Even before an Indian Air Force (IAF) Sukhoi-30MKI crashed on October 14, near Lohegaon Air Base outside Pune, concern has been mounting over growing numbers of crashes, incidents involving engine failure, and the worrying fact that, at any given time, barely half the Su-30MKI fleet is available for combat missions.
According to ministry of defence (MoD) figures accessed by Business Standard, the serviceability rate of the Su-30MKI was just 48 per cent till last year. The remaining fighters were undergoing repair or maintenance.
Today, availability has risen slightly to 55 per cent, far lower than advanced western air forces, which generate 80-85 per cent availability rates. In terms of aircraft numbers, only 106 of the 193 Su-30MKIs that the IAF flies today would be available in war. The remaining 87 fighters, each worth Rs 358 crore at current prices, would remain on the ground.
"That's more than Rs 30,000 crore just sitting there in hangars," notes a senior MoD official.
Last month, The defence ministry held two high-level meetings to find solutions to this problem. According to figures presented in those meeting (a) 20 per cent of the fleet, i.e. some 39 Su-30MKIs, are undergoing "first line" and "second line" maintenance or inspections at any time, which is the IAF's responsibility; (b) Another 11-12 per cent of the fleet is undergoing major repair and overhaul by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL); and (c) 13-14 per cent of the fleet is grounded, awaiting major systems or repairs - the technical terms is: "aircraft on ground". For decades, IAF has accused HAL of poor workmanship and maintenance. At the MoD meeting on Su-30MKI serviceability, HAL turned the tables on the IAF.
MoD was informed about serious problems with IAF's management of spares. By standard norms, a fighter fleet consumes five per cent of its worth in consumables and spares each year. By that benchmark the Su-30MKI fleet, currently worth about Rs 69,000 crore - 193 Su-30MKIs at Rs 358 crore a fighter - should consume spares worth Rs 3,450 crore annually. Yet, IAF orders from HAL add up to less than Rs 50 crore, including ground handling equipment.
Without competent inventory management by IAF, and with spares ordered piecemeal when defects arise, Su-30MKI fighters spend weeks on the ground awaiting spares.
To ensure that 13-14 per cent of the Su-30MKI fleet is not grounded for want of spares, HAL has stockpiled spares worth Rs 400 crore in Nashik. According to S Subrahmanyan, the chief of HAL's Nashik facility, the inventory is based on a study of consumption patterns of Su-30MKI spares over the preceding five years.
HAL says this buffer stock includes spares that are still purchased from Russia, because low consumption volumes make indigenisation non-cost-effective. Even so, non-availability of these spares could ground aircraft. Simultaneously, HAL has proposed to MoD that IAF must order spares required over a five-year period, stocking them at 25 Equipment Depot, IAF's holding depot for spares at Nashik.
Separately, HAL has offered the IAF "Performance Based Logistics" (PBL) for the Su-30MKI fleet - a solution common in advanced western air forces. PBL would bind HAL to maintain the Su-30MKI, providing the IAF a specified serviceability rate - calculated in flight hours, or as a percentage of the total aircraft fleet - in exchange for an annual service charge. Besides saving maintenance costs for the IAF, PBL has been found to encourage quality manufacture, since manufacturers know they will be responsible for keeping the aircraft serviceable through its operational life. MoD officials say IAF dislikes PBL model, because outsourcing maintenance to HAL threatens a large maintenance empire built around "base repair depots", manned by IAF personnel. In 2008-09, IAF rejected HAL's proposal for a PBL contract for maintaining the Hawk advanced jet trainer.
HAL is confident that it can deliver higher serviceability rates for the Su-30MKI than the current 58 per cent. The company has argued that raising aircraft availability by 20 per cent would make 40 Su-30MKI additionally available to IAF, effectively adding two fighter squadrons to its strike power.
The Su-30MKI fleet, which currently numbers 193 fighters - 50 built in Russia and 143 built by HAL, Nashik - will rise to 272 fighters by 2018-19, when HAL delivers the last of the 222 fighters it will build.