The Indian air force plans to more than double the size of its Sukhoi Su-30 fleet to 230 aircraft by 2015 as part of a plan to accelerate its fighter modernisation.
Defence minister A K Antony told the Indian parliament's upper house that the air force "feels that the Su-30 - one of the advanced fighter aircraft in the world - is best suited for Indian conditions".
The air force now has 98 Su-30s in service. India signed a $1.46 billion contract with Russia to buy 40 Su-30s in 1996 and reached a technology transfer agreement allowing Hindustan Aeronautics to licence-produce the fighter in India. HAL is also upgrading some of the older Su-30s to the advanced Su-30MKI standard.
It is not clear if the additional fighters will be produced at HAL, which rolled out the first indigenous Su-30MKI in November 2004. The company, however, has faced delays in the assembly and production of aircraft like the MiG-21, BAE Hawk and even the Su-30. HAL officials have been open to the possibility of opening an additional Su-30MKI production line if there is a commitment from the air force.
Accelerating the induction of the Su-30 fleet will allow the air force to speed up the modernisation of its fleets and retire its older, mainly Russian, combat aircraft, which have suffered from a lack of proper maintenance and been plagued by crashes. According to Antony there have been 22 air force crashes involving MiG fighters since 1 April 2006.
In the first six months of this year, there have been eight crashes of all types, including one of an Su-30 in April. That crash, during a routine training flight, was the first accident involving the type since it entered service almost 12 years ago. The pilot survived, but his co-pilot died a few hours later.
Sukhoi officials are working with a board of inquiry looking into the accident. The black box, which was "badly damaged", has been sent to a UK company for analysis. It has not been revealed if it was a Russian-made or indigenous Su-30 that crashed, but Antony says that a "continuous and multi-faceted effort is always under way to enhance and upgrade flight safety" in the air force.
"Measures to enhance the quality of training to improve the skill levels, ability to exercise sound judgement and situational awareness of pilots are being pursued. Constant interaction with original equipment manufacturers, both indigenous and foreign, is also maintained to overcome the technical defects of aircraft," he adds.
An Indian competition to buy 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft is at the field evaluation stage and a contract is likely to be signed in the 2010-11 financial year, Antony told the upper house.
New Delhi had hoped to begin taking delivery of its first aircraft from 2012. But industry sources say that if a contract is signed in 2011, the earliest that India will be able to receive its first aircraft is 2014.