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New toy teeth for fighter fleet

Pune, Sept. 27: On the tarmac at the Indian Air Force base here, the mid-day sun glinting off their silver-grey bodies and open glass canopies, there is little to distinguish the new mean machines from similar fighters in the fleet.

Inside the hangar, the story comes alive: each wing of the plane sports four red-nosed air-to-air missiles for mid-air dogfights; the payload includes 12 bombs of 100 and 250 kg for air-to-ground attack; on the port side, just outside the cockpit, the hose for a mid-air refuel that can make sorties longer and under the canopy, for each of the two pilots, digitised control mechanisms operating at the push of buttons that makes the fully-armed, fully-loaded Sukhoi 30 MKI the air force’s new toy.

It flies long distance, stalls in mid-air, bombs from beyond visual distance, recces, somersaults, twists, turns, fires while climbing, bombs while diving, engages from impossible angles and, its makers claim, there is no limit to its manoeuvrability.

“There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world; not even in Russia which has manufactured it,” claims IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy.

The Sukhoi 30 MKI is a multi-role combat aircraft, capable of use for both defensive and offensive actions, filling a void in the air force’s inventory. “It is capable of changing the rules of engagement.”

Simply put, this means, in a Kargil-type situation, the Sukhoi 30 MKI can be used by the air force to bomb targets without going dangerously close to the Line of Control and risking a breach of airspace.

It means also that the aircraft can be hidden away in bases at great distances from the front.

Minutes later, wing commander N.S. Jamwal, commanding the 20 squadron charged with the new responsibility, takes off in one. The roar follows the plane. As it takes off, its nose is pointing skywards already, close to 90 degrees. It takes just 150 metres, approximately 20 cricket pitches from end to end, for the take-off.

The first batch of 10 aircraft was formally inducted into the IAF today. By June next year, another 20 will join in. And for 10 years from 2004, a total of 140 are to be produced by Hindustan Aeronautics under license from Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau.

When the deal was first initiated in 1997, it was estimated to total Rs 6,300 crore; with the upgradation from the Sukhoi 30k to the MKI version, it said to have crossed Rs 7,400 crore. Specific figures for the total deal are not yet available but could be in the region of Rs 20,000 crore.

“We hope that the induction of this aircraft will be a warning to those who look upon India with an evil eye,” said defence minister George Fernandes. At the airbase here, the first test flight on the Sukhoi 30 MKI was carried out on August 14, as the base commander said, “to send a warning to our primary adversary on its Independence day”.

Though the aircraft is of Russian-make, it incorporates in its sophisticated instruments, avionics from India, Israel and France. It is a considerable upgrade on the earlier variant, the Sukhoi 30K.

“We haven’t flown anything like it. Its just wonderful,” says Jamwal, just landing from a demo. His squadron, also called the “Lightnings”, will be the first to go operational with the MKI.

Krishnaswamy claimed the Su 30 MKI compared favourably with the Su 30 MKK, a version made by Sukhoi for the Chinese. It is the state-of-the-art model of the Su 27 Flanker that used to be produced in the USSR and is advertised as being able to match the American F 22.

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