NEW DELHI — India has stepped up negotiations with Russia to upgrade its 194 Sukhoi Su-30MKI multirole aircraft with the near fifth-generation level at a cost of more than $8 billion. The upgraded version would be renamed Super Sukhoi.

"A Russian team was in New Delhi earlier this month to discuss [the] upgrade plan with India, which will be finalized in the next four to six months," said a senior Ministry of Defence (MoD) official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) wants to upgrade the existing and eventually the entire fleet of 272 Su-30MKI to the near fifth-generation level to increase its combat worthiness, an IAF official said.

While the IAF official said the [Su-30MKI] upgrade won't affect the proposed Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) — worth $25 billion — analysts say the diversion of funds for the Super Sukhoi could delay the FGFA.

India and Russia inked a Preliminary Development Agreement in 2011 to jointly build the FGFA. However, a final agreement, which will clear the payment of around $6 billion as India's share in the development of the FGFA, has yet to be inked because the two sides have not been able to resolve issues relating to work share in production, the order from IAF and the incorporation of FGFA by IAF.

"Upgrade of the Su-30 will certainly slow the FGFA acquisition primarily due to financial limitations," retired IAF Air Marshal Muthumanikam Matheswaran said. "But upgraded Su-30 is not the same as FGFA."

Asked the rationale to upgrade in place of buying a new aircraft since the cost of upgrades are often steep, Matheswaran said: "An upgrade at the maximum will be about half the cost of the original aircraft in Su-30 generation. A new aircraft in place of Su-30 means FGFA, which is far more expensive."

Explaining why Super Sukhoi will not come at the cost of the FGFA, a second, senior IAF official [second one] said: "FGFA is a program already approved; Super Sukhoi is not yet approved."

Daljit Singh, a retired IAF Air Marshal and defense analyst, explained the difference between FGFA and Super Sukhoi.

"FGFA has some distinct features, which Super Su-30MKI will not have. These include internal weapon-carrying bays to enhance[d] stealth features, integrated internal fit of electronic warfare suite, super-cruise capability and inherent stealth design. Su-30 cannot be redesigned as a stealth aircraft. Any changes of wing design and material to improve stealth would be very expensive and time consuming and would be akin to a different design. Therefore, FGFA project may not be canceled in total in view of the Su-30 upgrade," Singh said.

"FGFA is a program already approved Super Sukhoi is not yet approved," the IAF official[second] said.

The plan to bring Super Sukhoi closer to FGFA includes modernizing the cockpit for pilots so that it will be easier for the pilots to shift to FGFA. In addition the upgraded aircraft will have advanced stealth characteristics and be equipped with longer range missiles with an infrared homing system, the Indo-Russian supersonic cruise missile BrahMos, and will have new advanced avionics and active electronically scanned array, according to a diplomat with the Russian Embassy.

"[A] major part of the upgrade [to Super Sukhoi] involves avionics and sensors. These are completely new with new systems and new software. Hence it has no relation to old problems with software. Engine issues will have to be dealt with," Matheswaran said.

A Russian diplomat in India, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that after the contract is signed for the upgrade to Super Sukhoi, the prototype will be made in Russia and the upgrade will be done at India's state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

Despite the need expressed by IAF for Super Sukhoi, availability of funds remains a major hitch, the first IAF official said. The MoD official also confirmed that availability of funds for upgrade could be an issue.

IAF has significant shortage of combat aircraft and the numbers are falling; and the fighter aircraft strength of IAF is down to 25 squadrons (one squadron is equal to 18 aircraft) as against the required strength of 45 squadrons, the first IAF official said.

Vivek Raghuvanshi is the India correspondent for Defense News.

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