India is looking to modernise its naval fighter fleet amidst the launch of the ‘Made-In-India’ aircraft carrier- Vikrant. The Indian Navy (IN) is looking for sophisticated naval fighters- and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale M have emerged as the top contenders. The IN made a tender announcement in 2017 for 57 fighter jets. At the time, the tender’s worth was estimated at $6.6 million. The Navy will initially buy 18 single-seat and eight twin-seat jets. These aircraft will be operational on INS Vikrant and Vikramaditya. The former has been designed to house 30-35 aircraft, with the air wing expected to comprise MIG-29K fighter jets, Kamov-31, MH-60R multi-role helicopters, Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).
The current strength of MiG 29(K)- the jets the Navy presently uses- needs to be improved to provide the numbers required to embark on two operational aircraft carriers. This means that the IN needs to finalise its deck-based fighter quickly to complete the air wing for Vikrant. It needs a fighter that is not only Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR)-capable but also able to deliver nuclear loads, air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles and precision-guided bombs.
The country’s 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fighter project is still years away from becoming a tangible option. The only naval fighters that meet the requirements of the Navy now are Boeing’s FA-18 Super Hornet and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale Marine.
F/A-18 Vs Rafale M
Both aircraft completed trials at Indian Naval Station Hansa in Goa earlier last year, kicking off a head-to-head competition for the deal.
The Rafale M is a multi-role, twin-engine fighter that entered service in 2004 with the French Navy. India already operates the air force variant of the aircraft. While both Rafales are identical, the maritime version features a longer, more strengthened nose and reinforced undercarriage. The nosewheel designed to withstand the impact of carrier takeoffs and landing and a stronger arrestor hook to catch the wires that bring the aircraft to a halt on landing are further additions.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet is also a multi-role, twin-engine fighter jet designed specifically for carrier operations. The aircraft was introduced in 1999 and is presently in service with the US Navy, Royal Australian Airforce and the Kuwaiti air force. It is equipped with AESA radar, a large cockpit display, and an open system architecture that makes electronic upgrades easier.
While the Rafale M only comes in a single-seat configuration, the F/A-18 is available in single and twin-seat designs. The difference between single and twin-seat aircraft usually boils down to their roles as electronic warfare and intelligence-gathering platforms besides being able to fly combat sorties.” He believes that if the IN anticipates future operations to involve “long-range strikes coordinated with other branches (the air force) against ‘peer adversaries’ with advanced air defences, then a twin-seater does make sense.”
Alongside this, the twin-seater will also provide benefits such as flexibility, higher fleet utilisation, and the ability to undertake missions from the carrier that can be better performed with a second crew member onboard.
Both jets can carry massive weapons loads and considerable amounts of fuel. However, while the carrying capacity of the aircraft is quite welcome, huge dimensions that occupy a lot of space on an aircraft carrier are not. Most carrier-based aircraft use a folding wing to adjust to the limited space on the deck. The F/A-18 Super Hornet has 44 feet and 8.5 inches wingspan, which can be folded to reach 30.5 feet. The Rafale M, however, does not have the same ability. Its wingspan remains at 35 feet 9 inches on deck too. However, this should not be a significant problem for Vikrant since it can reportedly operate an air wing comprising 30 aircraft- including choppers.
Given that the Indian Air Force (IAF) already operates Rafales, some airpower analysts believe the hunt for the Navy’s deck-based carrier will favour the Rafale M. Others project that the F/A-18 Super Hornet has an edge since it best meets the IN’s operational requirements and geopolitical considerations amidst QUAD and AUKUS.
Several analysts this correspondent spoke to also believe the F/A-18 has a clear edge over the Rafale M.
Tough Competition, But Boeing Leading
Former Director of Naval Operations, Director of Naval Intelligence and author of Warring Navies – India and Pakistan, Commodore Ranjit Rai (Retd), told this writer that he thinks the F/A-18, the fighter flown by the US Marines, is the most proven aircraft in the world from an aircraft carrier. “Although the Rafales that the IAF is flying are very good, it still has some problems to my knowledge,” he said before pointing out that the Rafale is a “converted” plane.
Another aspect that has been focused on is the weight of the French jet. Rafale M is heavier compared to F/A-18. The weight is significant because, on a carrier with a ski jump, the runway is limited. This constrains the all-up weight (AUW) of the aircraft. That means that a heavier aircraft will have a lesser capacity to take the ordnance payload. The jet will also require modifications to its wings so that the aircraft fits into the hangar lift of INS Vikrant.
Despite these shortcomings, the Rafale M remains a formidable competitor because of certain advantages it provides. The jet is rated better when it comes to combat capability. It has also served onboard the French aircraft carrier Charles Degaulle and has proven its maritime capability. Yet, the most enticing factor is that the Rafales are already in service in the IAF. This means that the technology, maintenance support, repairs etc., will be standardised. Standardisation implies more efficiency when it comes to the economy of operating the fighters.
The F/A-18 presents a contrast to this, as Miranda points out. He said, “should the Indian Navy bet the future of its combat air power on the F/A-18, it will enhance interoperability with the US Navy in the long term. But the logistical burden is going to be significant. Only a few can be acquired at this point for the INS Vikrant, and the resulting air fleet is a mix of the MiG-29K and then hypothetical F/A-18s and perhaps even a third model. So unless the Indian Navy wants to mirror a US Navy carrier strike group, the cost of doing so should be evaluated in depth.”
The Super Hornet is the backbone of the carrier air wing of the United States Navy. Boeing asserts that the aircraft is capable of performing a variety of missions, including day/night strikes with precision-guided munitions, fighter escorts, close air support, suppression of enemy air defences, maritime strikes, etc.
This writer reached out to Boeing and Dassault Aviation’s India representatives about their firms’ respective product offerings and their prospects with the IN.
Alain Garcia, Vice President, India Business Development, Boeing Defense, Space & Security and Global Services, told this writer about the F/A-18’s edge when it comes to interoperability. “The Super Hornet Block III will come with advanced networking that will allow Super Hornet to be interoperable with the Indian Navy’s P-8I and other US-origin assets as well as open architecture design that enables rapid insertion of new technology to stay ahead of emerging threats,” the official said.
Boeing is also offering aircraft manufacturing facilities in India- a provision that aligns with the Make-In-India initiative. For instance, indigenous companies such as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Rossell Techsys supply parts such as the gun bay doors and wire harnesses for the F/A-18, respectively. Additionally, the F/A-18 work packages are also potentially available for transfer.
Garcia highlighted another potential benefit related to the GE F-414 engine, which powers the Super Hornet. The engine has cumulatively clocked over 5 million hours. “The same family of engines is powering India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft inducted by the Indian Air Force. Should GE Aviation be selected by India as the partner for the co-development of the engine on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) program, the company will leverage the engine design activity where possible to introduce technical enhancements to the F414-GE-400 engine on the F/A-18 Super Hornet fleet.” He went on to say that the engines’ shared characteristics would result in increased scalability, which in turn would lead to possible prospects for maintenance in India.
The IN would also benefit from the naval aviation ecosystem-related upgrades, tactics, and knowledge the US Navy offers. If the deal goes through, Boeing has been vocal about opening up opportunities for cooperation and interoperability between the US Navy and the IN. As Garcia points out, “the acquisition of Super Hornets would allow the Indian Navy continued access to the most capable combat aviation assets in the Indo-Pacific as well as create a higher degree of interoperability with both US naval forces in the Indo-Pacific and the Quad militaries.”
Nevertheless, the Rafale M is not an easy competitor to brush over. Highlighting the dynamic nature of global defence deals, Aviation Week’s Defense Editor, Steve Trimble, shared his take, “sometimes a lower price or other terms can beat a bid with a performance advantage. But one thing we know is that the Rafale lacks a wing-fold mechanism, and the Super Hornet has one. So you could store more Super Hornets in a given space than you can with Rafales. That said, you can’t count out the French because President Macron has been very focused on winning these kinds of deals around the world. The Super Hornet is a secondary sales priority for the US government behind the F-35.”
Dassault Aviation’s India representative, Venkata Rao Posina, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the company’s Rafale M offering.