Carrier-borne Fighter Aircraft for the Indian Navy

21st century has witnessed unparalleled growth of India’s economic, technological and military prowess. As the country’s sphere of influence gradually grows in these arenas, there has been an increase in the country’s dependence on the immediate maritime environment. The fact that India’s 90 % of trade quotient by volume and 70% by value is still directly dependent on the criss-crossing Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) traversing through the Indian Ocean, punctuates the strategic importance of these waters to the country.

This increasing dependence on the encompassing waters and the ever expanding maritime interests of the country have mandated the Indian Navy to resort for a renewed push to modernize its sea-going fleet. India’s emergence as a leading regional power and an emerging security partner in the contested Indo-Pacific region and the increasing security-cum-threat calculus in the region, have only increased the need for a credible naval force.

One of the key assets that has guaranteed the Navy unmatched power projection capabilities for decades have been the mammoth Aircraft Carriers. These massive maritime warships, coupled with their integral fleet of fighter aircraft and helicopters, have for years provided the Navy with unmatched standoff strike capabilities. These platforms with their integral battle groups have for years promised to take the war, right to the doorsteps of the enemies.

The Indian Navy under its modernisation program has actively been pursuing plans to acquire at least two indigenously built carriers, which shall promise India unmatched naval dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. After years of wait, the Navy is now steadily cruising towards realising its dreams as Vikrant (IAC-1), the maiden indigenously built carrier, is now inching ever closer to induction.

While Vikrant is being fitted out with ultra-modern systems at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL), the acquisition wing of the Navy is surging forward with plans to arm the carrier with the latest available defensive and offensive systems. While a major part of these systems have already been acquired and have also been fitted out, the Navy is now working towards  revamping the very basic capabilities of the carrier. At the core of the Navy’s newly drafted plans is to acquire a new Multi Role Carrier Borne Aircraft Carrier (MRCBF) for it’s new carrier – the Vikrant.

The Navy set tone for this acquisition program through the introduction of a global Request for Information (RFI) in December, 2016. While the Navy has already received responses from at least four global manufacturers for its program, little has moved since then. Top echelons of the Navy are now lobbying hardwith the MoD for seeing through the program, which it says is crucial, if the country desires to project its prowess in the contested Indo-Pacific waters.

Even though acquisition of these aircraft from global manufacturers is in stark contrast to the Make in India initiative, of which the Navy has been an ardent supporter, the Navy exercised the option, following its rejection of the NLCA(Naval – Light Combat 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.

Navy’s program to acquire an all together new fighter has been termed by top officials as an effective recourse to this alarming situation. The RFI, that was floated in December, 2016, lists a requirement for 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), in his annual presser, had 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

With Vikrant now heading towards sea trials, which are slated to begin next year, the Navy is now ramping up its lobbying efforts with the MoD. The Ministry itself has been wary of the program, citing truncated financial outlays, and is known to have asked the Navy to prioritise acquisition of systems that it deems as bare necessity. Undeterred, the Navy is learnt to be pushing the program forward and is currently drafting technical details from the bids it has received from global manufacturers. This evaluation of bids will lead to conclusion of Qualitative Staff Requirements (QSRs), a key juncture in any acquisition program.

Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet, a veteran of carrier operations, is believed to be leading the fray given its proven capabilities. One major concern for the Navy in respect to the Hornet was its capabilities in operating from a STOBAR carrier such as the Vikrant (IAC – 1). Boeing Defense, the manufacturer of the aircraft, has, however, refuted these concerns on several occasions and claims that the Hornet has inherent design features, allowing it to operate in STOL configurations.

Mr. Thomas Breckenridge, Director, Global Sales, Boeing Defense, Space and Security in an interaction with Life of Soldiers said that Hornet’s capabilities to operate from a STOBAR carrier have effectively been answered by Boeing on several occasions.  He also revealed that Boeing has completed extensive analysis and testing on F/A-18s compatibility with Indian carriers. Speaking about these simulated technical analysis, he said, ‘we have assessed that the Super Hornet is capable of launching off a ski-jump carrier and could be operated from Indian carriers. The Super Hornet will not require any modifications to operate from Indian carriers. We have conducted extensive simulations to this end and are confident that the Super Hornet will be able to operate from Indian Navy carriers with meaningful and relevant combat load-outs.”

When asked why F-18, he quipped, “With advanced technologies and multi-role capabilities, the Super Hornet is perfectly suited to meet the needs of the Indian Navy now and in the future. The Super Hornet does not only have a low acquisition cost, but it costs less per flight hour to operate than any other tactical aircraft in U.S. forces inventory.”

Trailing the F-18 up close is the Dassault Aviation manufactured Rafale – M, a naval version of the renowned Rafale fighter aircraft. Dassault has claimed that the Rafale – M is one of the most advanced carrier-borne fighters in service and has stated that the aircraft is a true omni-role platform and says that it is well set to answer the requirements of the Indian Navy.

Even though the manufacturer is yet to conduct full-fledged trials of the aircraft aboard a STOBAR carrier, Dassault after sustained simulation trials has declared that the Rafale – M, with minute changes to the airframe and avionics, is indeed capable of operating from a STOBAR carrier. Serving aboard the lone French aircraft carrier – the Charles De Gaulle, the Rafale’s have been proving their technological might by launching precise and decisive attacks against ISIS strongholds in the Middle East.

With the Air Force set to add 36 Rafale’s to its fleet, the commonality clause and the economoies of scale promises to level the field for Dassault. Further, several sources with the company have indicated that this commonality in the fleet will also reflect in the maintenance and life cost of the aircraft. Also, the French remains to be the only force operating the same aircraft for both land and naval based operations. Senior officials from France are learnt to have already given an elaborate presentation to the Indian Navy regarding their aircraft’s capabilities. For Dassault, the Indian Navy’s tender has come at crucial time when the manufacturer was scouting for customers to keep the Rafale line churning. Besides, the Rafale’s will also provide the French aerospace pioneer with an opportunity to make-up some lost ground in the Indian market.

A MiG 29K Fighter Aircraft of the Indian Navy makes a low pass over an US Navy Aircraft even as the venerable F-18s remain ready for action on the decks; Courtesy – US Navy.

Mikoyan is also working earnestly to back follow-on orders to its MiG-29K aircraft. The company is learnt to have held several rounds of discussions with the Navy to address their concerns. But the Navy, reliable sources say, is still not convinced with both the performance of the aircraft and also the availability rates of the platform. Even though this has dampened the offers of the company, Mikoyan is pressing ahead with its charge. Ilya Tarasenko, CEO, Mikoyan had recently commented that Mikoyan has submitted a detailed proposal to the Indian government, offering both transfer of technology and joint development of MiG-29 K jets with Indian companies.

Even though the contest looks more set for procuring twin-engine fighters, Swedish based Saab has jumped into the fray to offer its Gripen – M aircraft, a marinised version of the Gripen – E fighter. The 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. 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.

The Indian Navy has, however, traditionally avoided opting for single-engine fighters as fighters operating in marinised environment are more prone to engine faults. Through the RFI, it is quite evident that the Navy has tilted towards twin-engine fighters. However, there exists the possibility of Navy eventually considering single-engine fighters taking into account the higher operating costs of the twin-engine fighters and also the safety records of the new generation power plants powered single engine fighters. Senior Naval officials speaking about the procurement program said that the selection process will largely be based on the technical and financial offers. The aircraft, according to them, is expected to operate from both STOBAR and CATOBAR configuration carriers in Air Defence (AD), Air to Surface Operations, Buddy Refuelling, Reconnaissance and EW missions.

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