- Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet is leading IN’s Carrier Borne fighter jet acquisition program
- Indian Navy rejects indigenously build LCA MK II fighter jet
- The Indian fighter jet market is becoming more elusive for Russian manufacturers like Sukhoi and Mikoyan Design Bureau.
Boeing is proposing its F/A-18 Super Hornet, and Saab has touted its Gripen M concept in responses to a request for information (RFI) on the naval contract, but they are waiting for a more formal request for proposal (RFP) to be issued.
According to industry sources, Boeing’s recently announced tie-up with the Mahindra Group and Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) is primarily given the 57-aircraft requirement for the navy. Saab Group is partnering with Adani Group to manufacture Gripen under “Make in India” initiatives.
The RFI for 57 aircraft for the Indian Navy is “intended as day-and-night capable, all-weather, multi-role, deck-based combat aircraft which can be used for air defence, air-to-surface operations, buddy refuelling, reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions from IN aircraft carriers”.
The RFI states the chosen aircraft must be flying from carriers in the country of origin. That seems to limit the choice to the twin-engine Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Dassault Rafale M. However, unlike the Super Hornet, the Rafale M does not have folding wings, except at the tip—an essential for India said the official. Also, the cost of the Boeing aircraft is likely to be cheaper.
In the case of two-seat aircraft, the RFI inquires if the aircraft can operate from both STOBAR (Short Take-off But Arrested Recovery) and CATOBAR (Catapult Take-off But Arrested Recovery) aircraft carriers without any modifications. “This will enable the navy to use the aircraft on both the catapult and ski-jump aircraft carriers,” said the navy official. While the Super Hornet has been tested for operation from a ski-jump ramp, it is not clear if the Rafale M has done the same.
The RFI also states that the fighter jet must be equipped with modern Active Electronically Scan Array Radar. One of the overriding compulsions for the IN is to have on-board Airborne Early Warning (AEW) for its carrier force. The F/A-18 Super Hornet and Rafale M currently operate in such conditions.
India and the US are in the discussion for defence technological collaboration with the United States includes discussion for the possible transfer of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which would entail the adoption of CATOBAR on future carriers. India’s second indigenously built Vikrant-class carrier, the INS Vishal, would be the first to incorporate EMALS if the transfer was finalised.
Transfer of Technology
India wants the transfer of critical technology and the participation in that process by Indian second-tier suppliers and those who can contribute to the supply chain.
Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (CATOBAR): The Super Hornet has a major Make-in-India bid going that looks to feed a prospective Indian Air Force requirement. As part of Washington’s wider technological CATOBAR push in India, Boeing’s offering gains. On the other hand, Boeing is on record to say it has simulated STOBAR ski-jump operations and that the Super Hornet is capable of operating from a Vikramaditya-class carrier.
Boeing also offers the F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet (ASH) that the F/A-18E/F to the next level, by giving it the CFT (conformal fuel tanks; they increase fuel load without occupying weapon stations), plus the EWP (Enclosed Weapons Pod) that allows it to carry some weapons more stealthily. Other than that, avionics are also improved. The conformal fuel tank and a new enclosed weapons pod are part of an effort to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section, particularly when viewed from head-on.
Dassault Rafale-M (CATOBAR): The Rafale M has a type advantage. To be in service with at least two Indian Air Force squadrons, and the possibility of more at a later stage, the Rafale gets to push the commonality key. Cost, though, would be pushback. Indian Air Force has already placed an order for 36 Rafale fighter jets.
Lockheed-Martin F-35C (CATOBAR): Lockheed has pushed the F-35B and C to the Indian Navy since at least 2010. It’s a single engine jet (something the US Navy was goaded into agreeing to during the JSF programme), but everything else it offers could enthuse the Indian Navy. Cost and development uncertainties/delays, on the other hand, will be significant pushback.
Lockheed-Martin F-35B (STOVL) The only new jet that does the Harrier trick, it would offer enormous flexibility to small deck operations of the kind the Indian Navy may be interested in the future, but may not account for much in the more conventional launch focus the navy appears to be choosing from for the follow-on Vikrant class ships. Cost and development issues will also hang heavy if the platform is ever seriously under consideration.
Saab Gripen Maritime (STOBAR/CATOBAR PROPOSED) Saab says the Gripen Maritime (known by its far niftier previous name ‘Sea Gripen’) is ready on paper and has been proposed in both CATOBAR and STOBAR configurations. Design work was completed in 2012, with Saab only really waiting for a fund tap from an interested customer to take the development forward. A single-engine configuration works against it — the Indian Navy will be hard-pressed to explain junking plans with the LCA Navy (and perhaps the up-engined Mk.2) for another albeit more capable single engine fighter.
U.S. manufacturers like Boeing may see an edge for themselves given last year’s elevation of India to the status of the “Major Defense Partner” in the eyes of the U.S. government. The designation is expected to “facilitat[e] technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of its [the United States’] closest allies and partners,” the White House noted last year.
In particular, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet may emerge as a strong contender for IN’s Carrier Borne fighter jet program.
While Russian MiG-29Ks have been procured for the current Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya (formerly the Russian carrier Admiral Gorshkov) and the first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1) under construction, there have been serviceability issues; a senior naval official told. “At any point in time, there are at least eight aircraft on the ground [AOG],” he added. He also mentioned concerns that the type is underpowered. Again, the Indian fighter jet market is becoming more elusive for Russian manufacturers like Sukhoi and Mikoyan Design Bureau.
The Indian Navy’s rejection of the naval version of the indigenous HAL Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for its planned IAC-2 (Indian Aircraft Carrier) that is designed for catapult launch and arrested recovery, has put doubts that the Tejas naval version will ever be built by HAL.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 is yet to be approved by the Trump Administration for India. The current political and strategic relationship between India and the US is high trajectory. Since India withdraw from the Su-57 program, no one should rule-out chances that the Trump Administration may approve the sale of F-35 in flyway condition to Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force.
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