Noticing serious serviceability issues with the Russian MiG-29Ks, the original choice, along with the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), as the multi-role combat aircraft for the current Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and the first indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant, the Indian Navy has released a detailed Request for Information for procurement of 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBF). Boeing and Dassault Aviation are in the fray with the F/A-18 Super Hornet Block II and Rafale, respectively. Geopolitics Bureau examines the issue.
It has been a couple of years since the Indian Navy issued a request for information (RFI) for procurement of 57 MRCBF, following a delay in the development of the TEJAS Navy. The Navy requirement is the world’s largest tender for procurement of a carrier borne strike fighter and has two contenders: Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale Marine. While the Rafale Marine has only one operator, which is the French Navy, the Super Hornet has two operators, the US Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
To many observers, the requirement for a new carrier fighter type was a surprise as the Indian Naval Aviation operates 45 MiG-29K (single-seat) and MiG29KUB (twin-seat) for which a substantial amount of operating infrastructure has been set up and a training pipeline has been put into place. Despite the Navy playing a key role in the development of the MiG-29K and funding it to boot, if it now needs different products, it implies that it faced poor product support from the manufacturer. In other words, teething developmental issues took much longer to rectify than anticipated. It may be noted that 45 aircraft were ordered from Russia by India which was the launch customer for the aircraft, with orders being placed in 2004 and 2010 for 16 and 29 aircraft, respectively. Deliveries of all the 45 aircraft have been completed.
The net result is that the Navy’s dissatisfaction with the MiG-29K and a delay in development of the TEJAS Navy will result in the Indian taxpayer being saddled with the bill to procure 57 new carrier-borne fighters. The IAF contract for 36 Rafale F3-R combat aircraft inked in September 2016 cost ₹59,000 crore (Euro 7.87 billion). A carrier-based multi-role combat aircraft will be more expensive to procure, but even for purposes of calculation if the IAF cost is applied, then 57 aircraft for the Navy would cost a whopping ₹90,000 crore! This will be in addition to the ₹10,500 crore spent in procuring the disappointing MiG-29Ks.
Pitching For The The Rafale-M
France, since 2018 has been pitching the Rafale-M variant fighter jet as a contender for the Indian Navy’s requirement of carrier-borne combat aircraft, with a top officer saying that it’s battle proven.
Pointing to operations against ISIS using the Rafale, the French Navy feels it will be suitable for India and can be easily integrated on-board the aircraft carrier under construction at Cochin Shipyard which is likely to be commissioned by next year end or early 2022. “We have used the aircraft carrier in the fight against ISIS and have used sophisticated armaments from the Rafale that demonstrates that it works very well,” Rear Admiral Gilles Boidevezi, in charge of foreign relations for the French Navy remarked in an interview with ET.
“The Rafale can be integrated with non-French carriers.” Industry sources said several rounds of talks had taken place with Indian Navy regarding the Rafale offer for a requirement of 57 jets and that it hadn’t been impacted by the political controversy over the earlier deal for 36 planes. In fact, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is expected to be in Paris from October 11 for a bilateral meeting, during which she is expected to be briefed on all ongoing projects, including Scorpene submarines and progress on Rafale production.
The tenders for the contract are expected to be issued shortly but it is likely to be a straight contest between the Boeing-made F/A 18 Super Hornet and the Rafale Marine. The French navy believes that it has demonstrated its ability to operate from foreign carriers. “The Rafale went to the US and was deployed on American aircraft carriers,” said Boidevezi. “The Rafale was perfectly integrated with the US carriers and has shown its capability to work with non-French platforms.”
Both the F/A 18 and Rafale Marine fighter jets have been operating from aircraft carriers but are rigged for catapult launches. This may pose problems for India as the navy uses the ski-jump system, which involves a runway that curves upward. Sources said that extensive tests and software analysis have been conducted by the French side on the Rafale to show that it can operate with a meaningful load from ski-jump carriers.
This data has also been shared with the Indian Navy that is currently drafting technical requirements for the new fighter competition. Boeing, which makes the Super Hornet, has also shared this data with the Indian Navy.
Once the requirements are firmed up and permissions obtained from the ministry of defence, tenders will be issued. It is still unclear how the Indian side will categorise the purchase — as a direct foreign purchase or with an offset clause that mandates a proportion of the manufacturing will have to be domestic. The MiG 29 Ks were bought fully built from Russia as the relatively small number would have made domestic production too expensive.
A Viable & Competent Option
The Rafale-M is undoubtedly the most advanced naval strike fighter in service anywhere. Designed from the outset for carrier operations, it has successfully been engaged in combat operations from the Charles de Gaulle nuclear aircraft-carrier in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria.