Murphy's Law: The Hidden Flaw Of The Su-30

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July 1, 2015: Some Western analysts believe that Indian problems with their Su-30 fighters are due to the fact that India is using its Su-30s like Western aircraft. This can be seen from the fact that India is one of the top three users of the Su-27/30 fighters but the only one having lots of reliability problems. The other two major users (China and Russia) have much lower accident and higher reliability rates. Some of this can be attributed to low quality Su-30 components manufactured in India as well as an equally lackadaisical attitudes towards quality control when it comes to aircraft maintenance. While this this sort of accusation offends many Indians there is not getting away from the fact that there are similar problems throughout the military and industry, especially state owned firms. There are some Indian manufacturers that have world-class quality control and reliability ratings, but they are the exception. There have also been problems with tropical conditions most Indian Su-30s operate in and inadequate trainer aircraft. Most of these problems have been addressed and the accident rate declining. But the rate is still higher than for the Russian and Chinese Su-27/30 aircraft.

Aviation historians can point to one major difference between Indian use of the Su-30 and the way Russia and China use them. India has a Western attitude towards peacetime pilot training. That is, Indian pilots fly a lot and do it under combat conditions (lots of high speed, long distances and violent maneuvering). Indian Air Force leaders, like their Western counterparts, believe it is better to lose some aircraft and pilots during intense peacetime training than lose even more in wartime because the other side had better trained pilots. This is also the lesson of history and pilots trained in the “Russian Style” (less air time and less strenuous maneuvers) have always done much worse against pilots trained in the more intense Western style. It’s not just an “East/West” thing either because in World War II Japan trained pilots “Western Style” before World War II and in the first year of operations against the United States and Britain generally had superior, or at least equally skilled, fighter pilots. Japan had one major weakness and that was its inability to train a sufficient number of quality replacement pilots. Compared to the United States Japan was unable to replace combat losses and by 1944 the Americans and British had the edge in pilot quality. India learned from that experience while Russia and China believed their “scientific approach” to pilot training was cheaper and just as good. It wasn’t. By the end of the Cold War in the 1980s the Russians were beginning to change their minds and later the Chinese did as well. But neither Russia nor China completely adopted the Western style of pilot training and even today Indian pilots (and Western pilots in general) are superior to their Russian and Chinese counterparts.

The problem is that Russian design aircraft, even the late-Cold War models like the Su-27 (from which the Su-30 was derived) were still built for less intense peacetime use. India, Russia and China don’t like to discuss this because it is now generally accepted that the intense Western style of training is best. Russia insists that the Su-30 was built for this, but decades of practical experience says otherwise. India does not like to dwell on this because India accepted Russian assurances that the Su-30 was a “Western” fighter. It looked like one, but the published and actual data shows that the Su-30 is not as sturdy, especially when forced to operate like a Western fighter in peacetime. 

Since 2010 India has been complaining to Russia about the high accident rate of their Su-30MKI jet fighters. With the high accident rate comes equally frustrating low reliability. Fifty of these Russian designed aircraft were built in Russia and the rest of the 272 aircraft order are being assembled locally. Deliveries should be complete by 2019 and at the moment India is not keen on ordering any more. Most of the problems are related to engines and Russia says it has narrowed most of the problems down to difficulties related to ball bearings. The engines are also assembled in India, using Russian and Indian made parts. Russia has devised several fixes for the engine problem but the readiness (for combat) rate of the Su-30MKI is still about 55 percent (compared to 70 percent or higher for most other modern aircraft).

The Indian Air Force has lost five of its Russian designed Su-30MKI jet fighters since 2009. In 2011 the commander of the Indian Air Force took an hour-long flight in one of India's Su-30MKI to reassure Indian pilots that the Su-30MKI was safe. Two had crashed in 2009, due to mechanical failures and there were widely publicized reliability problems with the engines and many of the other Russian designed and built components of the aircraft. There have been two losses since 2013.

Indian pilots are understandably nervous about the safety of the many Russian warplanes they fly. The MiG fighters are the most dangerous but the more recent Su-30 models were believed to be a lot safer. Recent problems indicate this may not be the case. Russian efforts since then to fix the problems have not reassured Indian pilots or politicians.

The MiGs crashed so often that India decided to retire all of them. Over the last half century India bought 976 MiG-21s and over half were lost due to accidents. While India was something of an extreme case in this area (other users don't fly their MiG-21s as much), it's been typical of MiG aircraft. All this is part of the decline of the once feared, and admired, MiG reputation. Starting in World War II (the MiG-1 entered service in 1940), through the Korean War (the MiG-15 jet fighter), and the Cold War (the MiG-17/19/21/23/27/29), MiGs comprised the bulk of the jet fighters in communist, and Indian, air forces. But after the Cold War ended in 1991, the flaws of the MiG aircraft (poor quality control and reliability, difficult to fly) caught up with users, in a big way. In the last few years most of the bad news about military aircraft reliability, accidents, and crashes has involved MiG products. For example, all Indian MiG-27s were grounded several times over a few years because of reliability. The MiG-27 and Cold War era Russian warplanes in general do not age well. All Indian MiGs (except for 66 MiG-29s) are to be retired by 2025, if not sooner. The problem with the MiG-21 was more the inability of the aircraft to be used intensively during peacetime than anything else. Same with the MiG-23. The MiG-29 and Su-27 were supposed to deal with that problem but the data (reliability and repair rates) shows that these two aircraft can closer to Western standards, but not close enough for an air force like India has that trains in the Western style.

 


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