India, as expected, is trying to leverage high-value defense deals to obtain technologies.
In 2017, the Indian Navy launched the (MRCBF) Multi Role Carrier Borne Fighter program to procure 57 multi-role carrier-based combat aircraft that can be operated from an aircraft carrier in STOBAR configuration (Short Take-off But Arrested Recovery, Short Take-off Barrier Arrested Recovery) than CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery, Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery). This limited the possible candidates to Dassault Aviation’s Rafale Marine (Rafale M) and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet.
In January, the capabilities of the Rafale M to take off from a flight deck equipped with a Ski Jump were assessed at the INS Hansa naval base [Goa]. And, apparently, these tests were conclusive. In recent days, two F/A-18 Super Hornets have undergone similar treatment. But the results are still unknown.
To put more chances on its side, France would have proposed to India to give it four Rafale M taken from the fleet of the French Navy to induct it soon to active service the INS Vikrant, the first carrier aircraft designed and built by Indian establishments. No doubt this subject was raised during the recent visit to Paris by the Indian Prime Minister… But no details have been released since…
Meanwhile, this week, New Delhi made its plans for the MRCBF program clear. First, the target reduction, from 57 to 26 aircraft, was confirmed. At this point, the Indian Navy would like eight two-seater planes to train its pilots and possibly take part in combat missions. This does not favour the Rafale M, which only exists in a single-seater version.
Next, as reported before, India does not plan to lease carrier-based fighters, preferring to purchase new planes under an over-the-counter contract. But this will be linked to a “wider strategic agreement” with the plane’s country of origin, which will be selected according to the recommendations of the Indian Navy.
Indeed, according to the Hindustan Times, which quotes Indian officials, New Delhi has the ambition to develop aircraft engines.
The French Safran, which produces the Rafale’s M88 engines, took the lead, in February 2021, by entering into a partnership with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)for the design and development of a high-thrust 110 kN engine intended for the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) program, which is a program for developing a 5th generation fighter-bomber. The co-developed engine is expected to make its debut flight on a Dassault Aviation Rafale testbed aircraft in 2030, and it is expected to be put into production in 2033. The final agreement is yet to be concluded, and France is receiving tough competition from the United Kingdom for the project. A joint statement after the talks made special reference to sharing of jet engine advanced core technology during the bilateral visit by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to India in April.
However, the Indian Ministry of Defence, specifies Hindustan Times, is studying possible cooperation with the United States, given that the GE-404 engine power the HAL Tejas fighter… And that the GE-414 could be considered for the AMCA.
Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has in the past unsuccessfully attempted to indigenously design and develop a jet engine for the LCA under the Kaveri programme sanctioned in 1989. The engine project, which ran for 30 years with an expenditure of ₹2,035.56 crores before being shelved, saw the development of nine full prototype engines and four core engines. India does not possess an airborne testing facility for the aero-engine, which leads to dependence on Russia. These testbeds are not just expensive affairs but also subject to long waiting periods. The media reports that the latest tests of Kaveri engines are held up due to the Russian special operations in Ukraine.
In addition, India also intends to cut back on another program, this time for the long-standing Indian Air Force’s demand for additional fighters. According to information from the Business World Magazine, the (MRFA) Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft project, valued at 20 billion dollars, would aim to order 57 aircraft instead of the 114 initially planned. And all will have to be manufactured locally under the “Make in India” program. As a reminder, Lockheed-Martin (F-21), Boeing (F/A-18 Super Hornet), Saab (Gripen E/F), the Eurofighter consortium (Typhoon), MiG (MiG-35) and Dassault Aviation (Rafale) are in competition.
That said, no doubt the intention attributed to the Indian authorities will favour the candidacy of the Rafale… In October 2020, when asked about a possible order for a second batch of the French combat aircraft, the chief of staff of the IAF, Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria, avoided committing… However, he said, “such a decision would automatically imply reducing the number of aircraft ordered via the MRFA tender”.