By Aritra Banerjee
Defence ties between New Delhi and Yerevan have significantly improved in the past few months. This newfound cooperation in defence comes amidst strengthening relations between Islamabad, Ankara, and Baku. While Pakistan has remained India’s geopolitical arch-rival, Azerbaijan has recently seen a major conflict with Armenia, its regional adversary. New Delhi is on the fast track towards aiding Yerevan’s defence needs amidst this geopolitical backdrop. This was visible following the arms deal signed between India and Armenia for four Pinaka multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) for an estimated $250 million.
Industry and geopolitical analysts believe this order will further expand India’s collaboration with Armenia. Reports indicate that Yerevan is interested in ordnance and training for SU-30SM Flanker fighters operational with the Armenian Air Force.
Armenia was initially interested in procuring at least a dozen SU-30SMs but proceeded to buy only four from Russia. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been a longstanding user of the Russian-origin fourth-generation fighter and, consequently, has unparalleled experience in operating and adapting the aircraft to cater to various operational environments and situations.
The Su-30MKI Flankers have been seen as the IAF’s backbone. The service operates a sizable fleet with 272 aircraft in its inventory. Adding to the capabilities of India’s Su-30MKIs is the integration of state-of-the-art armaments (not of Russian origin), which experts believe makes an Indian Su-30MKI offering significantly more lucrative.
While Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan lauded the procurement of modern fighter jets and moving from acquiring ageing low-cost Soviet-era military platforms. Military watchers in Armenia reportedly expressed contention over procuring these fighters and highlighted the absence of these aircraft in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, too. This war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was a watershed moment in modern warfare. It saw an unprecedented deployment of drones by Azerbaijan to devastating effect.
Azerbaijan deployed Israeli-made Harop loitering munitions and Turkish drones to destroy vital Armenian air defence installations and other defence hardware. On the other hand, Armenia had not deployed the Su-30SM, which it had procured in the months before the conflict and faced criticism for purchasing fighters without missiles.
The Armenian Air Force’s Su-30SMs were not armed with critical weapons, primarily guided air-to-surface missiles. Furthermore, launching unguided missiles would have led to losses as opposed to any military gains. “Yes, we bought the fighter, it was delivered in May , and yes, we did not have time to buy the missiles before the war [in Karabakh]. Would you buy planes so that we could buy missiles? Why did the 26-year-old state [Armenia] not have fighters?” Armenian PM Pashinyan was quoted as saying in response to this.
Analysts from Armenia were critical of the SU-30SM procurement. They highlighted how Azerbaijan had used sophisticated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) while Armenia made a crucial error in spending its minuscule defence budget on fighters instead of focusing on its evolving drone sector. The decision was seen as a strategic miscalculation by military expenditure watchdogs and defence community members.
The Su-30SMs earned the dubious distinction of being referred to as ‘white elephants’, and speculations were strife that the Flankers would be sent back to Russia amidst the conflict in Ukraine. Armenia has denied claims that the country had sent the aircraft back to Russia to be deployed in conflict with Ukraine.
Could Geopolitics, Export Targets, & Indigenous SU-30MKI Missile Integrations Be A Gamechanger?
Around 15 countries have Su-30s in their arsenal; these include Russia, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), China, Indonesia, Algeria, and Armenia. IAF fighter pilots testify that the unique integration of weapons sensors and avionics from different countries sets its SU-30MKIs apart. The IAF’s Su-30MKI is a twinjet multirole air superiority fighter developed by Russia’s Sukhoi and built by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under license.
India’s Su-30MKIs boast a host of uber-sophisticated offerings, many of which are indigenous. Some examples of these weapons systems are the Astra beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile and an air-launched BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which provide the Su-30MKI with a significant standoff capability. The BrahMos is one of the world’s most sophisticated supersonic cruise missiles manufactured by BrahMos Aerospace Private Limited (BAPL), a joint venture between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia.
The Astra missile is part of an Indian family of all-weather beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles developed by the DRDO. The Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) has signed a Rs 2,971 crore deal with Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) to secure the supply of the first air-to-air missile (AAM) and the equipment associated with it. The missile is the Astra Mark-1 Beyond Visual Range (BVR) AAM. BDL is now slated to place the Astra Weapon System on the export market.
In an earlier interaction with IADB, BDL’s Chairman and Managing Director, Commodore Siddharth Mishra (r), revealed, “the Government of India has created a lot of opportunities for the export market in the defence sector. BDL is giving a lot of thrusts to export to utilise these opportunities. BDL is in regular interaction with overseas customers to expand its footprint in the international market. The company is also entering into Memorandum’s of Understandings (MoU) and Transfer of Technology (ToT) agreements with various companies to enhance its future prospects on the export front. BDL is modernising its facilities to enhance production capacity to cater to the export demands.”
The BrahMos is seen as another lucrative export offering, with India already having signed a $375 million export deal with the Philippines on January 28, 2022. BAPL CMD Atul Dinkar Rane had told IADB that they “are immensely hopeful to start exporting BrahMos to third-party-friendly, responsible nations after getting all necessary approval from our government.”
BAPL Deputy CEO Dr Sanjeev Kumar Joshi had told IADB, “a number of friendly countries in Asia, Latin America, and other regions have shown keen interest in the export of BrahMos, and we are in discussions. With many government initiatives for strengthening defence exports, we are very hopeful and confident to clinch more export orders for BrahMos in the near future.”
The IAF has successfully tested the BrahMos supersonic missile (BrahMos-A variant) and Astra missiles on the Su-30MKI platform giving the fighter an indigenous punch. Speaking about the integration of these missiles on the fighter aircraft Group Captain Arpit Kala, who is the Commanding Officer of the Su-30MKI fighter aircraft squadron said that the “integration of indigenous weapons like the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and the Astra AAMs gives an edge to the Su-30MKI combat aircraft operated by India over similar jets operated by other air forces including China.”
Gp Capt. Kala further explained, “what makes the Indian Su-30MKI different from the flankers (Su-30s) operated across the world is that it is a beautiful integration of various weapons, sensors and avionics from all over the world. Its long-range vectors (missiles), including the indigenous air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, give it an edge over others. It is one of the best aircraft in the world.”
The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile can be launched from the Su-30MKI and is being developed to strike targets at 700 km and beyond. Presently they can hit targets up to 450 km. The Astra Mk1 can hit targets up to 100 km, and versions are being developed to shoot down enemy planes at up to 300 km.
The integration of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles and the Astra AAMs have made the aircraft more lethal and can be seen as a lucrative export package if marketed in this direction. It has been learnt that the BrahMos-NG, during its development phase, is being integrated into the Su-30MKI; if successful, it would further bolster the capabilities of the IAF’s Su-30MKI.
Will A SU-30MKI With Indigenous Weapons Offering Be Feasible?
Collaboration between Armenia and India to upgrade the former’s Su-30 fleet could make sense in this context. Considering budget considerations, Armenia may shy away from buying new fighter aircraft and instead upgrade its existing aircraft and train its pilots with Indian assistance.
However, there is a view that an Armenian purchase of Su-30MKIs could justify an Azerbaijanian procurement of the JF-17 Thunder fighter jointly produced by China and Pakistan. A JF-17 Block 3 squadron equipped with Chinese PL-15 BVRAAM could give Azerbaijan a significant airpower advantage and potentially counter the benefits Flankers would bring to Armenia. Another view is that Armenia might take a middle-ground approach to aircraft modernisation. The country could seek Indian technical assistance to upgrade its four existing Flankers.
Integrating the Astra and even the BrahMos missiles into Armenia’s Su-30s could give the capability to carry out deep strikes inside Azerbaijan. However, the efficacy of this view remains only in theory. Both India and Armenia are cognizant of Pakistan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan’s trilateral military links and reports indicate that Islamabad has provided man and material support to Baku to aid in its conflicts.
Reciprocally, Azerbaijan has given Pakistan a geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geostrategic edge. The ‘Three Brothers’ military exercise held in 2021 between Pakistan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan was aimed to enhance interoperability between the three countries’ armed forces. India going ahead to equip Armenian Air Force fighters and train its pilots would catapult Armenia’s air defence capabilities and clear the way to supply more arms to Armenia. While these views have some foundation in theory, it is yet to be seen if they can survive geopolitical and military realities.