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Mad Dogs, Englishmen And Su-30MKIs
by James Dunnigan
February 4, 2012

The Indian government is investigating a number of recent accidents involving its Russian Su-30MKI jet fighters. Recently, investigators discovered that many of the Su-30MKI aircraft were routinely parked in the open. India is a tropical nation and the direct sunlight not only heats up the aircraft, but the ultraviolet radiation levels are highest in the tropics. The prolonged exposure to all this heat and radiation is not good for a high-performance aircraft. Although built to handle high-altitude and high-speed conditions, these aircraft are usually parked in a shelter to reduce the potential weather damage. When powered down, components normally protected by cooling systems are exposed to extremely high levels of heat. It's not known what sort of component failure this might induce, so the investigators are trying to find out what long periods of high internal heat might do to aircraft performance. Russian aircraft designers have long paid more attention to designing aircraft that survive prolonged exposure to extreme cold. In the past, Russian military equipment has been found unable to handle exposure to the tropical heat of India and other tropical countries.

Among the other suspected causes for recent Su-30MKI crashes are shoddy Russian made components, especially in the Russian designed AL-31 engines. There have been several AL-31 failures lately, both in Indian and Russian Su-30s. The $3.5 million AL-31 (for the Su-27/30, and the Chinese J-11, and J-10) is assembled in India. The assembly process is exacting and India has created thousands of technicians and engineers with valuable experience working on these engines. India has not been able to develop the technology to manufacture core components (that deal with very high pressures and temperatures) and buys these components from Russia. It is some of these components that are failing and India is telling the Russians that the problem must be fixed, soon, or Russia will lose more weapons export sales. But shoddy aircraft maintenance by the Indian Air Force is also suspected.

India buys bare bones fighters from Russia and equips these Su-30MKIs with Israeli sensors and communications gear. India has about a hundred Su-30MKIs in service, and is building about one a month under license. India bought fifty in the late 1990s, and another 40 three years ago. This is in addition to the license to build 140 locally. Another 42 are on order. India wants to have nearly 300 within four years, partly because of the increasing threat of invasion by China. The first 18 Su-30s India received from Russia have been retired after a decade of service. In many respects, the Indian made Su-30s, the Su-30MKI, is the most capable version available, due to its Israeli and European electronics, and the well trained Indian pilots.

The 38 ton SU-30MKI is most similar to the two seat American F-15E fighter-bomber. Even though equipped with Western electronics, the aircraft cost less than $40 million each, about half what an equivalent F-15 costs. The Su-30MKI can carry more than eight tons of bombs and hit targets over 1,500 kilometers away.


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