equipment manufacturers" or OEMs, charge - typically 35-40 per cent of the cost of a brand new fighter.
"OEMs usually price new fighters reasonably, but make their money by charging heavily for repair and overhaul. Establishing overhaul capability in India defeats this pricing strategy," says Wing Commander Neelu Khatri, a former IAF logistics specialist.
HAL Nashik also stands to benefit from business from other air forces that operate the Su-30. Says a MoD official; "Nashik is the world's only overhaul facility for the Su-30MKI. Potentially, it could get overhaul orders from countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Algeria, etc, which fly variants of the Su-30".
Through years of building the Su-30MKI, HAL Nashik has gradually mastered the expertise that makes it one of the world's most feared fighters. Says the chief of HAL's Nashik facility, S Subrahmanyan: "More 51 per cent of the Su-30MKI by value is currently made in India, a little more than the 49 per cent agreed with Russia in the contract signed in 2000 to build 140 fighters in India.
Of the 43,000 components that go into a Su-30MKI, 31,500 components - or 73 per cent - are now being built in India.
Further indigenisation is blocked since the Indo-Russian contract mandates that all raw material that goes into the Su-30MKI - including 5,800 titanium blocks and forgings, aluminium and steel plates, etc - must be sourced from Russia. The contract also stipulates that another 7,146 items like nuts, bolts, screws and rivets must be sourced from Russia.
HAL has also partially indigenised the Su-30MKI's giant AL-31FP engines, which are built in Koraput, Odisha. Fifty-three per cent of the engine by cost has been indigenised, with the remaining 47 per cent consisting of high-tech composites and special alloys - proprietary secrets that Russia will not part with. Even so, HAL builds 87.7 per cent of the engine's components in India.
Given HAL, Nashik's growing expertise, it is surprising that the overhaul facility at Nashik has taken 14 years to overhaul its first fighter. This is because the initial contract, signed in 2000 for building 140 fighters in India, did not include provisions for overhaul - a mistake, say contract lawyers.
The delay was compounded because Russia itself has no Su-30 overhaul facility (the Russian Air Force did not buy the fighter until well after India). Only in 2008 did New Delhi and Moscow sign an overhaul contract. Until last year, aircraft parts and systems were going to Russia for overhaul.
In 2010, the first IAF Su-30MKI fighters, which had joined the fleet in 2000, were due for overhaul, in accordance with the original schedule, which was 1,500 flying hours or 10 years. Since the fighters had flown far less than 1,500 hours, Sukhoi was approached to extend the time period between overhaul. After numerous inspections and "accelerated aging tests", Sukhoi revised the overhaul schedule to 1,500 flying hours or 14 years, whichever comes first.
"The MoD has sanctioned an overhaul capacity of 15 fighters per year; next year, we will overhaul 10-12 fighters and then stabilise at 15 fighters annually. We have already approached the MoD to step up capacity to 30 fighters per year, which will cater for our requirements into the 2030s" says Subrahmanyan.
Of the 30 Su-30MKIs that will be overhauled each year, HAL will do 20, while an IAF base repair depot will overhaul the other 10.
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