The Su-30MKI has been the heaviest and one of the most capable fighter in the Indian Air Force ever since and today forms the backbone of the Indian fleet with over 270 aircraft in service.
The fighters entered service relatively quickly, with 50 active by the beginning of 2005 and the jets replacing the MiG-23, MiG-27, and older variants fo the MiG-21 in frontline service, and represented a very unique adaptation on the Su-30 design.
Despite the success of the Su-30MKI program, which is considered by far the most vital fighter for India’s defence due to both its quantitative and qualitative lead over others in the fleet, some analysts have highlighted that the fighters have had an unusually high cost.
Compared to other Su-30 variants such as the Su-30MKK deployed by neighboring China, or even the latest Su-30SM platform of Russia, the Su-30MKI is extremely costly at almost double the price per aircraft.
Although the Su-30MKI program has been far less controversial than the Indian Defence Ministry’s more recent purchase of a squadron of French Rafale lightweight fighters, which have set the country back over $240 million per aircraft and sparked a serious corruption scandal, the reasons for the Su-30’s high cost are nevertheless worth exploring.
One of the key reasons for the Su-30MKI’s higher cost relative to other Su-30 variants has been the much smaller scale of production and less efficient production lines in India, where they are manufactured under license, compared to the Su-30MKK, Su-30SM, and other variants built in Russia itself.
As India’s Minister of State for Defence, Subhash Bhamre, noted: “Owing to the low volume of production of the Indian SU-30 MKI as compared to the —Russian SU-30, economies of scale come into play.” The deal for licence production has notably also included fees for technology transfers, which have benefitted the Indian defence sector but incurred a greater cost than would have been the case had the aircraft been purchased ‘off the shelf’ from Russia.
Another reason is that the Indian Defence Ministry has sought to integrate multiple technologies from several countries onto the fighter – most of which have come from less efficient defence sectors than that of Russia itself meaning that new subsystems are extremely costly.
These have ranged from French MICA and British ASRAAM missiles to Israeli GPS guided bombs and electronics as well as indigenous Indian Astra and BrahMos missiles.
These are in many cases less sophisticated than their analogs deployed by platforms such as the Su-30SM or the closely related single-seat jet the Su-35, but they have a very significant impact on the cost of each fighter.
The high cost of the Su-30MKI compared to all other Su-30 variants, including the much more advanced Su-30SM, has raised serious questions in the Indian parliament, with the jets currently being acquired for around $62 million each.
While still very cost-effective compared to Western fighters such as the Rafale, the cost is still high relative to fighters produced in Russia such as the Su-30SM – which costs around $35-37 million and has a basic flyaway cost estimated at under $25 million.
The Su-30 has also been controversial for its relatively low availability rates, with a significant proportion of the fleet not being combat ready. This is widely considered to be caused by the Indian Air Force rather than issues with the fighter itself, with aircraft across its fleet sourced from multiple countries facing similar availability issues. Su-30 fighters operated by other export clients such as China and Algeria have faced no similar issues and have had much higher availability rates.