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Boeing Super Hornet, Rafale Marine or a surprise! Race to identify deck-based fighter for IAC-1 Vikrant to heat up

The aircraft that will finally go onboard has to be based on the operational requirement of the Indian Navy and the specifications including the weight as well as the need for twin engine Vs single engine

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'The Indian Navy has one of the longest operational experience with carriers in Asia (after Japan),' says an expert.

With the commissioning of the IAC-1 Vikrant scheduled for next month, the focus will soon shift to deck based fighter aircraft needed to be onboard the aircraft carriers. The Indian Navy will buy 26 deck based fighters which will be through Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) (Government-to-government). Two different aircraft — American and European made — were in India to demonstrate their deck based capabilities. It is now going to be a choice between F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet from the US based Boeing Company and Rafale Marine (M) from Dassault Aviation of France.

The aircraft that will finally go onboard has to be based on the operational requirement of the Indian Navy and the specifications including the weight as well as the need for twin engine Vs single engine.

“It is always better to have twin engines in a deck based fighter as it provides redundancy in a seaborne environment and hence greater chances of survivability. And, as regarding the weight, that is very crucial. Since the runway with a ski jump on a carrier is limited the all up weight (AUW) of the aircraft gets restricted. Hence greater the weight of the aircraft lesser its capacity to take the payload of ordnance which directly impinges in its combat efficiency and capability, Commodore Arun Kumar (Retd), author and former Indian Naval officer says.

Need for Deck Based Fighter

Commodore Arun Kumar (Retd), author and former Indian Naval officer tells Financial Express Online, “Once a navy operates an aircraft carrier, the need for a deck based fighter is self explanatory. Further, a deck based fighter can react to a developing situation at sea far more quickly and effectively as compared to a fighter requisitioned from a shore base. In many scenarios, the ashore based fighter may not have the required radius of operation to meet the Carrier Battle Group’s mission profile. Secondly, flying fighters over sea is a specialised capability not available with pilots operating from ashore. It has to deal with orientation while flying over the sea. Thirdly, in addition to giving standoff strike capability to the carrier battle group in an offensive mission, the deck-based fighter also provides defence from hostile aircrafts.”

Says Philippines based South Asian Defence Industry analyst, Miguel Miranda, “The Indian Navy has one of the longest operational experience with carriers in Asia (after Japan) and have used these in combat operations. This is unlikely to ever change although the ships and their aircraft will keep improving. As things stand, however, there are issues with the MiG-29Ks ordered from Russia and without these fighters the navy’s air arm becomes an empty shelf.”

“So let me make this clear, the need for a “deck-based fighter” is very urgent regardless of the familiar inertia of Indian military procurement programmes,” he stresses.

F/A-18 Vs Rafale Marine (M)

Comparing the two, as a former naval officer Commodore Kumar, says, “Rafale M is a heavier aircraft compared to F/A-18 though rated higher in combat capability. However, in case of IAC-Vikrant, Rafael M has a difficulty that its wing span does not fit in the hangar lift on the ship. Therefore, its wings would require modification which is not a mean task.”

“The pros of Rafale M are that the basic aircraft is already in service in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and hence the technology, maintenance support, repairs etc will be standardised ensuring greater effectiveness in the economic sphere. French aircraft carrier Charles Degaulle carries the Rafale M, so has proven maritime capability,” the Navy Veteran says while explaining the pros and cons of each aircraft.

According to him, “F18 is also a proven versatile deck based aircraft which also meets the QRs of the Indian Navy. It has foldable wings so accommodation on the hangar lift is not an issue. As understood the Americans are offering manufacturing facilities of the aircraft in India. This will fit in well with Make in India policy. It further cements Indo-US strategic partnership. In terms of combat capabilities both are comparable with the Rafale M having a slight edge.”

Simply put, “the F/A-18 means the Indian Navy ties its future to a US-centric alliance network in the “Indo-Pacific.” The carrier-based Rafale M made in France is just as formidable. Now if you want to split hairs on the advantages/disadvantages of single seat and double seat fighters it’s usually down to their roles as electronic warfare and intelligence gathering platforms besides being able to fly combat sorties. If the Indian Navy anticipates future operations to involve long-range strikes coordinated with other branches (the air force) against “peer adversaries” with advanced air defenses then a twin-seater does make sense,” Miguel Miranda opines.

He further adds, “Now, when it comes to the number of engines on a contemporary fighter it’s really a matter of payload and role. Let me expand on this in the most simplistic terms. If the country’s air force envisions territorial defense against potentially hostile neighbours single engine fighters are a practical choice. However, when the air force and other aerial warfare branches have to deal with an entire wartime theater that covers air, land, and sea and a variety of missions are needed, twin engine fighters are prioritized. This is evident with the Indian Air Force and its mix of single engine and twin engine fighters.”

India’s Naval Aviation

According to Miguel Miranda, “A specific problem one faces when trying to envision what India’s naval aviation aspires to become in the next 10-15 years is everything else that’s going on in naval technology at the moment. I have no idea why there isn’t an aggressive push to ideate and test a new generation of indigenous UAVs for carrier operations. Or even serious discussions on overseas bases the navy can operate in the near future and how to maintain and defend these. There are other pressing matters regarding on board anti-missile defenses, fleet logistics, and myriad other problems. The bigger question is not what aircraft is better for the navy but how the navy’s role will evolve in the coming years.”

What about the Naval Version of Indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)?

Philippines-based Miguel Miranda, says, “The single engine LCA Tejas has successfully flight tested as a carrier-based fighter on a “ski jump” runway. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) also announced its timeline for the “deck-based fighter” (TEDBF). So the Indian Navy is guaranteed an indigenous platform it can retool and redesign to its exact wishes and, if there’s enough institutional pressure, the ideal fighter will be ready before 2030.”

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