Rendition of ADA’s Twin Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) – Image: Twitter
But some of the aircraft it’s considering can’t operate from aircraft carriers
by Saurabh Joshi
A quiet process is underway to buy new fighters for the Indian Navy’s aircraft carriers, under its Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF) program, with revised numbers and a new, hybrid and potentially problematic approach to the acquisition process. But remarkably, some of the fighters being considered can’t operate from aircraft carriers.
The navy is now looking for 26 carrier-borne fighters. This revised figure is for a reduced number of aircraft from that explored in a 2017 RFI for 57 aircraft.
This lower number is driven by expediency, with expectations that reduced expenditure would be processed faster. This smaller buy is also because the MRCBF is now anticipated to be a stop-gap, with expectations that the India’s indigenous Twin Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) would take-off by 2026 to be inducted by 2032.
But while the numbers are smaller, the acquisition needs to be addressed soon, given that India’s new Vikrant (IAC-1) aircraft carrier is expected to be commissioned this year. With the TEJAS (Navy) not considered fit for carrier operations and the capabilities of the in-service MiG-29K/KUB expected to have diminishing relevance over the next decade, the buy is important even if downsized.
The usual process for acquiring aircraft involves issuing a Request For Information (RFI) to gather data from manufacturers, preparing a proposal on the numbers needed, estimating the cost, and submitting that to the defence ministry’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) for the Acceptance Of Necessity (AON).
Once the Acceptance comes through, a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a tender is issued, inviting bids from all eligible aircraft-makers. This time, the expectation is however, there will be no tender contest, and a choice will be made between the two fighters at the stage of the Acceptance Of Necessity, leading to a Government-to-Government contract.
The navy will analyse the quotes submitted by manufacturers through their governments for price and availability and then select one fighter over the other. A budgetary quote proposal for cost, numbers and equipment will be submitted for the selected aircraft to the the defence ministry’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) for the Acceptance of Necessity (AON).
This new approach is intended to speed up the acquisition process, and ostensibly get around the prospect of a tender competition between governments that are considered friendly to India.
But this innovation in the process could raise questions because it is not standard in the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP). The DAP was last revised by the defence ministry in 2020 (with amendments issued last month) and governs the acquisition of all military equipment.
One of the key requirements of the navy is the ability of the MRCBF aircraft to have the ability to be launched by catapults from aircraft carriers, with plans for a future Indian CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) aircraft carrier.
The Russian MiG-29K/KUB does not have this capability. The fifth generation U.S. F-35C has not been offered to India. That leaves the French Dassault Rafale M and the U.S. Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet the only fighters in the world available to the Indian Navy. Both aircraft are catapult-launch capable and the MRCBF selected from the two is also expected to be able to operate from the ski-jumps of the INS Vikramaditya and Vikrant.
The two fighters are expected demonstrate their capabilities at the Indian Navy’s Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa at Panaji, Goa over the next four months. While the Super Hornet has already demonstrated the ability to operate from a ski jump, the French fighter has never jumped off a ramp. Not anticipated to be a problem, it will, however, be an interesting milestone for the Rafale.
But when it comes to a choice between the Super Hornet and the Rafale, the navy will have to consider whether it wants a full fleet of 26 Multi-Role Carrier-Borne Fighters available for carrier operations or only 18 of the 26 aircraft capable of aircraft carrier operations.
This is because the navy requires 18 single-seat and 08 two-seat fighters. While the single-seat and two-seat variants of the F/A-18 Super Hornet are both capable of carrier operations, the Rafale M does not have a two-seat variant.
Instead, the French are expected to offer the two-seat Rafale B, eight variants of which were ordered by the Indian Air Force (IAF) as part of their order for 36 Rafale fighters. Since the two-seat Rafale B is a purely air force fighter, it does not have the structural enhancements necessary for carrier operations, like a strengthened airframe and modified undercarriage.
As a result, if the navy selects the Rafale, eight of the aircraft would be stuck on land and unable to operate from India’s aircraft carriers, leaving the navy with only 18 carrier-borne fighters out of this fleet of 26 aircraft.
This is something that Boeing summarised to visiting Indian media at the Dubai Air Show, last month.
“The F/A-18 comes in two variants. It comes in the ‘E’ model, which is the single-seat version. It comes in the ‘F’ version, which is a two-seat aircraft. In either case, they’re fully carrier-capable. They can operate from U.S. Navy carriers seamlessly — one or the other. That’s not the case with our competitor. The competitor in this case has a naval variant called the ‘M’ and it is a single-seat aircraft. Any two-seat aircraft offered by our competitor would not be able to operate from the carrier. That’s a very stark difference to be considered by decision-makers in India. When you think of — let’s say 28 aircraft — if six-to-eight of those can’t operate from the carrier, consider the difference in value in this case versus where they can all operate from the carrier,” said Thom Breckenridge, Boeing’s vice president for international business development for its bombers and fighters line, at the air show.
The French defence minister Florence Parly offered the opportunity for development of aircraft engines in addition to the naval Rafales during her visit to India earlier this month. The Indo-U.S. foreign and defence ministers 2+2 dialogue, that did not take place in 2021 for scheduling reasons, will be held in January 2022.
What will also weigh on planners will be the relative strategic significance of the aircraft that is ultimately selected.
If the Super Hornet is picked (incidentally, it would be the first U.S. fighter in Indian inventory), it offers the prospect of easing seamless interoperability with the U.S. Navy’s eleven aircraft carriers, ubiquitous as strong proponents of challenging China’s attempts to dominate the Indo-Pacific region, and which also operate the aircraft. So does Australia, a third member of the Quad, as part of its air force. For starters, it would change the game in an exercise like Malabar.
If the Rafale is selected the MRCBF, the Indian Navy will operate a fighter common with the IAF, in more than one way.