As the Indian Air Force (IAF) is gearing up to phase out its old warhorses the Soviet-vintage MiG-21s the agile and lethal Sukhoi Su-30MKIs are going to be its back bone – with a total of 17 squadrons to be deployed along side India’s border with Pakistan and China and also in the South to cover up the country’s southern flank up to Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
On the west the efforts to deploy these air dominance fighter jets at these bases are aimed at countering the US’ F-16s and Chinese JF-17 ‘Thunder’ jets Pakistan is procuring, and in the east the objective is to balance the massive development carried out by China in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
“Plans are in the offing to base these war birds at Bhuj (Gujarat), Sirsa (Haryana), Kalaikunda (West Bengal), Hashimara (in West Bengal) and Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu,” officials said. The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has compelled the IAF to bolster its capability in the region. Plans are in the offing to have a fighter jets in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, from where the Sukhois have operated in the past.
The new Sukhoi bases in Bhuj and Sirsa will be on the Western border and will be conducting strategic surveillance and reconnaissance in the region. On this side of the border the Sukhois are already based at Bhatinda and Halwara in Punjab and Jodhpur air base in Rajasthan. On the Eastern side in Kalaikunda and Hashimara, the fighter jets will complement the Tejpur and Chabua fighter bases. Armed with Israeli reconnaissance pods, these fighter jets have the capability to look into the Chinese territory for good 300 kms.
At present the IAF has Su-30MKIs frontline fighter jets – that can be altered to drop a nuclear bomb – are based at Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh), in Tezpur (Assam), Halwara (Punjab), Pune (Lohegaon) and Jodhpur. The Sukhois were inducted into the IAF at Lohegaon air base in 2002 thereafter they were inducted at Bareilly followed by inductions at Tejpur, Chabua, Jodhpur, Bhatinda and Halwara.
“The Sukhoi fighter squadron at Bhuj and Sirsa shall be inducted by the end of this year. Kalaikunda and Hashimara will be ready by mid next year. Thanjavur is aimed to be operational by 2015,” officials added.
The IAF has contracted for 230 Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jets from Russia. Out of these 140 will be manufactured under license at the public sector major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in India. With the IAF needing to maintain minimum squadron strength in the face of the phasing out of MiG-21s and MiG-27s, the HAL has been asked to complete its present order by 2013-14.
Presently the last of the pilots’ batch is getting trained on MiG-21s Type 77 – the oldest of the MiG-21s that were the force’s mainstay in 1971 Indo-Pak War. They are scheduled to finish its syllabus by January 2014 paving the way for their retirement. Whereas the two squadrons of Type-96 MiG-21s will revert back to operational role from training and will continue to serve the force till 2015. The four squadrons of MiG-27s will be retired in a phased manner by 2016-17.