Russia continues to dominate Indian military aviation

By Gulshan Luthra, IANS
Thursday, August 19, 2010

NEW DELHI - Russia is set to win another Indian order for 59 multi-role helicopters in addition to the 80 ordered earlier, retaining Moscow’s traditionally dominant lead in selling military aircraft to India.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik, told India Strategic defence magazine ( in an interview that the delivery of the first lot of 80 Mi-17 V5 helicopters, ordered in 2008, would begin from later this year while it is now processing another order for an additional 59 machines.

The IAF’s recent request for 42 Sukhoi SU-30MKIs has already been cleared by the defence ministry, taking the number of the air dominance combat jets on order to a sizeable 272. The IAF has also signed a contract with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s sole arms exporting agency, to upgrade its fleet of Soviet-vintage MiG-29 fighters and Il-76 airlifters while the Indian Navy has placed an order for 45 MiG-29K shipboard jets.

The order for the 272 SU-30s is the biggest aircraft deal in numbers with Russia after that of the MiG-21s signed with the Soviet Union from 1968 onwards at Rs.2 crores or about $300,000 per aircraft at that time.

Aircraft were cheap in the Soviet days but now an Su-30 costs around $50 million (Rs 230 crore) each inclusive of some support packages and Transfer of Technology (ToT). The total cost for 272 SU-30s works out to $13.6 billion.

This would make it bigger than the $10 billion deal for the 126-plus medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) that the IAF intends to purchase.

As for the MiG-21s, India bought more than 400 of them and only around 140 of these aircraft, upgraded to MiG-21 Bis configuration with new avionics and BVR (Beyond the Visual Range) missiles, are to serve in the IAF inventory for another six or seven years. The upgrade has been undertaken by Russian and HAL facilities.

The MiG-29K deal touches nearly $2 billion and the upgrade of the MiG-29s for the IAF will cost nearly $1 billion. An Mi-17 V5 helicopter reportedly costs around $5 million, making for a total of nearly $700 million for 139 machines.

India has also purchased six Il-78 midair refuelers and three Il-76 aircraft for accommodating the Israeli Phalcon electronic radars, two of which have been delivered to India. The third Phalcon is due by end-2010. Meanwhile, IAF has ordered two more Phalcons on the same Il-76 platform.

Notably, as the Phalcon radars are heavy, and the Il-76 airlifters have been upgraded with the more powerful PS-90 engines, the cost for them is quite high and not considered appropriate for upgrading the IAF’s fleet of less than 20 old Soviet-vintage Il-76 aircraft, the India Strategic report observes.

All these aircraft have served the IAF well. The Il-76 has a remarkable safety record, the Mi-17 has sustained the lifeline of the Indian troops in the Siachin heights and the MiG-25 gave the IAF an intrusive capability that no missile or aircraft could intercept.

The only point is that the Soviet vintage machines are old in age as well as in technology and need replacement with newer platforms with newer and extreme technologies to last 30-40 years in the coming decades.

India is also a partner in the develoment of multi-role transport aircraft (MTA) and Russia’s fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), which it is committed to support financially and then buy as and when they are developed and operational.

On a conservative estimate accordingly, Russia has already won nearly $20 billion worth of orders and commitments from India for its aircraft and helicopters. (The sale of other systems for the army and the navy, like the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov for about $2.35 billion, ships, submarines, T-90 tanks and missiles et al, are not included in this estimate for the India-Russian defence trade).

The erstwhile Soviet Union also dominated India’s defence supplies, and nearly 70 percent of the equipment with the army, navy and the air force was acquired from it. The total cost of this entire equipment, however, is estimated at a little more than $30 billion, or roughly around 30 percent more than what the IAF alone has commited over the last 10-12 years since the acquisition of the Su-30s.

All the figures are approximate because every deal has add-ons in the form of spares, spare engines, maintenance support and training. ToT is extra. Some figures are not readily available.

It may be noted that all the deals with Russia have been on the single-vendor route, based on bilateral discussions and negotiations.

For that matter, except for the tender for MMRCAs, for which there is a multi-vendor global Request for Proposal (RfP), the IAF has acquired all its existing aircraft and helicopters from single vendors.

For instance, the Mirage 2000 was acquired from France, the Jaguar from an Anglo-French partnership involving Breguet (now Dassault Aviation) and British Aircraft Corporation (now BAE Systems), and the MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-27 and MiG-29 from the Soviet Union.

Pointedly however, the prices of Soviet equipment were much lower those days, and there were also what were then called “Friendship Prices” for countries like India, Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Today, as the Gorshkov deal has demonstrated, Russia looks for better prices and India for better technologies. Russia though has managed to sustain its edge in aircraft and helicopter sales to India.

(Gulshan Luthra can be reached at

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