Ever since the Ministry of Defence (MoD) notified the Strategic Partnership (SP) model in May, 2017, the Indian Navy has been going full steam ahead with its modernisation programs. The Navy by adding traction to several of these delayed acquisition programs, is aiming to fortify its dominance in the region.

One of the key assets that has guaranteed the Navy its power projection capabilities for decades have been the Aircraft Carriers and their integral carrier borne fighter aircraft, which promise to take war, right to the doorsteps of the enemies. While Navy’s efforts to induct aircraft carriers is close to fructification with Vikrant (IAC-1) inching ever closer to induction, the Navy is now working earnestly towards inducting modern Multi Role Carrier Borne Fighter Aircraft (MRCBF) for the under construction indigenous aircraft carrier.

Having set tone for the acquisition program through the introduction of a global Request for Information (RFI) in December, 2016, the Navy is now lobbying hard with the MoD for seeing through the program.

Even though acquisition of these aircraft from global manufacturers is in stark contrast to the Make in India initiative, the Navy exercised the option, after it cited short fallings in the capabilities of the indigenously developed NLCA fighter aircraft. The MoD itself has been carefully weighing available options before formally sanctioning the multi-billion dollar tender. While NLCA’s future is being debated, the MoD is equally worried about the financial implications before green lighting the program.

The need for a carrier borne fighter arose, when the Navy rejected the NLCA aircraft citing its inability to operate from aircraft carriers with full weapons load. Problems further multiplied, when the rate of availability of its sole MRCBF aircraft – the MiG-29K – dwindled to alarming levels.

As recourse, the Navy is now contemplating of acquiring at least 57 Multi-Role Carrier-Borne Fighter (MRCBF) aircraft, which will fly alongside the MiG – 29K aircraft from both INS Vikramaditya and the soon to be acquired Vikrant. Speaking about the procurement program, Admiral Sunil Lanba, the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), said “The MiG-29K will operate from the INS Vikrant. But we also need an alternate aircraft now. We are looking for it (foreign fighter), as the LCA is not up to the mark yet. In the present form, the LCA cannot take off with its full weapon load (from an aircraft carrier).”

The naval version of the LCA Tejas; Source – Net

Several global manufacturers have responded to the RFI with their latest platforms. While Russian based Mikoyan is making a strong pitch for its MiG-29K fighter, Sweden based Saab is pushing through its underdevelopment Gripen – M for the high stakes tender. France based Dassault Aviation and USA’s Boeing Defense with their Dassault – M and F-18 Super Hornet remain the hot favourites for the tender.

The selection process will largely be based on the technical and financial offers, according to senior Indian Navy officials. The Navy has made clear that it expects the acquired aircraft from both STOBAR and CATOBAR configuration carriers. Further, the Navy has listed that the aircraft is required to perform Air Defence (AD), Air to Surface Operations, Buddy Refuelling, Reconnaissance and EW missions in all weather conditions.

A close examination of the RFI reveals that the Navy has tilted towards twin-engine fighters. However, this may eventually change for a single-engine fighter taking into consideration the operating costs. These MRCBF aircraft once acquired will play a pivotal role in not just guarding Indian coastal waters, but in conducting punitive strikes deep inside enemy territory.

Saab, Dassault Aviation and Boeing have shown keen interest in the acquisition program and are levelled off to secure the multi-billion dollar tender. Russian based Mikoyan has extremely minimal ground in the tender, given the issues their current MiG – 29K aircraft are facing.

US based aviation giant, Boeing Defence, has on various occasions confirmed that it has responded to the tender with its proven F-18 Advanced Super Hornet twin-engine aircraft. Even though the aircraft has traditionally operated from CATOBAR carriers, Boeing has said that the F-18 can very much operate from a STOBAR carrier with minute modifications. The company in the past is learnt to have simulated the aircraft’s capabilities for operations from a STOBAR carrier.

The advanced super hornet is the latest version of the proven F-18 Hornet and has been enabled with advanced stealth technology and features enclosed weapons pod. It also features several developments over its predecessor, especially in EW warfare capabilities and is equipped with AESA radar to boost its situational awareness.

The company is offering to locally manufacture the aircraft back here in India, if the Air Force and the Navy opt for hundreds of these aircraft. Being one of the most proven technologies, the F-18 remains at the forefront for the Navy’s tender.

Swedish based Saab is all set to offer its Gripen – M aircraft, a marinised version of the Gripen – E fighter for the Indian Navy. Gripen – M, however, still is a concept and the company has now paced up the developmental program after receiving the RFI. The aircraft is being developed in United Kingdom with British expertise.

Boeing Manufactued F-18 Super Hornet Taking-off from an Aircraft Carrier; Courtesy – Boeing Defense.

Saab, which has already secured certification for the design module of Gripen – M, claims that it foresees no major challenges in developing a prototype aircraft. The company has stated that minimal airframe changes should enable the Gripen – E fighter to operate from an aircraft carrier.

Saab has termed the Gripen – M aircraft as one of the most cost efficient aircraft with the very high availability rate. The aircraft has an extremely small footprint enabling a full squadron of the aircraft to effortlessly embark on even mid-sized aircraft carriers.

Saab’s willingness to offer string-free transfer of technology for the aircraft has propelled Gripen to the forefront in the IAF’s RFI. If the Navy does opt for the Gripen – M, there would be a synergy and logistical commonality between the IAF and its fleet. Also, the Gripen – M is a single-engine fighter much like the underdevelopment NLCA aircraft and Saab’s expertise can help Indian developmental agencies in conquering their technological hurdles.

Rivalling these aircraft will be the Dassault Aviation manufactured Rafale – M aircraft, which is a maritime version of the Rafale aircraft, which are set to join the IAF fleet in 2018. The aircraft remains to be the newest entrant and has played an active part in operations against ISIS after being deployed aboard French Navy’s carrier – Charles De Gaulle.

A Pair of Rafale fighters; Source-Dassault-Aviation

The Rafale aircraft, however, have not been tested for STOBAR operations and this may effectively dampen Dassault’s offer to India. Also, the costly MMRCA fiasco is bound to haunt the decision makers when they take a look over the company’s offer. Nonetheless, the induction of Rafale – M may reduce logistical footprint given the fact that their predecessor are bound to enter into service with the IAF.

The procurement program has been drawn up to acquire the latest maritime fighter to arm not just IAC-I but also IAC – II, which is likely to be equipped with Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System. The first of the aircraft to be procured under the program is to be delivered within three years of contract signing and the rest are to be delivered in further three years. The addition of these aircraft will add credible strike power to the Navy and will support it to effectively assert its dominance in the Asia-Pacific waters.