Hellducks Over Delhi; The Case for Indian Acquisition of Su-34 Strike Fighters as Part of its Air Force Expansion Program
The Indian Air Force today fields one of the largest air superiority fleets in the world, with close to 300 Su-30MKI advanced heavy fighters having been acquired from Russia giving it a distinct edge over neighbouring Pakistan’s unspecialised single engine light fighters and parity with China’s J-11B – the mainstay of the People’s Liberation Army’s own air fleet. With India spending vast sums on defence as the world’s largest arms importer, the country has sought to expand its Air Force to field 42 squadrons of combat aircraft by the year 2027 – a significant increase in a relatively short period from just 33 squadrons currently deployed which include a number of ageing Cold War era designs. Considering that a number of older fighters are set to be replaced in the near future, this will mean an increase of more than nine squadrons in a very short period – which taking into account the stalling in the indigenous HAL Tejas single engine light fighter program will likely make this goal unobtainable.
While India’s air superiority capabilities are formidable, its fleet of specialised air to ground combat platforms leaves much to be desired in its capabilities. India fields approximately 95 British made Jaguar attack jets, a design dating back 45 years which poses little threat considering the sophistication of the air defence systems of the country’s potential adversaries, and more advanced but somewhat cumbersome MiG-27 third generation swept wing strike fighters of which just twelve are though to be active. The Indian Air Force has as a result considered acquiring modern strike platforms as part of its expansion program. One leading candidate has been the Russian Su-34 ‘Hellduck’ strike fighter, the most modern platform of its kind which entered service in 2014 and is based on the same highly capable Su-27 Flanker airframe as the Su-30 fighters which comprise the Indian air superiority fleet.
The distinct similarities between the Su-34 and the Su-30 make servicing the new strike fighters far easier and cheaper than indicting an entirely new fighter jet, while the Hellduck is considerably more cost effective than comparable alternative platforms developed by rival manufacturers. The French Dassault Rafale, a multirole fighter far lighter than the Su-34 and renowned for its strike capabilities, costs several times as much as the Su-34 to procure yet is inferior in the vast majority of its capabilities including payload, air to air engagement range (under 50km vs 130km), operational altitude and range, which has made India’s procurement of the European fighter a matter of much controversy given its phenomenal cost and lack of compatibility with existing Indian systems.
The Su-34 comes at a comparable price to the Su-30, and is capable of deploying some of Russia’s latest air to ground, anti radiation and anti ship munitions – as well as cutting edge standoff missiles for long range strikes. The Hellduck’s advanced standoff systems can be key to launching a successful first strike to eliminate enemy air defences and key strategic targets such as airfields and command centres – a central part of India’s own strategy for the initial stages of a war with Pakistan. The Russian strike fighters can deploy three cruise missile types, with the Kh-65Se and Kh-SD capable of striking targets at up to 600km away, well out of range of any air defence platform currently in service including China’s S-400, making them ideal for the early stages of a campaign when enemy surface to air missile networks remain at full strength. The heavy losses incurred by Russian aircraft to Georgian air defences in the first days of their brief war in 2008 is thought to have had a strong influence on the Russian Air Force’s emphasis on standoff capabilities and their importance for crippling an enemy’s war fighting capabilities in a conflict’s early stages. For shorter range engagements the Hellduck can also deploy the Kh-38, a weapon developed for Russia’s next generation aircraft, which retains a 300km strike range, self guidance for fire and forget capabilities, and the ability to deploy cluster munitions, fragmentation warheads or armour piercing warheads depending on the nature of the target. For anti ship operations, the Hellduck can also make use of a number of other platforms with standoff capabilities including the Mach 3 Kh-41, the Mach 3.5 sea skimming Kh-31A and the 300km range Kh-35U and P-800.
While a considerable number of India’s Su-30MKI fighters have been modified for a strike role when equipped with Brahmos cruise missiles, the airframes are not specialised for the role as the Su-34 is as conversion of air superiority platforms for strike duties places a greater burden on the remaining Su-30 fighters to retain air superiority. The Brahmos, a Mach 3 cruise missile developed jointly by Russia and India, is one of the most capable missiles of its kind in the world. The missile nevertheless lacks the capabilities of more specialised munitions deployed by the Su-34 such as the stealthy Kh-38, and the Hellduck is itself better suited to a strike role than a modified Su-30. By acquiring the Su-34, possibly several squadrons worth, India will be investing in a cost effective means to seriously enhance its strike capabilities both quantitatively and qualitatively and to reduce pressure on the Su-30 fleet from conversion to operate Brahmos cruise missiles. With a sizeable fleet of Su-34 fighters, India could well field one of the world’s leading strike fleets which will effectively complement the already formidable capabilities of its air superiority fleet. In light of the rapidly advancing air defence networks fielded by neighbouring Pakistan and China, the strike platforms will be key to launching a lethal opening salvo in the event of war which will have the potential to cripple enemy airbases and air defence networks and allow India’s Su-30 platforms to go on to claim air superiority. With India increasingly under pressure from the Western Bloc to limit acquisitions of Russian weapons systems – whether Delhi will approve such purchases even if they should be requested by the Air Force remains in question.
Source:- Military Watch Magazine